By SAM BRYLAWSKI
On May 9 the Bob Hope Gallery of American Entertainment opened in the Library's Jefferson Building with a visit by Mr. Hope and his family. The gallery, a permanent showcase, will feature exhibitions focusing on various aspects of Mr. Hope's career. The inaugural exhibition, "Bob Hope and American Variety," is a celebration of vaudeville and Mr. Hope's contributions to variety entertainment in America. The exhibition draws on the newly acquired Bob Hope Collection and additional materials from the Library's holdings.
Vaudeville was Bob Hope's training ground, and it made him one of the most popular entertainers of the 20th century. There, he honed his abilities as an actor, comic monologist, dancer, singer, sketch comedian and master of ceremonies. In the 1920s, Mr. Hope toured the United States as a vaudevillian, performing in hundreds of theaters, small and large. His talents and ambitions made him one of the great stars of the variety stage.
From the early 1880s to the end of the 1920s, vaudeville was the most popular form of live entertainment in America. A vaudeville show was a succession of seven to 10 live stage acts, which included comedians and musicians, together with novelty acts such as dancers, acrobats, trained animals and magicians. Its form and content were shaped by a wide range of 19th century diversions, including minstrel shows, the circus, medicine shows, traveling repertory companies, curio museums, wild West shows, chautauquas and the British music hall. The term "vaudeville" is believed to have been derived from the name of satirical songs sung in the valley (vaud) of Vire in France. It was applied to variety shows in the 19th century by entrepreneur B.F. Keith, in an attempt to give his shows cachet.
If vaudeville had an American creator, it was Tony Pastor. Pastor brought variety-act entertainment out of men's saloons and "refined" it into family entertainment when, in 1881, he opened his 14th Street Theater in New York City. Vaudeville's audiences, as well as many of its stars, were drawn primarily from the newly immigrated working classes.
The growth of vaudeville coincided with, and also reflected, the rise of urbanization and industrialization in America. As vaudeville grew more popular, centralized business interests took control of the acts. Just as goods in the late 19th century could be manufactured in a central location and shipped throughout the country, vaudeville routines and tours were established in New York and other large cities, and tours were made possible by the new ease of long-distance transportation afforded by the railroad. A successful act would be booked on a tour lasting for months and would change little as it was performed throughout the United States. In this way, vaudeville became a means of creating and sharing national culture.
Bob Hope was among the 20,000 vaudeville performers working in the 1920s. Many of these performers were, like Hope, recent immigrants who saw a vaudeville career as one of the few ways to succeed as a "foreigner" in America. Throughout his extraordinary professional career of nearly 70 years, Bob Hope practiced the arts he learned in vaudeville and perpetuated variety entertainment traditions in stage musical comedy, motion pictures, radio, television and the live appearances he made around the world in support of the U.S. armed forces. Today, the variety stage show is mostly a memory, but its influence is pervasive, thanks to the long and rich careers of vaudeville veterans such as Bob Hope.
Bob Hope was born Leslie Townes Hope, the son of stonemason William Henry Hope and Avis Townes Hope. The family emigrated from England to Cleveland in 1908, when Leslie, the fifth of seven children, was not yet five years old. In Cleveland, the family struggled financially, as they had in England, and Avis took in boarders to supplement William's erratic income. Avis, an amateur musician, taught singing to Leslie, an outgoing boy who entertained his family with singing, impersonations and dancing. After dropping out of school at the age of 16, Leslie worked at a number of part-time jobs. He boxed for a short time under the name of "Packy East," but changed his name officially to Lester Hope. Lester's interest in entertainment and show business, cultivated by his mother, led him to take dancing lessons and seek employment as a variety stage entertainer. Not until he had achieved considerable success on the stage did he begin using the name "Bob Hope."
Bob Hope's first tours in vaudeville were as half of a two-man dancing team. The act appeared in small-time vaudeville houses where ticket prices were as low as 10 cents and performances were "continuous," with as many as six shows each day. Bob Hope, like most vaudeville performers, gained his professional training in these small-time theaters.
Within five years of his start in vaudeville Bob Hope was in the big time, playing the houses where the most popular acts played. In big-time vaudeville, there were only two shows performed each day-the theaters were called "two-a-days"- and tickets cost as much as $2 each. The pinnacle of the big time was New York City's Palace Theatre, where every vaudevillian aspired to perform. Bob Hope played the Palace in 1931 and 1932.
All vaudeville comedy acts were dependent, in some part, on stock materials for inspiration. This tradition has continued in variety comedy entertainment in all of its forms, from stage to television, drawing upon what theater historian Brooks McNamara calls "a shared body of traditional stock material." The situation comedies popular on television today are built from many of the same raw materials that shaped medicine and minstrel shows in the early 19th century as well as shaping vaudeville.
Stock materials include jokes and song parodies; monologues-strings of jokes or comic lectures; bits-two- or three-person joke routines; and sketches-short comic scenes, often with a story. To these stock materials comedians add what cannot be transcribed in words: the physical comedy, or the "business"-the humor of inflections and body language at which so many vaudevillians excelled.
The content of the vaudeville show reflected the ethnic makeup of its primary audience in complex ways. Vaudeville performers were often from the same working-class and immigrant backgrounds as their audiences. Yet the relaxation and laughter they provided vaudeville patrons were sometimes achieved at the expense of other working-class American groups. Humor based on ethnic characterizations was a major component of many vaudeville routines, as it had been in folk-culture-based entertainment and other forms of popular culture. "Blackface" characterizations of African Americans were carried over from minstrelsy. "Dialect acts" featured comic caricatures of many other ethnic groups, most commonly Irish, Italians, Germans and Jews.
Audiences related to ethnic caricature acts in a number of ways. Many audiences, daily forced to conform to society's norms, enjoyed the free, uninhibited expression of blackface comedians and the baggy pants "low comedy" of many dialect acts. They enjoyed recognizing and laughing at performances based on their own ethnic identities. At the same time, some vaudeville acts provided a means of assimilation for members of the audience by enabling them to laugh at other ethnic groups, "outsiders."
By the end of vaudeville's heyday, the early 1930s, most ethnic acts had been eliminated from the bill or toned down to be less offensive. However, ethnic caricatures continued to thrive in radio programs such as "Amos 'n' Andy," "Life with Luigi" and "The Goldbergs" and in the blackface acts of entertainers such as Al Jolson.
In the early 1930s, vaudeville's popularity began to fade, primarily as a result of competition from motion pictures and radio. In addition, audiences were becoming tired of vaudeville's formulas and often were hard pressed to purchase tickets because of the Depression. In 1932 New York's Palace Theatre changed from two-a-day performances to the less prestigious continuous shows, and then to films and shows. This marked the end of vaudeville's primacy.
Bob Hope's stature as a vaudeville headliner and comic master of ceremonies enabled him to make a transition from vaudeville to musical comedy. In the 1930s he starred in revues and musical comedies, made appearances on radio, and was featured in several motion picture comedy shorts.
The live variety show has endured beyond vaudeville. Amateur talent contests provide the most common contemporary approximation of a vaudeville show, but professional variety entertainment still exists in a number of forms. Rock concerts often begin with a performance by a stand-up comedian, a throwback to the monologist and master of ceremonies in vaudeville. Revues, which, like vaudeville, are series of variety acts but with a unifying theme, are popular attractions in gambling casinos in Las Vegas and elsewhere. In fact, acts cultivated within the vaudeville tradition enrich many 20th century entertainment forms enjoyed today-revues, musical comedies, motion pictures, radio and television.
In the late 1920s, the success of motion pictures was closely related to vaudeville. In one sense, sound films stole the attention of the vaudeville audience, thus contributing to the end of the heyday of live variety shows. At the same time, sound films provided a new venue for many variety stars. For example, it was vaudevillian Al Jolson who guaranteed the success of "The Jazz Singer," the first feature film to include songs and dialogue. Among the many other variety artists who made early sound films was Bob Hope.
After his success on stage in the musical Roberta (1933), Bob Hope was cast in two series of short films made between 1934 and 1936. Although they were moderately successful, they did not guarantee a major motion picture career. In 1937, when Hope had three radio series as well as musical theater experience behind him, he was cast as a cruise ship's master of ceremonies in "The Big Broadcast of 1938." His role was fifth-billed but it featured Hope introducing the song "Thanks for the Memory." The song was an immediate hit and provided him with a professional boost and a career-long theme song. Paramount Studios signed Hope for additional films, and by the end of the 1940s, he was one of the country's highest-grossing motion picture stars.
Bob Hope's success in "The Big Broadcast of 1938" and resultant starring film roles brought him the opportunity to team with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour in "The Road to Singapore" (1940). It is for this film and the subsequent series of "Road" pictures with Crosby and Lamour that Bob Hope is best known and still appreciated as a movie star. In each of the seven "Road" pictures made between 1940 and 1962, Hope and Crosby portrayed second-rate show business troupers who were also third-rate con men. The settings were always exotic locales, and the plots were burlesques of stock adventure melodramas. Much of the films' immediate and enduring popularity results from the chemistry between Hope and Crosby: Their comfort with one another, their playful competitiveness and the natural, improvisational feel to their repartee.
Nearly all of Bob Hope's 60-year broadcasting career was in programs carried by the radio and television networks of the National Broadcasting Co. (NBC). When NBC was established in 1926, it was the first commercial broadcasting network in the world. In its early years, NBC operated two networks, the Red and the Blue. The Blue Network was sold in 1943 and became the American Broadcasting Co. (ABC).
The NBC Collection at the Library of Congress comprises radio recordings, television kinescope motion pictures, scripts, press releases and business papers and is the largest and most comprehensive broadcasting company archives in the United States. The collection documents the rise and development of both radio and television entertainment.
Bob Hope conquered the radio medium at nearly the same time as he found success in motion pictures. Hope was featured regularly in several radio series throughout the 1930s. His success in "The Big Broadcast of 1938" brought him to "The Pepsodent Show" radio series, which aired for more than 10 years as a top-rated program. The show enjoyed enormous success for many reasons. Hope, by 1938 a veteran entertainer, had established a very popular persona: brash, yet not too serious about himself, a comic wiseacre who endeared himself to his audience by taking them into his confidence. The format of "The Pepsodent Show" was straightforward: a monologue by Hope, exchanges and skits with his regular cast and guest stars and a concluding skit. The manic comic character of his "Pepsodent" sidekick, Jerry Colona, was also a popular attraction on the show, but it was Bob Hope's opening monologue that rooted each week's installment.
The May 6, 1941, installment of Bob Hope's popular "Pepsodent" radio series aired from March Army Air Force Field in Riverside, Calif. This was the first remote broadcast of Hope's coast-to-coast radio program and became the first of hundreds of radio and television broadcasts he performed for U.S. soldiers. Hope, broadcasting in front of a live audience of soldiers and gearing the subject matter of the monologue to the troops, fashioned a very successful variant on the radio comedy variety format. World War II-era stateside radio audiences, as well as the troops, appreciated his soldier-directed monologues, which provided home audiences for a special affinity with the soldiers' lives and their contributions to the country.
"When vaudeville died, television was the box they put it in," said Bob Hope.
The variety show was a common format in early television, in part because many of the performers were vaudevillians with vast experience performing live on stage and most early television was broadcast live. The sale of thousands of televisions in the late 1940s and early 1950s has been attributed to the vast popularity of the early TV variety show featuring vaudevillian Milton Berle. In fact, the popular programs hosted by Berle and his contemporaries were termed "vaudeo" by 1950s television critics. While variety is no longer a prevalent program format, successors to vaudeville include current television programs such as "The Tonight Show," "Saturday Night Live" and even "Sesame Street."
Although NBC and CBS had been actively experimenting with television since the 1930s, seven-days-a-week programming did not begin until 1948. Most shows were produced by advertising agencies on behalf of their sponsor clients, but the networks were increasingly interested in developing programs as well. Bob Hope was approached by NBC in 1949 to host his own show and soon conquered the new medium even as he maintained his popularity in film and radio.
Hope's Joke File
To comedians, "material"-their jokes and stories-has always been precious, worthy of protecting and preserving. On stage, a good vaudeville routine could last years, as it was performed on tour across the country. In radio, a year's vaudeville material might be fodder for one week's broadcast. Bob Hope used new material not only for his weekly radio series, but also for the several live charity appearances he made each week. In the beginning of his career, he wrote his own material, adapted jokes and comic routines from popular humor publications or commissioned segments of his vaudeville act from writers.
Over the course of his career, Hope employed more than 100 writers to create material, including jokes, for his famous topical monologues. For example, for radio programs he engaged a number of writers, divided the writers into teams and required each team to complete an entire script. He then selected the best jokes from each script and pieced them together to create the final script. The jokes included in the final script, as well as jokes not used, were categorized by subject matter and filed in cabinets in a fire- and theft-proof walk-in vault in an office next to his residence in North Hollywood, Calif. Bob Hope could then consult this "Joke File," his personal cache of comedy, to create monologues for live appearances or television and radio programs.
The complete Bob Hope Joke File-more than 85,000 pages-has been digitally scanned and indexed according to the categories he used for presentation. It is now available for visitors to the Bob Hope Gallery of American Entertainment.
On the Road: USO Shows
Prompted by patriotism and, perhaps, vaudevillian wanderlust, Bob Hope kept touring for more than 50 years. Returning to his professional roots, he took his variety show on the road to entertain U.S. troops wherever those soldiers were stationed. Hope's variety shows for the troops included comedy monologues, specialty acts, celebrity appearances, dancers, singers and skits. His mildly irreverent humor, teamed with his variety troupe's beautiful women, provided a welcome respite for the U.S. forces, a reminder, in Hope's words, "of what they were fighting for." The fast pace, broad diversity and informality of the overseas shows, with acts ranging in tone from brash to sentimental, gave U.S. fighting forces a supportive reminder of home, an essence of American life and values.
Hope's fifty-year commitment to public service has made him one of the most honored and esteemed performers in history. His charitable work and tours on behalf of the armed forces have brought him the admiration and gratitude of millions and the friendship of every U.S. president States since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In a recent act of generosity, Hope donated his personal papers, radio and television programs and his treasured Joke File to the Library of Congress and the people of the United States.
The Bob Hope Collection at the Library of Congress joins many important collections that document the entertainment arts in America. Preserved at the Library is the full record of Bob Hope's extraordinary creativity, his unselfish contributions to his country and the testimonials and thanks he has received from those whose lives he has enriched.
Mr. Brylawski is curator of this exhibition and head of the Library's Recorded Sound Section.