Hope Won’t Settle for Settling Down : At 82, Nation’s Unofficial Court Jester Is Serious About Staying Active

Times Staff Writer

Bob Hope--the San Fernando Valley’s most famous resident--sat in one of several living rooms in his sprawling Toluca Lake house and recalled how he came to settle on this side of the mountain 45 years ago.

“In those days Laurel Canyon was the end of the city,” said the comedian with the signature ski-jump nose. “The reason we came out here is Crosby lived a couple of blocks away. He wanted me to join Lakeside Country Club, which is next door. I was driving by here one day, and I saw this walnut grove, and I said, ‘Hey, that’s pretty good,’ so I bought it. Six acres.”

And, he added gleefully, “I stole it!”

The Valley has been a gold mine for the celebrity. Hope, one of the nation’s wealthiest entertainers, made the bulk of his fortune, estimated by Forbes magazine at $115 million, in Valley real estate. He began buying local land, he explained, after he and Bing Crosby, his crooner sidekick in the famous series of “Road” pictures, got lucky in 1949.

Credits Oil Find

“Bing and I hit oil in 1949 in Texas, which gave us some important money, the first we ever had because the rest of the time we gave all our money to the IRS,” he said. “So I bought property, a lot of property around here.

“They say I own the San Fernando Valley,” Hope acknowledged, with a laugh. Hope still has hundreds of acres in Simi Valley and the Agoura area--some of them coveted for conversion to public land--but he once had even more.


He pointed out the window, past the pool. “See that mountain over there?” he said, gesturing toward Universal Studios. Several decades ago he paid $16,000 for 35 acres around what is now the eastern gate of Universal. About 20 years ago he sold it for $1 million. “I thought, ‘Boy, what a deal!’ You know what it’s worth today? About $20 million. I could have kept it and put a studio in there, which I should have done, and then maybe rented the road to them to go out.”

The principal source of Hope’s wealth, the Valley is also the peripatetic comedian’s place to come home to. When he is not on the road, he lives a comfortable, but not opulent, version of the good life in Toluca Lake. He tries to get nine holes in every day on the course next door, always has a daily massage from a live-in masseur and walks his dogs three or four times around the manicured grounds before he goes to bed.

Toluca Lake is the place of permanence in the life he shares with his wife of 51 years, the former Dolores Reade. It is the house where his four adopted children grew up, the house in which Crosby knew he was welcome anytime, no need to call first.

At 82, Hope could easily play the idle suburban multimillionaire if he so chooses. He chooses not to, as he explained in the course of a recent interview in which he talked about everything from Gen. George Patton to his continuing interest in beautiful women.

Indeed, he was a little taken aback when a reporter asked him why he continues to work so hard, doing benefits (for which he expects a fee, to the chagrin of critics), playing music fairs and college campuses, making commercials and continuing his NBC television specials, the first of which this season will air on Tuesday.

He Shuns the ‘Dull Life’

“It’s just a process that I enjoy,” he said, dressed for a few holes in a white golf shirt with “Jerry Ford Golf Invitational” embroidered around the pocket and turquoise-and-white-checked Palm Desert pants. “If I didn’t do that, I would be kind of lost. I mean, if I didn’t do shows and different things, it would be a dull life.”

His is not a dull life. “My schedule is such that I don’t have a minute,” he said. “I just move all the time.” Last week, for example, he was preoccupied with taping and editing the new show, a theme or “book” show with the unlikely but not impossible premise that, in the mold of Ted Turner, Hope tries to take over the TV network he has been associated with for 36 years. Skits, including one in which Milton Berle wore a smashing purple dress, and musical numbers were shot and re-shot in NBC’s studios in Burbank.

“It’s wonderful,” Hope told the studio audience during the taping. “It’s only a 10-minute walk from my house and, after the show, a five-minute run.”

At home, his king-size bed was stacked with memos and other paper work relating to the show, and, as the air date approached, he ruled on one detail after another. “It ran about 4 1/2 minutes long,” he said of the rough version.

At a dinner meeting with producer Elliott Kozak, Hope decided to trim the jokes about Pee-wee Herman. “It only played fair,” Hope said of the audience’s response. He had yet to tape his opening monologue, however, and he was considering putting a Herman bit in there. After all, Hope explained, “He’s hot.”

Boost From Fatty Arbuckle

It is sobering to think that the man who talks shrewdly about the uses of Pee-wee Herman--Hollywood’s celebrity of the week--got his first boost in show business from silent-movie star Fatty Arbuckle. That was in 1924, and Arbuckle, who was making his comeback tour, saw Hope’s act in Cleveland and advised him and his partner “to hit the road--you’re awfully good.”

If Hope is a living archive, however, it doesn’t show on his face. “Am I drooling?” he quipped to one of his staff in the course of the interview. But the octogenarian is far from a ruin. Eerily unmarked by age, he is somewhat hard of hearing but fit enough to dance for an hour without breathing hard, the apparent possessor of some secret for staying young that even Dick Clark hasn’t discovered yet.

It is perhaps not surprising that a man who is famous, wealthy, busy and fit is contented as well. When asked if he has any regrets, Hope thought for a moment and then said, well, yes. “I want to direct,” he said. “That’s what I’ll probably do, write and direct.” As regrets go, never having directed comedies is the sort that can be borne.

Proud of His Past

Although Hope is looking to the future--there’s talk of a film project with Fred Astaire--he is also proud of his past. Upstairs at the house, outside the bedroom decorated with clowns and statuettes of soldiers, he conducted a tour of his photographic souvenirs, pictures of kings and queens and presidents and long-dead movie stars, all inscribed with varying degrees of affection “to Bob.”

“There’s Patton peeing in the Rhine,” he said, pointing to a photo of the controversial general doing exactly that. “Not many people have that picture,” he noted.

Hope has a remarkable Patton story to go with that photograph. In 1943, Hope, singer Frances Langford and the rest of his troupe were in Palermo a few days after the Allies retook Sicily, entertaining GIs in olive groves, when Patton asked him to dinner at the King’s Palace. Hope & Co. put on a truncated version of their show for the general, including their parody of the Ink Spots. Then Patton did the strangest thing, Hope recalled.

Appeal From Patton

“He took me over to the corner and said, ‘You can do a lot for me when you get home.’ He said, ‘I want you tell the people that I love my boys.’ ” Hope said he protested, reminding Patton that he was a hero back home, that everyone loved him. But Patton repeated that he wanted Hope to tell his radio audience that the general loved his boys.

“I thought it was battle fatigue,” Hope said. “I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about until we got back to the hotel and Ernie Pyle sat down and said, ‘How did you like that son of a bitch?’ I said, ‘What?’ And then he told me all about Patton slapping the kid the day before in the hospital.”

The story of how Patton struck an enlisted man hospitalized for combat fatigue eventually emerged to mar the general’s career, but not then. According to Hope, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower warned the press that anyone filing the story would be removed from the European theater of operations. The war correspondents did as they were told, and the incident was kept quiet until Drew Pearson broke the story.

As he recalled his command performance for Patton, Hope mentioned casually: “Just before Eisenhower died, I was at Walter Reed with him talking about Patton and he said, ‘He was an eccentric but what a great soldier!’ ”

Many Satisfactions

If watching GIs scream maniacally at Raquel Welch and mist up at “White Christmas” during his overseas Christmas shows has been Hope’s greatest career satisfaction, it has hardly been his only one. Being Bob Hope is a great way to meet the rich, the famous and the powerful. He has known every President from F.D.R. on. “Crosby said Lincoln on, but you know how he lied,” he said.

Sensitive to his reputation for ultra-conservatism, Hope pointed out that he was friendly with Kennedy and Truman as well as with Nixon and Reagan. Over the years, the comedian has become the nation’s unofficial court jester, the wiseacre who can needle the country’s leaders with barbed little truths and survive to be invited to the White House once more. It is a role he frankly relishes.

Hope said he had not seen Richard Nixon much lately, but he recalled sitting between former Presidents Nixon and Gerald Ford at a Football Hall of Fame banquet and noting that he was the only one working. “I looked at Nixon and I said, ‘Don’t worry about a thing, Mr. President, we’re not taping,’ ” Hope said. “He loved it.”

Hope said he received a delightful, delighted letter from Nixon about a week later. He then revealed what may be the secret of every successful jester--a knack for sweetening the sting. “It was a wonderful letter because, actually, with all the needling, I gave him a little tribute at the end too,” Hope said.

The headiest of Hope’s White House experiences, he said, was in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal. Hope was told to wait in the Cabinet Room of the White House before the ceremony, and he remembered standing there alone, “waiting for the President to lay it on me,” looking out the window and musing on how far his pointed profile and one-liners had taken him.

Dates, numbers and specific amounts of cash remain clear in Hope’s memory, and when he speaks you understand that living well may indeed be the best revenge. As he awaited the presidential summons, he recalled, “I thought of 1928, when I was standing in front of the Woods Theater building in Chicago, starving to death. I couldn’t get a date. I changed my name from Lester to Bob. I thought that was chummier, and they might think that was more of a fun guy.

“I couldn’t get a date! And I thought, well, I’ll go back to Cleveland and have my laundry done and get a full meal and maybe pack some cookies and try again. And this friend of mine came up and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘I’m starving.’ And he took me upstairs in the Woods Theater building to Charlie Hogan, this booker, who said, ‘Is he pretty good?’ And my friend said, ‘Yeah.’ Hogan said, ‘Can you do master of ceremonies?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ Hogan said, ‘Well, I can give you the West Englewood Theater on Decoration Day.’ That was four or five days from then. He said, ‘Would $25 be all right?’ I gulped. I’d been making $10 a night. I said, ‘That’ll be fine.’ And I never stopped after that; I never stopped.”

Dance With Lynda Carter

As of last week, he hadn’t even slowed down. For the TV special he danced with actress Lynda Carter, who dressed for their pas de deux in a black strapless gown almost as provocative as her Wonder Woman get-up. (Of his dancing, Hope said that he had seven brothers and claimed, “That’s how I learned to dance, standing in line for the bathroom.”)

The same Bob Hope has been dancing with different gorgeous women for more than 60 years now. “You make me feel so young,” he sang to a radiant Carter. “You’re an old smoothie,” she sang back. “I really enjoyed dancing with you,” she cooed afterward. At home later in Toluca Lake, he laughed when he was asked about his reputation for being a bit of a rake.

“I think anybody who’s not a bit of a rake is pretty dead,” he said. “I’m a bit of rake--quite a bit.”