Guest Commentary: Hope Everlasting

Aug 4, 2003  •  Post A Comment

This overheated globe we populate became a little cooler when Bob Hope’s fire went out.
In his prime, the young comic walked onto a stage with the confidence of a man who owned it, and by the time he walked off, he did.
If it’s true that paradise belongs to those who make their fellows laugh, as the Torah tells us, surely one of paradise’s new landlords is Bob Hope. Those of us who worked for and played with him and basked in the frequent, generous sunshine of his approval can imagine how warmly he was welcomed when he arrived last Sunday on his new real estate, after a tumultuous century on this side of paradise.
Surely, old pals like Bing, Berle, Bill Fields, Jerry Colonna, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Durante, Lucy and Desi were all members of the reception committee, chaired by the Fabulous Four of Frivolity: Chaplin and Keaton, Laurel and Hardy.
Bob began making audiences laugh by doing Chaplin imitations and became a star when he adopted Will Rogers’ technique of cracking jokes about topics in the daily papers to amuse the man on the street. Rogers was the most-often-quoted and sought-after humorist who ever got invited to the White House-he entertained presidents Coolidge and Hoover-until Hope began his frequent visits with his first call on Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Bob’s newsworthy one-liners, most of them provided by a legion of comedy writers, surpassed Rogers’ home-made humor and laid-back delivery.
Bob was invited to-and accepted-social engagements with kings, queens, princes, prime ministers, basketball stars and other forms of royalty.
And with them all, he remained the same self-centered Ambassador of Hope and master of self-promotion, who convinced himself that everything he did was for America. And what is more American than making a fortune?
The person peeking out from behind the comedian was a stunning businessman who apparently knew the value of a dollar from his first farthing. As his fortunes grew, so did his largesse, but he continued to nurture a passion for making deals-either buying talent, renting out his own talent or buying, developing and selling real estate. The late Lew Wasserman, one of Hollywood’s most formidable deal-makers, told me just last year that the deal he was most proud of was to convince Bob to sell some Valley property, for an addition to Universal Studios’ back lot.

Several years ago, the phone company approached Bob’s rep Elliot Kozak about a commercial for the Yellow Pages, for a fee of $50,000. Elliot took the offer to Bob, who turned it down. He thought the telephone company had a wrong number. They could afford more. Elliot went back to the company and demanded more. This went on for several weeks and each time the offer went up, Bob got into his deal-making mode and, typically, charmed the pants off the negotiators-the pants that had the money in them-and to everyone’s satisfaction, Bob showed up to film the commercial-for $1 million. Elliot admitted his admiration until Bob donated his salary to the Eisenhower Medical Center and insisted Elliot do the same with his commission.
Because of his friendship with many captains of industry, one would suppose that Hope would be privy to many esoteric business deals. He and Crosby were partners in some lucrative oil wells a Texan sold them at a cut rate while they teed off on the back nine at Lakeside. Hope passed on a stock tip to me one afternoon after receiving another call from Texas. The stock ended up going into a dive that would rival Esther Williams’ entering a swimming pool. Whether he joined me in that bath, Rapid Robert never revealed.
One of his most admirable virtues was his loyalty to old friends from vaudeville, like Barney Dean, Jack Pepper and Monte Brice. Bob was always good for a helping hand and made Paramount put many of them on the corporate payroll.
That loyalty was most pronounced when it came to his writers. Over the decades, he employed dozens who served “Piggy,” as he was called behind his back because he never seemed to have enough jokes. But one of his talents was the ability to discover writers who wrote funny original material fast. Like Jack Benny, an artist Bob admired, when he discovered writers who met his demands of quality, he paid well and treated them with dignity-despite reports to the contrary-and freely, openly and often acknowledged their contributions to his success.
So it’s an even bet that right now, in paradise, he’s making deals with Mark Twain, Josh Billings, Oscar Wilde, S.J. Perelman and Goodman Ace to join Wilkie Mahoney, Milt Josefsberg, Jack Rose, Gig Henry, Norm Sullivan, Mel Frank and all those other brilliant humorists who preceded him to keep Bob hoping.
Hal Kanter met Bob Hope in 1943 while in the Air Corps and provided him with jokes, forming a friendship that lasted 60 years. Mr. Kanter wrote, directed and produced comedy for Mr. Hope in radio, films and TV. He remained on call to the end.