Remembering Bob Hope

hope and troops

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. Continue reading