Bob Hope Discovers Radio
A Match Made in Heaven
From Bob Hope's very beginnings in radio, product association played an indispensable part in his career. The first in a long list of products with which he would be associated over the years was Pepsodent toothpaste. Following glowing reviews in Paramount’s "Big Broadcast of 1938," the makers of Pepsodent offered Hope his own radio show to replace their sponsorship of the popular "Amos ‘n’ Andy Show." Hope had wanted to get into radio ever since his first appearance on Rudy Vallee’s "Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour" earned him $700 for a two-minute interview (a fortune in 1938). "This is my kind of business," he thought.
And prepare for it he did. Throughout the thirties, he appeared as a guest on radio shows including "Major Bowe's Capitol Family Hour," the "RKO Theater of the Air," the "Bromo-Seltzer Intimate Hour" and the "CBS White Flash Program" sponsored by the Atlantic Oil Refining Company. The offer from Pepsodent, which came as a result of his successful appearances on NBC’s "Woodbury Show" with Frank Parker and the Shep Fields Orchestra, was his first real opportunity to host his own program. He was off and running.
He assembled a crack staff of veteran radio writers that included Milt Josefsberg, Norman Sullivan, and Jack Douglas, an experienced announcer named Bill Goodwin, an orchestra leader, Skinnay Ennis — soon replaced by Les Brown — and a walrus-mustached, former trombonist named Jerry (“Greetings, Gate”) Colonna. Over the next few years, the cast would be joined by Patricia ("Honeychile") Wilder, the musical group Six Hits and a Miss, society debutantes Brenda and Cobina (Blanche Stewart and Elvia Allman), and Barbara Jo Allen as Vera Vague.
"The Pepsodent Show" debuted on September 27, 1938 and had all the earmarks of a hit. Unexpectedly, it got off to a rocky start. “We really had no idea what we were doing,” Hope admitted. He told us it took ten or twelve weeks of tinkering with the format before he was satisfied with the laughs he was getting from the studio audience, many of whom he personally corralled in the hall outside his studio as they emerged from "The Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show."
Radio was in its infancy. There was, as yet, no reliable method of measuring listenership. Later, the Hooper Ratings and the Crosleys, audience sampling systems similar to today’s Nielsen Media Research, would be used to set advertising rates. But when Hope began, the Hoopers were still a few years away, and while he was satisfied with the reactions of his studio audiences, he wondered how he and his on-air gang were doing in the hinterlands. Whenever he approached executives at the ad-agency that represented Pepsodent, all he seemed to get was, “Don’t worry about it, Bob. You’re doing fine. Just keep doing what you’ve been doing.” Somehow, he got the feeling they weren’t leveling with him.
One day, after the show had been on for almost a year, he was approached by a man on an exclusive country club golf course who had been playing in the foursome ahead of him. “Bob, I want to thank you,” said the man. Hope, thinking he was a fan, thanked him. “No,” continued the man. “I want to thank you for making me a millionaire.” Of course, Hope had no idea what he was talking about.
It seems the golfer had owned a small cardboard-box factory that serviced many clients — including Pepsodent. “About six months ago,” he explained, “Pepsodent doubled their orders, then a week later, tripled them. Eventually, I dropped my other customers and provided boxes for your sponsor exclusively. My company became so successful, I ended up selling it for a million dollars, thanks to you.” Hope was stunned. No one at Pepsodent’s ad agency had mentioned such a large increase in their product sales.
Completely by accident, Hope had stumbled onto an audience gage as accurate as the Hoopers would later become. Hope smiled wryly as he concluded his story. We all sat mesmerized. “Well?” one of us asked, “what did you do then?” “Let’s just say,” said Bob, “when contract renewal time came along, I negotiated one of the biggest god damned raises in the history of radio.”
The persuasive power of the mass media to sell products couldn’t have been driven home more forcefully, and Hope never forgot the lesson he learned from it.
Over the ensuing years, he would make sure that his name became aligned with major sponsors whose products he would hawk enthusiastically in countless TV commercials — a practice that, early-on, some Hollywood stars of Hope’s magnitude considered somehow degrading to their art. Later, of course, many of them would come around, lending their names to everything from beer to vacuum cleaners.
Along with Pepsodent, Hope’s name would be linked with Chrysler and, later still, with Texaco, a relationship that culminated in 1974 in a five-year television production deal that netted Hope $4 million, a record at the time. In 1979, he filmed commercials for Coca-Cola on the Great Wall of China. In the mid-1980s, he received $3 million from Southwestern Bell Telephone for a series of TV spots for their Silver Pages that took him just three days to film. He appeared in numerous locally produced commercials for California Federal Savings & Loan, in which he was a major stockholder. Fittingly, his final appearance on television, at age 95, was in a commercial for Kmart directed by Penny Marshall.
Excerpted from THE LAUGH MAKERS: A Behind-the-Scenes Tribute to Bob Hope's Incredible Gag Writers (c) 2009 by Robert L. Mills and published by Bear Manor Media: . The book was chosen by Leonard Maltin as a “Top 20 Year-End Pick“ for 2009. Order online at:
Reprinted in NOSTALGIA DIGEST (March 2010)
MODERN SENIOR LIVING (October 2010)