Sunday, November 16, 2003

"Thanks for the memory..."

The announcement by Media Bay that the company had obtained permission from the Bob Hope Estate/Hope Enterprises to release the late comedian’s radio broadcasts on cassette and CD was greeted as wonderful news by many old-time radio fans (though in some quarters, the revulsion for Media Bay and its division, Radio Spirits, tempered that enthusiasm somewhat). Prior to this announcement, most of the Hope programs in circulation among OTR fans were limited to scattered network shows and a goodly portion of Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS) re-broadcasts. According to an account I saw on television, Bob was a genuine packrat, and saved volumes of mementos and souvenirs from his career, chiefly among them transcription discs of his old radio broadcasts.

Radio Spirits has released several collections of these broadcasts, and I purchased them mostly out of curiosity and for their novelty value. It's sad to report, though, that of all the comedy greats, I think Hope is the one whose radio shows have dated the worst, largely in part to the timeliness and topicality of his humor. His legendary, rapid-fire monologues, commenting on topical issues in the news have lost their spark and relevance—a criticism that has also been leveled at comedian Fred Allen and the reason why his programs receive a cold response from many OTR fans. (I, of course, would argue that Allen’s superior writing skills have helped him over that hump—but that’s just one man’s opinion.) Consider this brief example from an October 26, 1948 broadcast (which will be the subject of this review), in which Hope comments on the radio show giveaway craze:

BOB: Yeah, they’ll give away anything nowadays…the other night, Fibber McGee had to buy back Molly from a guy in Pittsburgh…I can’t understand why the government is cracking down on giveaways, though…after all, President Truman’s been on the road three months now trying to give away Congress…and one couple in Milwaukee won $26,000 worth of prizes and had to keep them all in their tiny apartment…the husband woke up one morning and said to his wife “Where are you, Honey?” She said, “I’m in the Bendix washer on top of a Hudson drying the baby in a Hoover vacuum cleaner…”

Radio writers would often receive gifts from ad agencies if a joke mentioned a certain product, usually in the form of free booze—so I have a suspicion that last joke turned somebody’s garage into a liquor store. The delicious irony is that during the broadcast, announcer Hy Averback promotes a “big, new contest” by Hope’s sponsor, Lever Brothers, that gives away brand new 1949 Mercury cars to those listeners who register by mailing in a wrapper from a cake of Swan Soap.

Like so many of his radio contemporaries, Bob Hope practiced and honed his comedic craft by toiling away on the vaudeville circuit. He made a successful leap to the Broadway stage in a production called Ballyhoo of 1932; later securing successful standout roles in Jerome Kern’s Roberta (1933) and Cole Porter’s 1936 musical Red, Hot and Blue (in which he appeared with Ethel Merman and Jimmy Durante). At the same time, Hope was making inroads into radio, appearing with Major Edward Bowes (of later Original Amateur Hour fame) on a serious concert music program (Hope was the comedy relief) called The Capitol Family Hour during his 1932 New York engagement at the Capitol Theater. He soon guest-starred on other programs, like Rudy Vallee’s Fleischmann Hour, and finally landed a regular radio gig over NBC Blue on January 4, 1935 with The Intimate Revue.

September 27, 1938 was an important date for Bob; he started his successful radio run with the program for which he is best-remembered: The Pepsodent Show Starring Bob Hope. Radio Spirits has this debut broadcast available on CD, and listening it is quite remarkable; Hope is somewhat nervous, but he feeds off that uneasiness and adrenaline at the same time. His cocky, swaggering, Milton Berle-like smartass personality has yet to emerge in full-bloom, and yet there are minute traces of the wise-guy persona to come. The basic elements of Bob's show are already in place--his announcer Bill Goodwin, who stayed with Hope until Burns and Allen hired him away in 1941; longtime stooge Jerry "Professor" Colonna who, more often than not, made Hope HIS straight man; and Skinnay Ennis, Hope's bandleader for many years until being replaced by Stan Kenton, Desi Arnaz, and finally Les Brown. The broadcast also establishes the use of “Thanks For the Memory” as Bob’s signature theme song—his rendition of the tune (a duet with Shirley Ross) had catapulted him to stardom in the Paramount feature film The Big Broadcast of 1938 and played a large part in the decision by Pepsodent to hire the comedian.

Hope also establishes early on what would be become his pride-and-joy on the program: his opening monologue. He established a precedent among radio comedians by hiring a virtual platoon of writers—sometimes as many as twelve would write jokes for the show. (Hearing that Bob was planning on bringing six writers with him on the road, Groucho Marx once quipped, “For Hope that’s practically ad-libbing.”) Bob also established a “preview” show for the Sunday night before his regular Tuesday broadcast in which he would test the writers’ material before an audience and then make careful notes as to which jokes scored. His monologue spit out jokes like a comedy Gatling Gun, but the detrimental consequence to all this was that the monologue had a rather mechanical feel to it; a sort of “laugh now, figure it out later” effect which is difficult to ignore when listening today.

It wasn’t long before Hope’s show scurried to the top of the ratings; the early 1940s saw Bob at the peak of his powers, and The Bob Hope Show (which followed Fibber McGee & Molly at 9:30 pm) became part of a powerhouse lineup on Tuesday nights for NBC (later joined by Amos ‘n’ Andy and The Red Skelton Program). His wartime shows were extremely popular, due in part to a discovery made by the comedian after a May 6, 1941 remote broadcast from March Field. The week after this show, Bob faced a demanding audience who wanted funnier material; realizing that he had a captive audience among the ranks of the military (who would laugh at anything) the comedian embarked on his now-legendary tour of camps, naval bases and hospitals with his cast (Colonna, Ennis and singer Francis Langford) in tow. For his efforts, he was showered with more than 100 awards and commendations, cementing his reputation as America’s wartime good-will ambassador.

After the war—and particularly during the 1947-48 season—Hope began to receive flack from both critics and audiences that his show had become stale and old-hat, and his ratings began to dip as a result. The following season, Bob shook things up a bit by dropping both Colonna (who would later return) and Barbara Jo Allen—Vera Vague as she was better-known, a man-crazy old maid character who achieved great popularity on the Hope program beginning in 1943—and added a new bandleader in Les Brown (and his Band of Renown) and a young female vocalist by the name of Doris Day:

BOB: You know, I was thinking about those musicals you make over at Warner Brothers…it’s too bad they haven’t got a good looking fellow to sing with you.
DORIS: But Bob…I just finished a picture with Dennis Morgan…
BOB: Dennis Morgan…you mean Jack Carson’s mother?

The picture Doris finished was, by the way, It’s a Great Feeling (1949), and her pleasant, bubbly personality was a welcome addition to the Hope program. In this October 26, 1948 broadcast, she plays straight-woman to Bob (she once commented that the one thing she learned from Hope was not to step on his punch-lines):

DORIS: Come on, Bob, you know you love working over at Paramount
BOB: Oh, I don’t know…pictures are all right, but they’re so make-believe…it’s a shame the way they fool the public…
BOB: Well, for instance, everybody thinks Gary Cooper is a tall man…that’s because they always give him something to stand on before they shoot a scene…
DORIS: Well, he certainly does look tall in pictures…what does he stand on?
BOB: Crosby…(after he gets a wild audience reaction, he ad-libs) and that’s quite a lump, you know…Humphrey Bogart, there’s another fake…
DORIS: Humphrey Bogart?
BOB: Yeah, you know what a rough mug he’s supposed to be? You see him in a picture and he says, “Stick ‘em up with your hands, you rat, or I’ll drill ya…I’m the toughest guy in town…”
DORIS: Well, isn’t he tough?
BOB: Doris…Lauren Bacall told me that when he comes home at night she has to rub him with alcohol before he can mash the potatoes…

Bob also added comic actress Irene Ryan to his cast; in an old maid character similar to that of the departed Vera Vague (though Ryan had essayed a similar role on radio's The Jack Carson Show). Devoted couch potatoes know, of course, that Irene later achieved television immortality as Granny Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies:

DORIS: Miss Ryan, I was telling Bob how much you enjoyed your trip through Paramount
IRENE: Oh yes, Mr. Hope…and I know it sounds kind of silly…but I sort of fell in love with one of those young, good-looking leading men over there…
BOB: Ray Milland?
IRENE: No, Barry Fitzgerald…he’s got such pretty blue eyes…every time he looked at me, I could feel the corners curl on my mustard plaster…
DORIS: Well, did you get acquainted with Barry Fitzgerald?
IRENE: Well, I tried to…I wanted him to know that I’ve seen him in pictures…so I walked up and said “Going My Way?” And he said, “Yes…eventually…but I have to take two more harp lessons…”
BOB: Well, the next time I see Barry I’ll put in a good word for you…
IRENE: Oh thank you, Mr. Hope, but…say, do you think that he’d like me any better if I dressed real girlish? You know, with a peasant blouse and a sweater?
BOB: Miss Ryan…aren’t you trying to flag down the Super Chief with a burnt match?

The guests for Hope’s October 26, 1948 broadcast are Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and it’s interesting to hear the comic duo perform in what was no doubt one of their first appearances on radio. Dean manages to warble “Everybody Loves Somebody” despite the presence of a cold, and the two of them are more than up to the challenge of matching wits with comedy veteran Hope:

BOB: You know, I just caught your act, fellas, and I thought you were great…say Dean, you know when you sing you sound just like Crosby?
DEAN: Well…I’ve been sick…
JERRY: Hey, you think Dean can sing, huh…I can sing better than that with both adenoids tied behind my back…
BOB: Please, boy…who’d you ever sing with?
JERRY: Who’d I ever sing with? Are you for real?
BOB (to the audience): He’s asking me…? (After he gets the response, he ad-libs to Lewis) Go ahead, quick frozen, read, go ahead…tell me, who’d you ever sing with…?
JERRY: Well…Kate Smith, just to name a few…

The trio of Hope, Martin & Lewis then sing “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover,” which prompts Hope to crack “This kid [Jerry] sounds like Jeanette McDonald with a half-Nelson on Eddy.” (Jerry gets in a great gag as well when he threatens Bob: “I’d punch you right in the nose if I wasn’t afraid your nose would punch me back.”) Less than two months later, Dean & Jerry would do an audition record for their own starring program (The Martin & Lewis Show) that premiered April 3, 1949. It lasted less than a year, and many felt the reason for this was that a lot of the visual comedy that Lewis specialized in was lost in the translation on radio. But with the team’s subsequent success in television and movies, they returned to NBC in October 1951 for two more seasons, ending July 14, 1953.

Bob Hope’s passing in July of this year rang down the curtain on an amazing career that breathlessly encompassed stage, screen, radio, and television. Of his radio work available today, it is sad that it doesn’t hold up as well as I would like—though some of his shows from the 1950s era are amusing; by that time he had switched formats again to more of a Jack Benny-style situation comedy. While I would strenuously argue that Bob Hope’s legacy remains his work in movies (like The Ghost Breakers [1940] and Son of Paleface [1952]), I like listening to Hope’s broadcasts; their value as curios give me a glimpse into the past of what it was like to gather around the radio and listen as a master comedian convulsed audiences week-after-week during the Golden Age of Radio.

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