Bob Hope — Where There’s Life There’s Hope (1935) 🇺🇸
Bob Hope of The Atlantic Family is hailed as radio’s comedy discovery of 1936.
The first thing you think, when you meet Bob Hope, is that somehow you must have got into the wrong apartment on Central Park West. A secretary opens the door and with a hurried: “This way, please,” leaves you standing at one end of an enormously long all-green-and-white living-room. Far down by the windows, across the tops of low-slung white coffee tables and streamlined chairs, a tall young man in a yellow sweater rises from a window seat and comes to meet you. When he stands up two Scotties tumble from his lap; he lays aside a fat volume which turns out to be Education Before Verdun.
“Hello,” he says and grins. “It’s still raining a little, isn’t it? Are your feet damp?”
By that time you’re sure this isn’t the Bob Hope whose fun is a star part of the Atlantic Family broadcasts, who is being hailed as radio’s comedy discovery of 1936. In the first place he just doesn’t look like a comedian. He’s still in his twenties and his cheeks are rosy and a couple of boyish cow-licks keep his brown hair from being the plastered cap he has tried to make it. He might be a tennis pro or a Yale undergrad or even a young doctor — but never a zany of the mikes. In the second place he just doesn’t act like a comedian. He hasn’t one of the earmarks of show business, none of the smart crack, personality-boy, hail-fellow-well-met stuff. He doesn’t say: “Well now, let’s get to work — what do you want to know about me?” He says simply: “I’d like you to meet Suds and Amos,” and points to the Scotties. “Suds is Amos’ mother. By the way, do you like war stories? I read The Case of Sergeant Grischa —”
The secretary pokes her head in at that point. “Excuse me, Mr. Hope, Frank Parker wants you on the ‘phone.”
And you feel relieved at this evidence that at least you’re in the right place and this is the right man. But how he got to be a comedian, how this lean youngster in the yellow sweater got to be the rave of radio in the past few months — well, it looks as if that might be a pretty interesting story.
As Bob himself told me: “I guess comedians aren’t born or made, either. They sort of happen.”
Now the evolution of funny-men is a very curious thing. Heaven knows if anybody could dope out a way to evolute a few he certainly could make a fortune, because radio’s biggest under-supplied demand is for competent laugh-getters. People are successful singers because they’ve sung all their lives, they’re successful actors because they’ve acted all their lives, but show me a big-name comedian who’s successful because he’s gone around all his life being just naturally funny and I’ll give you half the CBS network — well, two tickets to a broadcast, anyway! Every one of the gagsters on the air today was formerly something else, everything from dancers to violinists to advertising men to coal dealers. And suddenly, you never know exactly how, they discovered they were funny.
Look at Bob’s case. He was born in London in 1908, and if it really takes an Englishman till next Monday to see the point in a joke, then you’ll have to hand him some credit for courage in undertaking a comedy career. His mother was Avis Townes, a noted concert singer on European stages. Shortly after Bob’s birth the Hopes moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and Mr. Hope settled down in the printing business.
There were seven boys in the family and no girls. The third oldest son, who was to turn out to be a comedian, spent a normal childhood doing the things all normal kids do. There is nothing on record to show that he ever panicked the neighbors with any stunts funnier than those every growing boy thinks up — except, perhaps, the time he decided to become a parachute jumper, sailed out of a second story window holding on to an opened umbrella and landed in the front yard with two sprained ankles. After a month in bed he gave up his daredevil ambitions and that was the last of that.
“I used to be a boy soprano,” he told me, laughing. “I loved nothing better than to stand up in a church choir or on the stage of some amateur entertainment and sing a solo. When I was twelve the Cleveland Tigers, a professional football team, made me their mascot; they’d carry me with them on the train when they traveled and I’d walk up and down the cars singing jazz songs for tips.
“Usually,” he added, “I’d arrive home with more money in my pockets than the ball players. I seemed to have a sixth sense for spotting the best cash customers!”
After high school Bob entered Western Reserve University and stayed one year. He might have remained long enough to graduate if he hadn’t found so many other things that he liked better than freshman Greek and analytics — track, basketball, football and especially dramatics. He got a bigger bang out of acting and singing in campus plays and musicals than from anything else. He took tap dancing and soft-shoe dancing for six months, learned all the teacher could teach him, organized his own dancing-school of sixty-five pupils and conducted it at night when he was supposed to be writing themes and doing parallel reading in the library. It isn’t surprising that when June rolled around Bob and Western Reserve parted company — and that suited him just swell because he’d wangled a job with a stock company at the Bandbox Theatre in Cleveland.
Bob stayed at the Bandbox ten months, playing the hero in everything the company produced. He made ardent love to the heroines, sang ballads to the heroines, even broke into a buck-and-wing when the script called for it. And he did it all so successfully that RKO nabbed him for one of its vaudeville units and kept him touring from coast to coast for the next four years as a sort of versatile song-and-dance man, a handsome young fellow who could lit into any act in a hurry and play any part.
In 1927 he got a minor role doing one number in “Sidewalks of New York,” at the old Knickerbocker Theatre but when the show closed he couldn’t find anything else on Broadway. So he and a friend, George Byrne, worked up a comedy dancing act and went back on the road together doing one and two-night stands, which is death to the soul of any vaudevillian who ever has known the thrill of playing on the Great White Way.
They used to talk while they danced — just ad-libbing, silly patter, anything they thought of to say that sounded goofy. Sometimes they got a few laughs but the fact that he had the makings of a comedian never entered Bob’s head until the night a pit musician in Peoria spoke to him after the show.
“Look, guy,” he said, “you ought not to be doing a dancing double. You oughta work up a single act — straight comedy. You’re funny as heck, most of the time.”
That gave Bob an idea. So when Byrnes and Hope laid off for a month’s vacation before starting a western tour, he hopped a train for Chicago instead of going home for the visit he’d planned. He sat down in a hotel room and wrote out every gag he could remember that had ever got a laugh, memorized them, worked them into shape for a twelve-minute routine.
“I was determined to find out whether I could be a comedian or not,” he reminisced. “So I made the rounds of the dinky theatres in and near Chicago and offered to do my act, one performance, for anything they’d pay me. Sometimes I got four bucks a show, never more than ten, but I lined up twenty-odd bookings in straight succession. I wanted to ‘break in’ my routine, try it out on different audiences. Every night I’d come back to my room and strike out the lines that had fallen flat and substitute something else to try again the next night. At the end of three weeks I thought my material was so sure-fire that I wired Byrnes that I was going to do a single and began peddling myself to big-time booking agents.
“Believe me, I peddled, too, and got nowhere fast! I stuck around Chicago till my landlady locked up my suitcases and I didn’t have two nickels to rub together. Finally I took a job, dancing again, with a boy-and-girl act, for twenty-five dollars a week. It was an awful comedown because, with Byrnes, I’d been making three hundred. I decided then and there that the pit fiddler in Peoria had given me a bum steer!”
Three years later a revue called “Ballyhoo of 1932” was casting in New York. A friend of Bob’s, who was helping to stage it, offered him a small singy-dancy part in the third act and Bob took it just to come in off the road for a while. The night the show was scheduled to open in Newark was a pretty terrible one — the producers were having money trouble, the cast hadn’t got their salaries, it was forty minutes past curtain time and half the scenery and costumes hadn’t arrived. The whole works was in a stew and a huff and the audience outside was furiously tired of waiting. The company manager begged one of the principals to go out and entertain the house a while. Only Bob Hope volunteered.
“I walked on the stage,” he said to me, “and prayed to high heaven I could remember that old comedy routine I’d used in Chicago. I knew I had a swell chance to make or break myself that night and it scared me so I stood stock still behind the footlights and couldn’t think of one single gag! So I just started talking. I kidded the audience about having to wait, I kidded the people in the cast, I clowned around a little and gabbed and said anything that popped into my head.”
The audience loved it. Bob Hope got the ovation of the evening. Four times he was clapped back and when the curtain finally rose at ten-thirty he already had become the star of the show! He had been hilariously funny for an hour and a half without one single line of prepared material. Ballyhoo opened on Broadway a week later with Bob Hope in tall electrics; they’ve stayed there ever since. Roberta, Say When and this season’s “Ziegfeld Follies are only a part of his achievements.
When he was invited to make a guest appearance on The Atlantic Family program with Frank Parker last fall, Bob again was scared stiff. He’d never done any radio work excepting a spot on the Rudy Vallée show but he took the offer and made such a hit he has been kept on in a starring capacity ever since.
Thus the birth of another microphone comedian. “And it’s without a doubt the toughest job I ever tackled,” to quote the comedian himself. “In show business you can use the same funny stuff for months, even years. But try to be funny once a week for radio! Lady, I’m already getting gray hair!”
Bob has three writers who work for him. Early on Monday mornings they bring the prepared script to his apartment and the four of them go over it together. Sometimes it’s swell and sometimes it isn’t, and when it isn’t they often stay up all night Monday and Tuesday trying to re-write it. They dig into the Hope collection of eighty thousand jokes for ideas, they try to rehash old material, to think up new stuff. By Wednesday morning the sponsor must have a copy of the script. By Wednesday night he OK’s it or doesn’t OK it. If he doesn’t, Bob and his writers have got to work all day and night Thursday rewriting it again. Friday it’s rehearsed and changed and shaped up. Saturday it’s rehearsed some more. Saturday night it goes on the air and Monday the whole procedure starts over again!
Whenever Bob has a scrap of leisure you can always find him in one of three places — in a fishing sloop on Long Island Sound, teeing off at Flushing’s Old Country Club, where he was golf champion last year, or across the street from his apartment riding Black Sally in the park. The petite, pretty brunette who invariably rides beside him is blues-singer Dolores Read who changed her name to Mrs. Robert Hope two years ago down in Florida. It seems that Bob went to Miami for a rest after Roberta and found Dolores in front of the band at the swank Embassy Club. It was love practically pronto. They were married a few weeks later and they’re a couple of the happiest folks together you ever saw. Dolores is sweet and pretty and witty and looks a lot like Myrna Loy. She’s become one of the most popular hostesses among the air crowd; if you’re invited to one of the famous Saturday night parties she gives for her bridge-fiend hubby, you’ve received as coveted an invitation as there is to be had in radio.
The nicest thing about the Hopes is that you seldom see Mr. without Mrs. and vice versa. Dolores sits in on all of Bob’s writing and rehearsing spells and reads lines and offers suggestions and sees that he doesn’t forget to eat his lunch. Occasionally she and Hob and Honey Chile play some vaudeville or a night club together, with Bob and Honey Chile handling the comedy and Dolores singing and wearing very lovely gowns and dancing a cute boy-and-girl soft-shoe routine with her lanky young husband.
“I just don’t know what I’d do without her, that’s all,” Bob told me; which is about the nicest thing a man can say of the girl he has married.
“I’ll have to say this, though — that people usually credit too much or too little the writers who prepare the material for air comics. I think it’s about fifty-fifty between the authors and the fellow who gets the laughs. A sure-fire joke or “piece of business,” as we call it, can be handled so poorly that it isn’t funny at all and a bum gag can be handled expertly that it sounds funnier than it really is. Of course I collaborate on the writing of my material but I give my writers full credit for helping me to get along; they work like Trojans, especially when we’ve got only a night or two to change a whole program and consequently we’re working under pressure. You have to be relaxed to write comedy, you have to be free and easy and have time enough to get yourself into a sort of goofy mood.
“And let me tell you — when your bread and butter depends precisely on how many laughs you can get from an audience, it’s harder than ever, somehow, to get those laughs! My advice to all aspiring comedians is: Take up ditch-digging or selling insurance or anything but funny business — they’re easier on the nerves!”
The little swimmer and the brave lifeguard — Bob Hope and Honey Chile (Wikipedia).
He just doesn’t look like a comedian, does he? Bob Hope himself!
“Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes!” begs Honey Chile.
Source: Radio Stars Magazine, September 1935
Source: Variety Radio Directory (1938-1939)