(Note: This essay was originally published in the Newport Daily News on July 13, 2021.)
Eighty years ago, Bob Hope, comedian, actor, singer, dancer, and author, broadcast his first United Services Organization (USO) show on the radio from an Army Air Corps base in Riverside, California.
Thus began his five-decade relationship with the USO. After the U.S. entered the war, he made his first overseas trip in 1942, to perform a show in Alaska, then a U.S. territory. Soon after, he began his trips to the European and Pacific theaters.
This was a period of high patriotism, and Hope shared in this. With his USO shows, he tried to make his own contribution to the war effort by lifting the spirits of those Americans in arms.
Along with his best friend, Bing Crosby, Hope was offered a commission in the Navy as a lieutenant commander; however, President Franklin D. Roosevelt intervened, indicating that it was best if Hope continued to entertain troops from all the armed services.
Between 1941 and 1991, Hope made 57 tours for the USO, entertaining military personnel in WW II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Persian Gulf War.
His tours were funded by the Department of Defense, his TV sponsors, and NBC, the network which broadcast the TV specials created from the shows.
His entertainment career was lifted in 1934, when he began to appear on radio and in films. In the 1950s, he switched his focus solely to TV, and began hosting regular TV specials in 1954.
His entertainment career spanned almost eight decades in which he appeared in more than 70 short and full-length films, 54 in which he starred.
He also hosted the Academy Awards 19 times—more than anyone else—appeared in numerous stage and television roles, and wrote 14 books.
As a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy in 1968, I marched in the parade in his honor at West Point when he received the Academy’s prestigious Sylvanus Thayer Award, the first entertainer to receive it.
Forty years ago as I served on the teaching faculty at West Point, I was fortunate to attend his “All-Star Comedy Birthday at West Point,” televised on May 25, 1981. Hope opened the show in grand fashion as he arrived on a helicopter. The show included Marie Osmond, Glen Campbell, George C. Scott, Brooke Shields, Sugar Ray Leonard, Mary Martin, Mickey Rooney, and Robert Ulrich.
In 1997, by act of Congress and with the signature of President Bill Clinton, Hope was made an “Honorary Veteran.” Hope stated: “I’ve been given many awards in my lifetime, but to be numbered among the men and women I admire most is the greatest honor I have ever received.”
His final TV special was broadcast in November 1996, entitled “Laughing with the Presidents.” In it Hope, with the help of Tony Danza, gave reminiscences of his time with the many presidents he knew.
At 100, Hope died on July 27, 2003, at his home in Toluca, California.
Toward the end of the film, “The Big Broadcast of 1938”, Bob Hope and Shirley Ross sang the song, “Thanks for the Memories.” It won the Academy Award for Best Original Song and became Hope’s signature song throughout his long career. It had many different versions over the decades as Hope adapted it to his audience and the spirit of the times.
A retired Army officer, Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.