An entertainment icon looking for a reporter with a dumb question. Luckily, I was right there to provide him with one.
The hometown crowd gathered to greet Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, was getting the added treat of a comedy legend acting as parade marshal. They loved Bob. Particularly, it seemed to my youthfully inquisitive eyes, the ladies.
As he rode along in the parade, waving to the crowd, I approached Hope and his wife, Dolores, who was riding with him in the car. I then proceeded to ask the artlessly dumb question, the one that still makes me cringe all these years later when I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it.
“Mr. Hope,” I blurted out, “how does it feel to have all these women going crazy over you?”
Hope looked at me and then he looked at his wife. The two of them traded dubious glances, and then they both looked at me as though I must have escaped from the place where they keep the idiots. Hope said something innocuous about how great it was to be in Wapakoneta, and that this wasn’t his day, it belonged to Neil Armstrong.
I have wondered since, knowing what I know now, if Hope and his wife didn’t regard the question as some sort of veiled reference to his reputation for what used to be called “womanizing”–a reputation, it turned out, almost as legendary as his comic acumen.
Dolores Hope apparently turned a blind eye to that aspect of their sixty-nine-year marriage, so I might well be imagining things in thinking they took my question for anything more than stupid.
I thought about all this the other day reading through Richard Zoglin’s exhaustive biography of Bob Hope titled simply Hope. Zoglin, the theater critic for Time magazine, in the book, and in various interviews, sets out to resurrect a comic genius he feels has become forgotten.
For those of us who grew up at a certain time, Bob Hope doesn’t need a whole lot of resurrecting. He was one of those entertainment icons–Frank Sinatra and John Wayne were a couple of others–who just seemed to dominate the mass culture and who would go on forever. Hope nearly did just that, finally giving into mortality in 2003, two months after his one hundredth birthday.
Zoglin’s superb biography argues that Bob Hope more or less invented standup comedy and that even today’s young comedians who barely know of him, owe their existence to what he created.
“By any measure,” Zoglin writes, “he was the most popular entertainer of the twentieth century, the only one who achieved success–often No.1-rated success–in every major genre of mass entertainment in the modern era: vaudeville, Broadway, movies, radio, television, popular song, and live concerts.”
That afternoon at the fair grounds in Wapakoneta I got a chance to see Hope doing what he did best–delivering a smart, funny, insouciant monologue that as much as it celebrated Armstrong and his hometown’s honoring of his achievement, also subtly sent up the whole thing.
(If you take a close look at the top photo of Hope onstage at the Wapakoneta fairgrounds, the guy at the far right in the short-sleeved shirt with his hand on his hip is the young reporter who asked that dumb question.)
Hope was a more subversive comedian than even Zoglin gives him credit for. His support of the Vietnam war clouded an entire generation’s perception of him (John Wayne and his achievements on film suffered a similar fate).
He may have been one of the richest men in California, hung around with presidents, and golfed with the establishment, but Bob Hope onstage never celebrated or backed anyone or anything–including himself.
Irreverent, self-mocking, he was the gimlet-eyed, slightly cynical observer, cracking wise, believing he was just a little more knowing and worldly than the rest of us, the con man, talking fast out of the corner of his mouth, always getting conned, the lovable coward forever looking for the way out and never quite finding it.
The comedy movies (Including those Road pictures with pal Bing Crosby) that originally made him one of the top box office draws, in the 1960s became increasingly mediocre, and the skits that filled his television specials ceased to be very funny, even though the shows themselves remained hugely popular (the Hope biography points out that he was NBC’s most enduring comedy star for an unparalleled four decades). But Hope remained the master of the monologue.
As lame as the specials became, Hope’s monologues were always worthwhile, even when, as some critics have pointed out to Zoglin, he was wildly politically incorrect. Those TV shows were probably no worse than the stuff he did in vaudeville. As Hope himself joked, “When vaudeville died, television was the box they put it in.”
A few years after that Wapakoneta encounter, I saw Hope again, this time in Toronto, onstage at what was then the O’Keefe Centre. He was appearing with Dolores. He came out, did some topical jokes, including, to the delight of the audience, a good deal of local stuff (he had his twelve writers comb the local press for material wherever he appeared).
Then Dolores came out to sing old standards, and she sang well, including “It’s Only A Paper Moon,” the song she was singing in the New York night club the night she met her future husband. Finally, it was Bob and Dolores together to finish the evening. Hope had been doing this since his vaudeville days in the 1920s, and he took the stage and the sold-out O’Keefe audience with an easy elegance and grace that was a pleasure to watch.
When one of his jokes fell flat, he paused, gave the audience a look, and got a bigger laugh than any one-liner could ever give him. I was watching a legend onstage working, if not at the top of his game, certainly close to it.
The legend has faded now, if only because the culture tends to live in the moment, always in search of the new. Bob Hope is very old news, and Zoglin’s tough-minded but sympathetic biography will not likely change that. But in his time Bob Hope truly was an icon, the entertainer of the twentieth century, just like Zoglin says.
And I’m the guy who got to ask him a dumb question.
Thanks for the memory.