Bob Hope used to say that television was vaudeville in a box. He loved to talk about his vaudeville days: "You put together your act and there were enough theaters, in and around New York, you could play it for a year, and another year on the road—never change a line."
But then came radio. Writers. Television. More writers. He once called me after I had written an unflattering review of one of his specials. He objected to my saying he told old jokes. "You're insulting my writers," he said.
The first time I saw Bob Hope, I was ushering at the old Philharmonic, and he was onstage singing "Lovely to Look At" in Jerome Kern's "Roberta." The next time I saw him was on a Pacific atoll when he and Jerry Colonna and a lot of lovely ladies, including, as I remember, Frances Langford, offered vaudeville for a thousand or so dogfaces, of which I was one.
That was the definitive Hope, ambassador from America to soldiers in wars from Pearl Harbor to Desert Storm, doing vaudeville in places called Bayonet Bowl and Da Nang, in Libya and Turkey and Korea, on the decks of aircraft carriers and on flimsy platforms in forgotten outposts like Baffin Island, and, once, with a raging Phase 4 storm howling outside, in a gym in Greenland packed with more than 5,000 GIs.
You may have seen that incredible Greenland show, because by that time we had entered the Television Age, and Hope's Christmas shows from battlefields and outposts were maybe the finest reasons to own a gogglebox. He was indefatigable. On one of the last of his Vietnam Christmas shows for GIs, he and his troupe played the Aleutians, then Yokata Air Base in Japan, then Thailand at the Udorn Royal Air Base while Phantom jets were taking off behind him, and finally Guam, which he called "Fungus-a-Go-Go." The shows were combined into a 90-minute special on NBC. As Hope once said, he'd piled up enough frequent flier miles to go to the moon and back.
But rather than the jokes and the girls, Miss World and Redd Foxx and Lola Falana, what you remembered were the GI faces that producer Mort Lachman's cameras swept across, laughing and lusting and howling their appreciation, holding up banners and signs ("Hello, Mom Levittown") — the kids who fight our wars. Vaudeville-a-Go-Go.
Hope, a song-and-dance man from Cleveland, had gone from vaudeville to Broadway stardom ("Red, Hot and Blue," "Roberta") and radio stardom into movies, where for more than a decade he was among the top 10 film stars. But it was television where he seemed to me really at home. Vaudeville in a box.
When on the 1982 Emmy Awards, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences paid tribute to him, Hope, then 79, cracked that he was so old, "the NBC peacock was hatched from an egg I laid."
That is almost literally true.
The first commercial telecast in the nation was on Jan. 22, 1947, on station KTLA here (née W6XYZ). The star was Bob Hope.
And he laid an egg.
The program with Dorothy Lamour, Colonna and William Bendix was a shambles. Hope kept asking which camera he was supposed to be playing to; he flubbed lines and even fouled up the call letters of the new facility.
Not that it mattered. There were fewer than 400 TV sets operating in the area. Paramount News filmed the debut show, but it was never released, though it's been shown often at anniversaries of the station and at historical perspectives.
It didn't dim Hope's enthusiasm for the new medium. He was the first star of what famed network executive Pat Weaver (Sigourney's dad) dubbed the Spectaculars, or special programs, on NBC, ushering in the musical-variety shows that dominated the '50s and '60s. Beginning in 1952, his monthly "Bob Hope Show" was the brightest feather in the peacock's tail.
He was the perennial host of the Academy Awards, hosting or co-hosting 20 Oscar ceremonies on radio and TV. When he and NBC finally called it quits in 1996, he had been with the network for 60 years in radio and TV — "the longest run in show business."
Hope, then 93, immediately took out an ad in the trade papers announcing that he was at liberty and available.
We met often through the years, usually private lunches at the small table overlooking the golf course at his Toluca Lake home. He was a courteous and congenial host, talking quietly of the industry and his work in it. He was a very private man, and one felt he always kept the public and the private Hope apart, like church and state. (Milton Berle once joked that Hope had four children, "two of whom he knew personally.")
Occasionally in conversation he threw in a typically sardonic zinger. When I spoke of a sexy English actress cutting a wide swath through Hollywood, Bob said: "We call her the British Open." Though a political conservative, he could even zing his old friend Ronald Reagan — "Ronnie's hero is Calvin Coolidge; Nancy's is Calvin Klein."
He talked of how the camp shows began early in 1941 when he was asked to do his Pepsodent radio show at March Field near Riverside. He balked until told there would be perhaps 2,000 soldiers attending. "You mean," he said, "an audience of 2,000 with military police at the gates so they can't leave?" The old vaudevillian jumped at the chance.
Hope's movie career really began with a two-reeler shot at the Astoria studios on Long Island in 1934 when he was on Broadway in "Roberta." He saw the film with Walter Winchell, who asked him what he thought of it. "I told Winchell," Hope said, "that when they catch Dillinger they should make him sit through it twice. Walter put it in his column, and that was the end of my movie career."
Later, when he was a top film star, Hope wanted to do a biographical film of Winchell. He'd played Jimmy Walker and Eddie Foy in movies, but there was no interest in financing Hope as Winchell. I asked why he didn't finance it himself.
"Put money in movies?" Hope was shocked.
Cecil Smith is a former television critic of The Times. He retired in 1982.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times