Bob Hope was born Leslie Townes Hope, the son of stonemason William Henry Hope and Avis Townes Hope. The family emigrated from England to Cleveland, Ohio in 1908, when Leslie, the fifth of seven children, was not yet five years old. In Cleveland the family struggled financially, as they had in England, and Avis took in boarders to supplement William's erratic income. Avis, an amateur musician, taught singing to Leslie, an outgoing boy who entertained his family with singing, impersonations, and dancing. After dropping out of school at the age of sixteen, Leslie worked at a number of part-time jobs. He boxed for a short time under the name of “Packy East” but changed his name officially to Lester Hope. Lester's interest in entertainment and show business, cultivated by his mother, led him to take dancing lessons and seek employment as a variety stage entertainer. Not until he had achieved considerable success on the stage did he begin using the name, “Bob Hope.”
Bob Hope's first tours in vaudeville were as half of a two-man dancing team. The act appeared in “small time” vaudeville houses where ticket prices were as low as ten cents, and performances were “continuous,” with as many as six shows each day. Bob Hope, like most vaudeville performers, gained his professional training in these small time theaters.
Within five years of his start in vaudeville Bob Hope was in the “big time,” playing the expensive houses where the most popular acts played. In big time vaudeville there were only two shows performed each day—the theaters were called “two-a-days”—and tickets cost as much as $2.00 each. The pinnacle of the big time was New York City's Palace Theatre, where every vaudevillian aspired to perform. Bob Hope played the Palace in 1931 and in 1932.
Around this time, however, vaudeville's popularity began to fade, primarily as a result of competition from motion pictures and radio. In addition, audiences were becoming tired of vaudeville's formulas and often were hard pressed to purchase tickets because of the Depression. In 1932, New York's Palace Theatre changed from two-a-day performances to the less prestigious continuous shows, and then to films and shows. This marked the end of vaudeville's primacy.
Bob Hope's stature as a vaudeville headliner and comic master of ceremonies enabled him to make a transition from vaudeville to musical comedy. In the 1930s Hope starred in revues and musical comedies, made appearances on radio, and was featured in several motion picture comedy shorts.
After his success on stage in the musical Roberta (1933), Bob Hope was cast in two series of short films made between 1934 and 1936. Although they were moderately successful, they did not guarantee a major motion picture career for Hope. In 1937, when Hope had three radio series as well as musical theater experience behind him, he was cast as a cruise ship's master of ceremonies in The Big Broadcast of 1938. His role was fifth-billed but it featured Hope introducing the song "Thanks for the Memory." The song was an immediate hit and provided Hope with a professional boost and a career-long theme song. Paramount Studios signed Hope for additional films, and by the end of the 1940s, he was one of the country's highest-grossing motion picture stars.
Bob Hope's success in The Big Broadcast of 1938 and resultant starring film roles brought him the opportunity to team with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour in The Road to Singapore (1940). It is for this film and the subsequent series of Road pictures with Crosby and Lamour that Bob Hope is best known and still appreciated as a movie star. In each of the seven Road pictures made between 1940 and 1962, Hope and Crosby portrayed second-rate show business troupers who were also third-rate con men. The settings were always exotic locales, and the plots were burlesques of stock adventure melodramas. Much of the films' immediate and enduring popularity results from the chemistry between Hope and Crosby: their relaxed comfort with one another; their playful competitiveness; and the natural, improvisational feel to their repartee.
Bob Hope conquered the radio medium at nearly the same time as he found success in motion pictures. Hope was featured regularly in several radio series throughout the 1930s. His success in The Big Broadcast of 1938 brought him to The Pepsodent Show radio series, which aired for over ten years as a top-rated program. The Pepsodent Show enjoyed enormous success for many reasons. Hope, by 1938 a veteran entertainer, had established a very popular persona: brash, yet not too serious about himself, and a comic wiseacre who endeared himself to his audience by taking them into his confidence. The format of The Pepsodent Show was straightforward: a monolog by Hope, exchanges and skits with his regular cast and guest stars, and a concluding skit. The manic comic character of his Pepsodent sidekick, Jerry Colonna, was also a popular attraction on the show, but it was Bob Hope's opening monolog which rooted each week's installment.
The May 6, 1941, installment of Bob Hope's popular Pepsodent radio series aired from March Army Air Force Field in Riverside, California. This was the first remote broadcast of Hope's coast-to-coast radio program and became the first of hundreds of radio and television broadcasts Hope performed for the entertainment of U.S. soldiers. Broadcasting in front of a live audience of soldiers and gearing the subject matter of the monolog to the troops, Hope fashioned a very successful variant on the radio comedy variety format. World War II-era stateside radio audiences, as well as the troops, appreciated Hope's soldier-directed monologs, which provided home audiences with a special affinity with the soldiers' lives and their contributions to the country.
Prompted by patriotism, and perhaps vaudevillian wanderlust, Bob Hope kept touring for more than fifty years. Returning to his professional roots, he took his variety show on the road to entertain U.S. troops wherever those soldiers were stationed. Hope's variety shows for the troops included comedy monologs, specialty acts, celebrity appearances, dancers, singers, and skits. His mildly irreverent humor, teamed with his variety troupe's beautiful women, provided a welcome respite for the U.S. forces—a reminder, in Hope's words, “of what they were fighting for.” The fast pace, broad diversity, and informality of the overseas shows, with acts ranging in tone from brash to sentimental, gave U.S. fighting forces a supportive reminder of home, an essence of American life and values.
Hope's popularity extended beyond film, radio, and shows for U.S. troops—he was also an early pioneer of television broadcasting. Approached by NBC in 1949 to host his own show, the first Bob Hope television special aired the following year. Hope quickly conquered the new medium even as he maintained his popularity in film and radio.Hope outlasted other television comedians of the 1950s by broadcasting only about once a month, consistently booking each decade's hottest new stars to appear as guests on his comedy specials, and by taking camera crews around the world as he toured army bases and entertained the troops. Hope's comedy specials, military tours, and Christmas broadcasts brought sketch comedy and variety to the small screen and remained popular for nearly four decades.
Bob Hope's career in entertainment spanned three quarters of a century, and he continued to be active in television, at charity events, and on the golfing green well into his later years. In 1999, Hope donated his personal papers, radio and television programs, scripts, and his treasured Joke File to the Library of Congress and the people of the United States. Preserved at the Library is the full record of Bob Hope's extraordinary creativity, his unselfish contributions to his country, and the testimonials and thanks he has received from those whose lives he has enriched.
Hope passed away in 2003. He was 100 years old.