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A versatile performer—actor, monologist, dancer, singer, sketch comedian, and master of ceremonies—Bob Hope honed his myriad talents in front of vaudeville audiences of all kinds before graduating to the Broadway stage. Hope then entertained an ever-expanding mainstream national audience through radio, motion pictures, and television. For his weekly NBC radio shows, Hope hired a host of comedy writers to supply him with an abundant flow of topical material to give his new audience a sense of connection to the pulse of the times. In a career that spanned eight decades, Hope walked a fine line between tolerant comedy that poked fun and biting satire that punctured, regaling audiences from all walks of life with jokes about the state of the nation’s affairs and its leaders.

God gave me a certain ability to make people laugh, but America gave me the chance to do it. In no other country in the world does free speech pay so well.—Bob Hope, 1973


The Hope Family

The fifth child of a traveling stonemason, Bob Hope (1903–2003), born Leslie Townes Hope near London, immigrated to Cleveland at age four. Hope’s desire to entertain might be traced to his parents. “My dad was sort of an amateur comedian,” he remarked, “and he would go ’round and play a few pubs in England and have a few drinks with the boys. My mother was a concert singer in Wales before she got married.” In this photograph, Hope is seated in front of his father.

Hope family portrait, ca. 1915. Copyprint. Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (001.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0001]

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Hope in Vaudeville

Bob Hope, going at that time by the name Lester Hope, entered vaudeville as part of a comedy dancing act before going solo as an emcee and comedian upon discovering he had a knack for telling jokes to audiences. “I would develop a routine and keep the same jokes for at least a season,” he later wrote, “not daring to change a line for fear all the magic would be lost and I’d have to go back to plucking chickens in my brother Fred’s meat market.”

George Byrne and Lester Hope, ca. 1925. Copyprint. Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (002.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0002]

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Radio’s “Leading Entertainer”

“Radio was a medium where, every week, more people would hear my jokes than had seen my vaudeville act in ten years,” Hope wrote. “The radio season ran thirty-nine weeks. That meant I had to tell thirty-nine times as many jokes as I had used in a whole year of vaudeville.” Hope’s facility at delivering rapid-fire topical monologues attracted more than 23 million listeners each week. Critics voted him radio’s “leading entertainer” in 1941.

Bob Hope, 1938. Copyprint. Courtesy of the NBC Universal Photo Bank (003.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0003]

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"Another Will Rogers"

Hope's lampooning of national life on his radio show led to an appearance at the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner in 1944, where he left President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) roaring with laughter. FDR particularly liked Hope's joke that compared the likelihood of locating a room to rent in wartime Washington with that of finding his wife Eleanor's newspaper column, "My Day," in the Chicago Tribune, a paper owned by the anti-New Deal isolationist Robert R. McCormick (1880–1955). Hope's performance at the dinner prompted columnist Richard Wilson (1905–1981) to call him "another Will Rogers" and predict that "from now on he will be sought in Washington to provide that extra touch at the capital's lavish public functions." Wilson proved to be prophetic.

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Bob Hope and Eleanor Roosevelt

Bob Hope often poked fun at the frequency of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s (1884–1962) travels. In later life, Hope recalled a White House dinner during which he asked President Roosevelt if he would apologize to his wife for the “ridiculous traveling jokes” he told: “He looked at me very seriously and then said quietly, ‘I certainly will, Mr. Hope . . . In my next letter.’ Then he burst into laughter.” Here, Hope greets Mrs. Roosevelt at a Washington event.

Bob Hope with Eleanor Roosevelt and Henry A. Wallace (1888–1965, to Hope’s right), ca. 1940s. Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (006.00.00) [Digital ID# bhp0006]

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Inaugural Dinner for President Roosevelt

The evening before President Roosevelt's fourth inauguration, Hope performed at the inaugural dinner of the Electoral College, attended by 1,500 guests, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Vice President-elect Harry S. Truman (1884–1972), Supreme Court justices, Cabinet officers, and more than 300 presidential electors from both parties. Hope called President Roosevelt "the greatest audience I ever worked for."

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A Dinner to Honor President Eisenhower

Bob Hope became a Washington, D.C. institution entertaining eleven presidents from Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945) to Bill Clinton (b. 1946). Hope learned that presidents themselves enjoyed the ribbing he dished out. “They’re the greatest audience,” Hope remarked. “They love it when you bruise them a little, because nobody does.” After Hope accepted an invitation to be Master of Ceremonies at a White House Photographers Association Dinner honoring President Eisenhower, the president of the association, Tony Muto (c. 1904–1964), sent Hope this appreciative telegram that underlined the importance of entertainment as a respite from presidential pressures.

Telegram from Tony Muto to Bob Hope, May 21, 1956. Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (005.01.00) [Digital ID # bhp0005_01]

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