With a little less luck, Lester Townes Hope might have been Sir Lester Hope, seventeenth Baronet of Craighall. He might also have inherited the famous Hope Diamond, with all that its ownership implies. But he had so much luck that at four years of age he moved from London, England, to Cleveland, Ohio, and became an American citizen.
Today, at thirty-three, he doesn't own the Hope family's diamond, but he has proved himself the diamond of the Hope family just the same. He has something that none of his titled ancestors ever had. He has a Crossley. And to a radio star a good Crossley is more to be desired than precious jewels or a baronetcy.
For Crossley is the Old Doctor Gallup of radio polls. He is the man with the nice voice, who calls you on the telephone and asks you how you liked the Hello program Sunday night, and is the Old Maestro holding up, and is Gracie as nutty as she used to be.
To the radio performer — and, alas, to his sponsor! — his Crossley rating — or his Crossley, as he calls it — is the final answer to the question, "How'm I doin'?" — and the answer is sometimes bad.
It was bad, or at least none too good, for Lester Hope, alias Bob Hope, until about a year ago, when he suddenly began to go to town. Faced with the seemingly hopeless task of picking up the tooth-paste business where Amos 'n' Andy let it drop, he shot out like a liner from the two-ton bat of Jolting Joe DiMaggio, and landed in the Almanach de Gotha of Crossleyland. And so the almost seventeenth Baronet of Craighall became the actual radio sensation of 1939 — following only Benny, Allen, and McCarthy in the listing of aristocrats of the air.
Young Lester — or Robert — began his professional career as a parachute jumper. At the age of six, he grabbed his father's Chamberlain and leaped from a second-story window into a sand pile in the back yard. The bump he got wasn't so bad, but the licking he got, coming in the same place, persuaded him to adopt less hazardous methods of entertaining the public. I mean less hazardous to him. He sang soprano.
This went on for six years. Then his voice also took a parachute drop, and this time there was no sand pile to break the fall. People laughed when he tried to sing The End of a Perfect Day. Even his relatives laughed. But still he didn't know he was a comedian! That appalling fact dawned on him when he had to make a speech at a church social and, being a very bashful boy, he quite unintentionally pulled off something very like Bob Benchley's famous Treasurer's Report. He wowed the Ladies' Aid. He laid the deacons in the aisle. It wasn't what he said; it was, as we all now know, the way he said it.
Bob was sure now that he had something there, and was all for touring the county fairs and putting on his act between pigs. But Father Hope had acquired rude American ideas about the value of an education, so Bob went to high school instead. His scholastic achievements are unrecorded and by him unrecalled.
An extracurricular course in tap dancing seems to have made a much more lasting impression. As for athletics, Bob sums it all up in this inimitable way:
"I was the star hookey player," he says.
Bob persevered with his tap dancing. He figured that every step he took was one step nearer that next-to-closing spot at the New York Palace. But Father Hope by this time had so overcome his British distaste for being "in trade" that he had rustled his near-six-foot son a job selling automobiles. So once more "Hope, for a season, bade the world farewell."
"I never would have kept my job with the motor company," he says, "if they hadn't needed a master of ceremonies at the salesmen's meetings."
One day our motorized M. C. heard that Fatty Arbuckle was coming to Cleveland for two weeks of personal appearances, and needed a couple of local acts to splice out his bill; so Bob teamed up with a neighbor boy, George Byrne, and won a chance to go on with a tap routine. Fatty liked the kids and recommended them to the manager of a tank-town traveling musical, with whom and which they promptly left town.
"It was good experience, that show." Hope recalls. "I danced, did a black-face act, sang in the quartet, doubled on the saxophone, and packed the scenery."
One night in Newcastle, Indiana, the house manager asked Hope if he would mind going out front Saturday night to tell the folks what next week's show was going to be. Would he mind! He'd be telling them yet, and the audience would still be rocking in their seats, if the Sunday closing law hadn't stepped in and stopped the monologue.
That night Bob Hope put away the dancing slippers and the burnt cork. He would be a master of ceremonies or die in the attempt. And he almost did — die, I mean.
"By the time I landed my first job," he says, "I had forgotten whether you cut steak with a knife or drank it out of a spoon."
That first job was a one-night fill-in at a small neighborhood theater in Chicago. Before the second show went on, the manager came backstage and told Bob that he would open the following Monday at the chain's downtown playhouse. The contract was for three days. Bob stayed six months. Then came Western and Midwestern big-time vaudeville; then New York.
Charles Dillingham, then at the height of his Broadway managerial fame, caught Hope's act at a vaud house and stuck him into his new musical, The Sidewalks of New York. Critics and public hated the show, loved Hope. Followed quickly Ballyhoo, Roberta, Say When with Harry Richman, The Follies of 1936 with Fannie Brice, and finally Red, Hot and Blue with Ethel the Merman and Jimmy the Schnozzle.
The last-named show brought Bob Hope his first big-time radio job — although of course, like almost everybody else who is radio tops today, he had previously debuted with Vallee. The program, Rippling Rhythm Revue, brought to the air for the first time Hope's girl-stooge creation, Honeychile, the original Dead Head Kid. It also brought Hope himself a chance to take a movie test on his own account.
"That test was a classic," he says. "My pencil-point chin and ski-jump nose were on the screen for five minutes before I appeared."
Nevertheless, even Paramount couldn't make the Big Broadcast of 1938 without some radio star, so they overlooked the chin and underlooked the nose and stuck music in the slit between, and called it Thanks for the Memory.
The night after the preview, Thanks was on the air eight times. It became the song of the month, one of the great songs of the season. And Hollywood learned what Broadway already knew: that this clipper-styled tosser of wit and cracker of wisdom was also the best new male plugger of songs since Rudy Vallee immortalized the University of Maine Stein Song.
Bob has so many talents that even his admirers sometimes forget that the change in his voice which turned him from a soprano into a Scaramouch was by no means The End of a Perfect Day for R. Hope as a singer. Before coming to Hollywood, he put over, so they stayed, It's Delovely, in Red, Hot and Blue; I Can't Get Started with You, in the Follies; You May Not Like It, but Don't Tell Me It Isn't Good, in Say When; and You're Devastating, in Roberta.
Right now, in the picture Some Like It Hot, he has another hit almost of Thanks proportions in The Lady's in Love with You.
Bob is now working in Hollywood under a seven-year movie contract. You can't imagine, unless you have been a vaudeville actor yourself, what that kind of security means to the migratory people of the five- and two-a-day. It means, above all, a home and a chance to raise a family. The Hopes haven't any children yet. But Mrs. Hope isn't discouraged. She still has Hope.
Bob and the missus live in the little community of Toluca Lake, over Cahuenga Pass from Hollywood. After his performance in Give Me a Sailor he was officially designated Admiral of Toluca Lake. His place is so close to the third tee of the Lakeside Golf Club, where Bing Crosby and many other stars play, that Bob says he can stick his head out of the living-room window and spoil Bing's drive with a yell.
Mrs. Hope was Dolores Reade. Bob fell in love with her at first sight when she was singing at the Embassy Club in Miami, Florida, where he was vacationing after finishing Roberta in 1933. She is a Titian blonde who is occasionally heard on network broadcasts from Hollywood as a vocalist.
This last summer the Hopes, after a triumphant personal-appearance tour from coast to coast, took ship for England and a long visit with the Hopes of Craighall, especially with Grandpa Hope, from whom Bob inherits his tireless energy.
"Grandpa is ninety-three and still rides a bicycle," Bob reports; "and look at me — I can hardly walk."
Bob's closest friend in Hollywood is Bing Crosby, and Bob shares Bing's enthusiasm for the horses. But he is no more successful as a bettor than Bing is as an owner — and this fact is referred to frequently in his radio conversations.
One night when Patsy Kelly came on the program after her long fast, Bob got a sugar lump of comfort by envisaging one horse race in which no one could lose.
"Patsy, it's swell seeing you again," he began. "You're so nice and slender now. You look as graceful as Lady Godiva."
"You mean that female jockey?"
"Yeah. Gee, imagine if she was on a horse racing against Seabiscuit!"
"In that case you wouldn't have to imagine anything."
"Yeah, you could lose and still get your money's worth."
Bob's other hobbies include golf and candid photography, both with still and motion-picture cameras. He is nuts about dogs; has a Great Dane and a Scotty. Recently he gagged the golf marathons by playing 180 holes at Lakeside, using ten balls on each hole and finishing in eighteen holes. As a golfer he is second probably only to Bing Crosby among the stars. He shoots in the 70s consistently.
Bob's popularity with his old Broadway friends remains undiminished. They love him, not alone for his gay personality, his contagious camaraderie, his gift for happiness, but for all he has done for the profession to which he and they belong. Hope is a sucker for benefits; he has played in more than eight hundred. And the boys and girls who never know when they are going to need one don't easily forget a record like that.
The only noticeable difference in the man since the old days is that he dresses differently. He wears heavily checked coats, and baggy unmatching slacks, and sports shirts without ties, but buttoned. Otherwise he hasn't gone Hollywood in any respect. He is the same cheerful, optimistic, good-natured soul that he was back in the days when he was beating his way cross country to Broadway. He has the same twinkle in his eye, the same smile on his lips, the same understanding in his heart. He is, and doubtless always will be, the only comedian in Hollywood's film and radio colony who actually gives away gags.
Bob's movie Crossley — they call it a Quigley in the picture business, but we won't go into that now — isn't so high yet as his radio Crossley, and may never be, because he isn't easy to type. From the middle of the nose up and from the point of the chin down he's Bob Taylor; but, as we have hinted, there is a spot in between in which he is just Bob Hope.
The chin might get by. Francis X. Bushman had one, and he got by with fifty million women. But the Hope nose is another matter. Hollywood can't make up its mind whether to saw it off or paint it red.
On the air, where romance is subordinated to comedy, and the thing that lies between the nose and the chin is the only means of communication with the listening public, Bob is confronted by none of these problems.
As in the case of his first church-social effort, "it isn't what he's got, it's what he does with it." There is nothing especially novel about his material. Like all the other comics, for example, he has a radio family, most of whom seem to be habitually in jail.
"My brother in Alcatraz," he will patiently explain, "made ten-dollar bills in the daytime and twenty-dollar bills at night. When he worked nights he paid himself overtime."
He also interviews celebrities in what he describes as Hope's Hapless Interviews. And he puts on the inevitable burlesque movie dramas. Perhaps you remember the dude-ranch sketch, Way Out West on West End Avenue, and the one in the air-cooled theater where Honeychile, as an usherette, led a pack of St. Bernards to rescue a frozen patron in balcony.
Sounds rather dreary, doesn't it? But actually, as it is done by Bob Hope and Company — Jerry Colonna, Patsy Kelly, Honeychile, Six Hits and a Miss, Announcer Bill Goodwin and Skinnay Ennis and his orchestra — well, "you may not like it, but don't tell me it isn't good."
Honeychile, played at first by Patricia Wilder and later by Clare Hazel, is billed as the girl with the Southern drawl and the numbed brain, and lives up to her billing. Skinnay Ennis, who only a few months ago was a crooning drummer boy in Hal Kemp's band, is a Southerner too, who on the program claims to be the handsomest man south of the Mason and Dixon line. This gives Bob a chance to say that he doesn't wonder Scarlett O'Hara lives in England, and incidentally to work up the usual radio romance between the two youngsters.
"Say, Honeychile," Bob begins. "when you and Skinnay park, don't the cops say anything?"
"Yeah. They came along last night and told Skinnay to move on."
"What did they say to you?"
Patsy Kelly and Jerry Colonna are Hope's hecklers. Patsy is her usual untamed self, and Jerry — described by Bob as "that black mustache with legs" — is a comedian for whom Hope himself is quite willing to play stooge.
Bob is not afraid to give the other fellow the laugh line. He doesn't make a fetish of it, like Benny. He frequently tells the world himself. It is second nature for him to talk in gags, and he is one of the few comics on the air who actually ad lib. He has a script, and usually what he says is what the script says, but very often not in the same words.
He is probably the only comic on the air who writes his stuff by telephone. He has gag men, of course. No one is so na´ve these days as to think that any of the funny men write all their own material. The human mind even a hair-trigger one like Hope's, is not capable of keeping up such a production at the required level without help. Nevertheless. Bob works on his broadcasts, and works alone. Then, when he has a gag in workable shape, he gets his assistants on the phone, wherever they may be, and in a telephone session which sometimes lasts more than an hour, the gag is polished into program form.
On the air, Bob is equally good, whether he is doing a Benny and taking the ribs or telling the pay-off line himself. But he is at his best on his own in the monologue stretches. Here he reigns supreme over the whole broadcasting kingdom.
"Radio is wonderful," he will begin, apropos of less than nothing at all. "Have you seen those new portable radios that you can carry around with you? No aerial, no ground — nothing to worry about except the finance company. You can carry your favorite program anywhere. Imagine Kate Smith with a handle. It's wonderful. Saturday night I took a bath with the United States Navy Band. They played the Star-Spangled Banner, and I got double pneumonia! The college girls like those portable radios, though. They can go on a necking party and listen to the Voice of Experience at the same time.
"My uncle up in Eagle Knob, California, is a great radio fan. He's got one of those new crystal sets. If you listen real good, you can hear your arteries harden. In swing time. He gets the police calls, though. He gets them in person. Last week-end, when I went home. I took him one of those new portable radios. He took it out in the barn with him and turned it on Jimmy Fidler. Next morning when he milked the cow, it said. 'Moo — and I do mean moo.'
"You'd like Eagle Knob. It's a little place. In fact, Rand and McNally both live there, and it still isn't on the map. We've got four WPA bridges in town. Now all we need is a river. It isn't a tank town. It's a two-tank town. The second tank is my uncle. He has a job at the tavern. He's one of the swinging doors. Main Street lies parallel to Elm Street, and on Saturday night my uncle lies parallel to both of them. But I had a lot of fun there. When I got off the bus — I mean the plane — they shoved out papers for autographs. Next day I found out I'd ordered six tons of coal and bought a half interest in a drugstore.
"I saw the little blonde teacher I used to have. I learned a lot from her. In fact, we were expelled together. But that's where you learn about romance — in those small towns. On Saturday nights there were so many buggies parked behind the icehouse, one fellow would say 'Giddap,' and five would have to shout 'Whoa!"'
And so it goes, on and on, until it is time to use that tooth paste again and go to bed!
Publication Date: October 7, 1939