LUCY & BOB HOPE
Whenever the kings and queens of comedy are discussed, the names Bob Hope and Lucille Ball are among the first to be mentioned. How fortunate the world has been the past sixty-some years to have experienced the talents of these two comedic giants--often in the same show. The duo made four motion pictures together; she appeared on over a dozen of his television programs, including his third TV special ever, in September, 1950; he appeared on four of hers, five if you count the 1976 CBS Salutes Lucy retrospective. Together they guest-starred on countless musical, comedy, variety, talk and award shows.
"These two have worked together so often," said Gary Morton in early 1988, "that they know each other's timing even before they get to rehearsals. It's a pleasure for the audience to see them together. We are constantly on the lookout for projects for them to do."
Later that spring, on Bob's 85th Birthday special, Lucy gave what would be her final television performance (as opposed to appearance), in a lavish song-and-dance number called "Comedy Ain't No Joke." Dressed in tuxedo jacket and black leotards, Lucy pranced around the stage with eight young "gypsies," paying tribute to the art-form she loved best. Sample lyric, set to music by Broadway's Cy Coleman:Comedy is the noblest profession,
Comedy is the truth.
Comedy is a slap on the knee
And the key to perpetual youth...
It is banishing ev'ryone's blues.
It is praying and paying your dues.
When you talk about hard work...
And talent and scope...
Comedy... is Bob Hope"
Lucy and Bob Hope were more than occasional co-stars, they were close personal friends. "I first got to know Bob during the War," Lucy recalled during rehearsals for the Birthday special. "He was such a role model for all of us." Indeed, Bob's devotion over the years to entertaining the military earned him the title, "Mr. USO," and made him one of the world's most beloved entertainers.
Ironically, this symbol of American show-business was not born in the United States, but in Eltham, England, on May 30, 1903. Christened Leslie Townes Hope, he was one of eight children of a stone mason. Times were tough, and in 1908, the Hope family immigrated to Cleveland, Ohio, where Bob's uncles had established plumbing and steamfitting businesses. Bob started clowning around the house at age four and was enchanted by the vaudeville shows he attended with his mother at the nearby Keith Theatre on 105th street. "One time we went to see a great comedian named Frank Fay," Bob recalled later. "In the middle of his act, my mother said in a loud voice that you could hear in the balcony, 'He's not half as good as you!' Everybody looked around, and I actually slid off my seat."
Like Lucy, Bob dropped out of high school (a choice they both later regretted) to seek fame and fortune. Bob was smitten with the idea of becoming an entertainer (he'd already won a local Chaplin contest), but to make ends meet, entered amateur prizefights as "Packy East." That phase of his career was mercifully short, and he soon found work as a dancer. Teamed with various partners over the next couple of years, Hope made a name for himself on the Kieth Western Circuit, playing vaudeville houses throughout the midwest. By 1928, he had worked comedy routines into his act, and, in 1929, Bob made his debut on Kieth's Orpheum Circuit (the "big time"). Four years later, he accomplished every vaudevillian's dream, appearing on the bill at New York's legendary Palace Theatre ("Heaven on 47th Street"). Vaudeville, alas, was on its last legs, and the show that included Bob's act was the last that the Palace would present for many seasons. Before the show closed, however, Bob was spotted by producer Max Gordon, who signed him for a leading role in his new Broadway production, "Roberta," with music by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach. (Also to be in the cast were British star Fay Templeton, exotic singer Tamara, Ray Middleton, George Murphy, Fred MacMurray, Sydney Greenstreet, Imogene Coca, and a young drummer named Gene Krupa.)
At Christmastime that year Bob, George Murphy and some friends went out after the show for a drink at a nearby nightclub. A young songstress named Dolores Reade was working there, and between sets she and Bob were introduced. The two "hit it off," and within a couple of months had decided to marry.
The year 1935 brought Hope a "Ziegfeld Follies" assignment with Fanny Brice, and 1936 found him headlined with Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante in "Red, Hot and Blue," a Cole Porter musical that, incidentally, also featured a very funny young lady named Vivian Vance. (Photo right: Hope with Ethel Merman).
In May, 1937, Bob launched his still-on-going association with the National Broadcasting Company by hosting the Rippling Rhythm Revue, a Sunday-evening radio show. The following month Paramount Pictures offered him a role in its feature, "The Big Broadcast of 1938." Broadway's loss was Hollywood's gain, and for the next few years Bob delighted movie audiences with such films as "Thanks for the Memory," "The Cat and the Canary," "The Ghost Breakers," and a series of pictures with Bing Crosby that started with "The Road to Singapore." In 1941, the war came.
"Bob actually started entertaining the troops stationed on bases here in California a good six months before Pearl Harbor," Lucy recalled. "But it was not until later that he asked me to be on one of his shows. Actually, Desi appeared on the same bill with Bob before I did." Arnaz and Hope were part of the Hollywood Victory Caravan; a couple dozen stars rode around the country in a special train, entertaining in major cities to raise money for the Army and Navy Relief funds.
Between 1941 and 1946, Bob devoted most of his weekly radio shows to broadcasts from military bases from around the country. Desi was drafted into the army, and, because of his show business experience, was stationed at Birmingham Hospital in Southern California and put in charge of entertaining wounded fighting men returning from battle in the South Pacific. Lucy helped out by enlisting fellow performers from MGM to lend their talents to Desi's shows. In 1943, she took part in the Hollywood Bond Cavalcade, which, like the Victory Caravan, was a trainload of celebrities that criss-crossed the country, this time for a massive bond-selling campaign. "We all did whatever we could for the war effort," Lucy recalled.
When the fighting ended, Desi formed an orchestra and started touring the county. Lucy's career kept her in Hollywood, where she started looking for a niche for her husband. When the press reported that NBC had asked Bob to come up with a new "peacetime" format for his radio show, ideas started popping in Lucy's brain. She called Bob and asked him to consider hiring Desi and his band for the show. Bob more than considered it, he hired the group, and Desi spent the 1946-47 season learning radio from the top. "Now I was going to the best college anyone could find," Desi later wrote in his autobiography. "to learn the art of comedy as taught by its leading professor, Mr. Robert Hope, the master showman."
Lucy guest-starred on two of Bob's broadcasts that year, including one that originated in Detroit, Michigan.
Bob's motion picture career, meanwhile, continued to flourish. In 1947, he did a Western-comedy for Paramount entitled "The Paleface." "It proved so big at the box office," Hope recalled later, "that I got to pick the co-star for my next picture. I chose Lucy."
The film was "Sorrowful Jones," an adult-focused remake of Shirley Temple's "Little Miss Marker," based on a story by Damon Runyon. Lucy played a nightclub singer who has an on-again, off-again relationship with shady bookmaker Hope. The film was such a hit that Paramount immediately reteamed the stars in another: "Fancy Pants."(See photo, left)
In this one," Bob recalled, "I played an English butler and she a rich frontier girl. I got stepped on by a real horse and thrown by a mechanical one, which laid m up with a bad back. Still, I thought making pictures with Lucy could be a pleasant long- term habit. Then a little thing called television got in the way."
Bob's video career started Easter Sunday of 1950 at NBC. I Love Lucy started eighteen months later on CBS. There was a high degree of competition between the networks in those days, and both frowned on its stars appearing on the other network's programs.
Finally, in 1956, Lucy and Bob arranged a "swap." He would appear on an episode of Lucy, and she (with Desi, Viv and Bill en tow) would guest on a Bob Hope Special. The Lucy segment was the often-repeated "Lucy Meets Bob Hope," in which Lucy Ricardo tracks down Hope at the ballpark in order to convince him to appear at her husband's new Club Babalu.
For The Bob Hope Show, the Ricardos' apartment was recreated on an NBC soundstage, and, in a sketch, Bob mused what the Lucy show would have been like had he played Ricky Ricardo. Viv and Desi played Lucy and Bob's landlords, and Bill Frawley played yet another neighbor in the apartment building.
In 1960, after the Arnaz marriage dissolved, Lucy was sent a script for a film entitled "The Facts of Life." The plot concerned two middle-aged married friends who, bored with their lives, decide to run off together. Their romantic tryst proves disastrous, however, and both return to their original spouses.
"Who do you see as the male lead?" Lucy asked.
"Bob Hope," the producer replied.
"Fine. If you can get him, I'll do it."
Lucy not only co-starred in the film, her Desilu company put up part of the financing and provided production facilities.
"As we prepared for a kissing scene," Bob recalled later, "I broke Lucy up by telling her this would be the first time I had ever kissed a studio boss--face to face."
Hope and Ball agreed they had to submerge both their own personalities and their television persona if the serio-comic film was going to succeed. "I remember how concerned she was lest she slip back into her television character," Bob recalled. "After every take she'd rush over to the director and ask, 'Was I Lucy? Was I Lucy?'"
As writer William Robert Faith reported, "Almost without exception, the critics found the picture 'a cut above' what either of the two comedians had been doing lately, and it was a box-office winner."
Such was not the case with a film they made in 1963, "Critic's Choice," based on a Broadway play of the same name.
Undaunted, the stars teamed up later that year, for yet another Broadway adaptation, this one for television. The special aired in April, 1964, as The Lucille Ball Comedy Hour. (See separate story for details).
That fall, Lucy and Bob arranged another set of "guest swaps" on each other's shows, only this time the trade-off called for minute-long "cameo" appearances. Hope appeared at the very end of an episode of The Lucy Show in which Jack Benny guest-starred as Lucy's musical plumber, Harry Tuttle, a man whose career as a concert violinist had been thwarted by this physical resemblance to Jack Benny. The punchline was that Harry's assistant looked just like Bob Hope (see photo, right).
Bob, meanwhile, had started a weekly Chrysler Theatre series in which his monthy comedy specials were interspersed among filmed comedy and drama programs. In one of the filmed comedies, Hope played a matchmaker out West, the procurer of mail-order-brides. Throughout the show, the brides arriving from the east were played by big name guest stars. Finally at the end of the hour, Bob decides to order a bride for himself, and who steps out of the stagecoach but our favorite redhead.
Throughout the following twenty-five years, Lucy and Bob appeared together whenever possible. Once her weekly series ended in 1974, she made almost annual visits to his specials, and when she did a 90-minute spectacular for NBC of her own in 1979, Bob was the first star signed. "It was pure joy working with her," Bob recalled. "The only problem was getting the audience to quiet down when she appeared on stage."
On March 29, 1989, Lucy and Bob were co-presenters on the 61st Annual Academy Awards. "We walked out onto the stage," Bob recalled, "and the audience at the Shrine Auditorium rose to its feet. What an ovation! Lucy stood there beside me, beaming in her black and gold gown. Gently, she squeezed my hand, as if to say, 'Look...we've still got it.'
"That's my last memory of her. We introduced one of the show numbers, I gave her a kiss, and she was off with Gary to join friends for dinner. I never saw her again. When I heard of her death a few weeks later, it was a sad shock. And yet, feeling sad about Lucy is almost a contradiction of terms, isn't it? She brought such joy into the world, and left such an enduring legacy of laughter for all of us. Thank you, Lucy...Thanks for the memories, and so much more."
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