Humor and longevity seem to go hand in hand. George Burns is 92; Milton Berle turns 80 on July 12 and Bob Hope will be 85 on May 29.
Hope still keeps to a schedule that would exhaust a trouper half his years. Last Monday he left Korea after taping a guest-star spot on a pre-Olympic special before a crowd of 80,000. He also helicoptered near the DMZ to do a spur-of-the-moment show for 3,000 GIs of the Second Infantry Division.
Thanks to the international date line, he was back in Los Angeles at midday Monday. He caught 2 1/2 hours sleep, played a couple holes of golf ("to wake up") at the Lakeside Country Club adjoining his home in Toluca Lake, then went off to a post-production house to work with his editors late into the evening on a three-hour television special celebrating the 85th birthday and his 50 years on NBC.
"We've still got one more minute to trim, but who, where?" Hope complained Wednesday during a get-together in his sun-filled living room. "It's like taking blood out of your arm. But today's the butcher shop; we're slashing."
Hope had a joke for his visitor about the White House serve-and-tell books by Donald Regan and others. "I was talking to one of the telephone operators and I said, 'How long have you been at the White House?' and she said, 'About six chapters.' "
The show airs Monday night from 8 to 11 on NBC Channel 4 locally and features Nancy Reagan singing some special lyrics to "Thanks for the Memory," which became Hope's theme song after Hope and Shirley Ross sang it in his first film, "The Big Broadcast of 1938."
Mrs. Reagan's lyrics say in part,
Thanks for the memory ...
Of humor sweet and tart,
Of jokes that bite
And shed some light,
Even when they smart . ...
President Reagan appears via videotape and John Forsythe reads congratulatory wires from former Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter, and from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the Vatican and China's minister of culture.
The in-person guests range from James Stewart to Burns and Berle and Dorothy Lamour, with some 75 stars either on hand or on tape.
For an encore they would have to enlarge Mt. Rushmore.
Hope had prostate surgery in late March but took in a benefit less than a week later and looks pinkly vigorous. "Eighty-five. I can't believe it's me," Hope said.
"I've been awfully lucky in my health. But it's the action, it's the business we're in, that makes all the difference. I love laughs. I love to hear laughter. I always feel stronger after a show than before." He travels so much he has his own 9-passenger Jet Star. "It saves wear and tear," he says.
For his first 12 years with NBC (1938-50), Hope was actually under contract to Pepsodent for his weekly radio show. "For the special we wanted to have something from the radio days and we made a lucky find, a Command Performance radio show that had been filmed. It's a radio show--we're holding scripts--but it's Lana Turner, and Judy Garland, so young, singing 'Over the Rainbow.' "
Hope's reminiscences as a golfer, "Confession of a Hooker," made the New York Times best-seller list and is still selling. His publisher wants an autobiography, to be called, naturally, "Thanks for the Memory," and Hope admits that he should have begun to talk the memories into a tape recorder years ago.
As it is, he has a half-century of scripts--1,145 radio shows and more than 400 television shows--and a trophy room at the house plus a warehouse crammed with memorabilia, from medals to the keys of cities and countries, to ceremonial swords, cups, vases, sculptures and enough scrolls and plaques to reface Hoover Dam.
He has thought of building a Bob Hope Museum to house them all, but at the moment he is not sure his energy extends to that .
But there are the memories. The other afternoon he was remembering back 60 years, to Chicago 1928. "I'd left Cleveland for Detroit and then Chicago, doing my monologues for $10 a night, or whatever I could get. Not eating regularly. Starving to death, in fact, but I was determined not to go home.
"I had a $10 hotel room; shared the bath with the room next door. From my window I could see into Henrici's Restaurant and watch the people eating, while I wasn't."
The Woods Theater Building was a hive of agents' offices, a mecca for vaudevillians. A friend from Cleveland introduced him to Charlie Hogan, who booked acts into movie houses which featured orchestras like Frankie Masters and Paul Ash between showings.
Hogan offered him a one-night job as emcee at an outlying theater and asked if $25 would be all right. Hope bit his lip to keep from shouting yes . "I said, very quietly, 'That'll be . . . that'll be fine.' "
It went well and Hogan booked him into a theater at Halstead and 65th Street, where Hope stayed six months. "I had to do so much ad-libbing I kept running out of material. I'd ask the acts if they had any spare jokes. The audience would laugh at me trying to tell the jokes; I was funnier than the jokes were."
He landed on an important radio show, the "WLS Show Boat," which led to bookings on the vaudeville circuits in the Midwest, then in Texas. He was very big in Fort Worth, once he'd learned to slow down his rapid-fire delivery. "What's your hurry, Fancy Pants?" a kindly agent who became a lifelong friend asked him.
The vaudeville trail led at last to Proctors 86th Street in Manhattan, working on the bill with Leatrice Joy. Abe Lastfogel of the William Morris office saw and signed him the night he opened. Hope played the Palace, the top of the top for a vaudevillian, and then did his first Broadway show, "Ballyhoo of 1932," with Willie and Eugene Howard. It ran 16 weeks.
Hope was back at the Palace when Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach asked him to play the orchestra leader in their musical "Roberta." He had arrived.
"Hey!" Hope said the other afternoon, as if it had just occurred to him, "I've had a lot of fun, haven't I?"