I can’t blame the airport officials who voted 8 to 1 last month to eliminate Bob Hope’s name and change the airfield’s label to “Hollywood Burbank Airport.” It was a business decision based on hard data. Hope’s name wasn’t resonating with passengers outside of Southern California, especially those east of the Colorado Rockies.
The airfield had been rechristened to honor Hope in 2003, not long after his death at the age of 100. Yet just a bit more than a decade later, the entertainment icon whose theme song was “Thanks for the Memory” is fading from ours at record speed. The comments on various news reports on the airport’s decision range from stunningly ignorant to disrespectful. Bob Hope deserves better. The culture will be stronger if it remembers him, and so will the nation.
I must admit, I didn’t see this coming, but I should have. The survival or disappearance of once famous figures from our cultural memory fascinates and often horrifies me. One of the definitions of culture is what a society chooses to remember and chooses to forget: these seemingly random decisions have significant long-term consequences. Occasionally there is a last-minute rescue: just as the Treasury was preparing to remove Alexander Hamilton from the ten-dollar bill, a Broadway musical, of all things, rescued his image and re-established his cultural presence. Usually, however, once a figure drops down the memory hole, he and the public appreciation of his importance is gone, gone, gone. Forever.
The mechanics of this process are chaotic. A single movie that enters classic territory and is featured regularly on television can rescue the memory of a whole career for generations. Ray Bolger, an eccentric dancer who was never regarded as close to Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly in the hierarchy of Hollywood hoofers nonetheless remains a recognizable figure today purely on the basis of “The Wizard of Oz.” Edward G. Robinson was a famous and respected actor mostly on the strength of his gangster films, but his memory survives almost entirely due to his strange ( and strangely miscast) role as the Hebrew villain in “The Ten Commandments.” Meanwhile, who remembers George Raft?
Hope, I now realize, despite one of the longest and most successful careers in show business history and epic stardom on radio, films, theater and T, despite being the most frequent and most successful MC for the Oscars telecast and while he was alive and regarded for 50 years as the undisputed champion of stand-up comics, has no such marker to keep his image and memory alive. Humor is famously dependent on the times and culture, and Hope’s humor and style were more so than most. He was not a physical or slapstick comedian, and his movies, with the exception of the best of his “Road” movies with Bing Crosby, were at best mildly funny. The later ones, like his films with Phyllis Diller and Lucille Ball, weren’t even that. By the 1960’s, Bob Hope’s reputation as an entertainment icon was so well-established that he didn’t really need to be funny; the fact that he was Bob Hope was enough. He was a living relic of vaudeville, radio comedy and traditional TV skits who never changed his delivery or mildly self-deprecatory yet cocky demeanor. But what was special about him? There’s little available on TV or elsewhere to let new generations in on the secret.
The honors should be a clue. The list is overwhelming.
Bob Hope was awarded over two thousand honors and awards, including 54 honorary doctorates. Providing him endless material for jokes, Hope was never nominated for an acting Oscar (he was one of the exceptions to the rule that great comedians tend to be good dramatic actors), but he was awarded a record five honorary awards by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
In 1963 President John F. Kennedy awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal for service to his country. President Lyndon Johnson bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Hope in 1969. In 1982, he received the S. Roger Horchow Award for Greatest Public Service by a Private Citizen. He was presented with the National Medal of Arts in 1995, and the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award in 1997. On June 10, 1980, he became the 64th and only civilian recipient of the United States Air Force Order of the Sword.
In addition to the now removed honor with the airport, buildings and facilities dedicated to Hope include the historic Fox Theater in downtown Stockton, California, the Bob Hope Gallery at the Library of Congress, and the USNS Bob Hope (T-AKR-300) of the U.S. Military Sealift Command, which was named after him in 1997. The United States Air Force named a C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft the Spirit of Bob Hope.
Hope was awarded the Sylvanus Thayer Award by the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1968. President Bill Clinton signed an act of Congress in 1997 naming him an “Honorary Veteran,” a unique honor no one had received before. You may notice that a lot of these honors relate to the military, and there is a reason for that. For nearly six decades, Hope traveled the globe to entertain America’s service men and women.
This dedication to the troops began in May, 1941 when Hope and a group of performers went to March Field, California, to do a radio show for airmen stationed there. Throughout World War II, with only two exceptions, all of his radio shows were performed and aired from military bases and installations either in the United States or combat areas in Europe and the South Pacific. Beginning in 1948, Hope spent every Christmas entertaining the troops abroad. He went to Germany at the request of then Secretary of the Air Force, Stuart Symington, to entertain the troops involved in the Berlin Airlift. He repeatedly entertained the troops in Vietnam. With the end of the Vietnam war nearing, Hope described his 1972 trip as his “last Christmas show”; after all, he was 69. It wasn’t. Each Christmas after that for decades, he was somewhere in the country doing a show at a military base or veterans hospital. In 1983, when Hope was 80, he brought his USO show to Beirut.
Four years later, Hope flew around the world to entertain servicemen and women in the Pacific, Atlantic, the Indian Ocean and in the Persian Gulf. When Bob Hope was 87, he embarked on a 1990 goodwill tour to entertain military personnel stationed in England, Russia, and Germany. Hope and his wife spent Christmas that year in Saudi Arabia entertaining the men and women of “Operation Desert Storm.”
Hope made many of these appearances at great personal risk, but never let that prevent him from bringing some home memories and levity to men and woman who might find themselves under fire the next day. My father, an officer during the war, testified to how much Hope’s visits boosted morale.
Writer John Steinbeck wrote of Hope’s USO shows in World War II —the author of “Of Mice and Men” was working as a war correspondent at the time (1943):
When the time for recognition of service to the nation in wartime comes to be considered, Bob Hope should be high on the list. This man drives himself and is driven. It is impossible to see how he can do so much, can cover so much ground, can work so hard, and can be so effective. He works month after month at a pace that would kill most people.
So, sure, Bob’s movies seem dated and his topical jokes are mild by today’s standards. His delivery was stiff compared to modern comics, and his humor was pretty corny. No entertainer, however, before or since, gave more back to the nation that made him rich and famous.
Bob Hope was a genuine hero, and when I see those comments from 25-year olds who would never dream of braving enemy fire themselves mocking this brave and patriotic man as a forgettable and irrelevant footnote of an earlier time, I feel that this culture is in trouble. America needs to remember and honor Bob Hope. It needs to permanently express its gratitude and respect.
He earned it.