Classic TV Celebrities: Bob Hope's Performance Highlights

By: Ben Anton

Bob Hope is hands-down the most acclaimed, honored and versatile entertainer in show business history. During his seventy-plus years in the entertainment industry, Hope earned more than two thousand awards and recognitions for his various professional and humanitarian work, including an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II, a Congressional Gold Medal from President Kennedy, the Medal of Freedom from President Johnson, and fifty-four honorary doctorates. Hope’s Christmas specials, USO shows, radio and television programs, and regular appearances on numerous sitcoms and variety shows have some of the highest ratings of any primetime telecasts. Because of this well-deserved praise, it is difficult to choose only a few television appearances as the “Best Of” Hope’s career. Instead, it is better to look at the huge variety of shows Hope appeared on and why this versatile performer became America’s most beloved entertainer.

Born in England May 29, 1903, Hope and his family traveled to America in 1908 aboard the SS Philadelphia. Ironically, Hope was a relative latecomer to television; he dabbled in experimental broadcasts with NBC in the 1930s but held off almost twenty years before starting his illustrious career. He began his official television career on Easter Sunday, 1950, on NBC. His specials, most of which were sponsored by the Chrysler corporation, were often hysterically unscripted variety programs that featured such guest stars as Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Marilyn Monroe and Dina Shore.

!b>Christmas Specials!/b>

Hope got significant recognition for his gut-busting Christmas specials. These specials ran for years and featured duet performances of “Silver Bells” by Hope and adorable young guest stars, such as Olivia Newton-John and Brooke Shields. The most memorable Bob Hope Christmas specials were, without a doubt, his 1970 and 1971 episodes. Filmed in front of military audiences at the height of the Vietnam War, these specials actually aired in January –after Hope was back in the United States— and were seen by more than sixty percent of television-viewing households in America. Like his other Christmas specials, the Vietnam shows were all about celebrating the traditional joy, peace and good cheer of the season. His use of humor, beautiful women and talented performers were a welcome respite from the horrors of the war itself.

USO Performances

Hope is probably best known for his performances for the United Service Organization (USO), beginning with his USO debut at March Field, California, on May 6, 1941. Hope performed USO shows throughout World War II, prompting acclaim from such contemporaries as John Steinbeck. “It is impossible to see how he can do so much,” Steinbeck wrote in 1943, “can cover so much ground, can work so hard, and can be so effective.” Hope continued his USO shows during the Korean War, Vietnam War and Persian Gulf War, heading roughly sixty tours in total. Because of his tireless dedication to the overseas troops, Hope was awarded the impressive Sylvanus Thayer Award by the U.S. Military Academy in 1968. He was named an Honorary Veteran by a 1997 act of Congress, signed by President Clinton, a recognition Hope referred to as “the greatest honor I have ever received.”

Sitcom Appearances

Hope also appeared on a number of popular television programs during his career. Hope did a guest spot on America’s favorite TV show of the 1950s, “I Love Lucy”. Supposedly, Hope balked at the idea of using a script. He ad-libbed the entire episode, legend goes, giving one of his best performances in the process. He also appeared on the Danny Thomas Show, the Jack Benny Show, the Ed Sullivan Show, the Donny & Marie Show, and others.

Saying Good Bye

Hope bid a nostalgic farewell to his television audiences in 1996 with “Laughing with the Presidents,” a special he co-hosted with Tony Danza. In this special, Hope gave a very personal tribute to the U.S. presidents he had known and worked with during his career; Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and others. The show was a fitting and entertaining good-bye to the hardest working entertainer in American history.

It’s not surprising that Bob Hope was so heavily recognized for his work. Radio and television programs, USO shows, Christmas specials, books, movies; the man did it all. He helped the world smile during troubling times. He lent his celebrity status to good causes. He championed humor and fun as the best tool in achieving peace at home and abroad. Hope wasn’t only a great entertainer; he was an amazing humanitarian.

~Ben Anton, 2008

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