I first laid eyes on Bob Hope in person when I was seventeen. He came to my hometown, San Francisco, in 1954 to promote his recently published book, Have Tux, Will Travel. A friend and I rode the streetcar from the fog-enshrouded Parkside District where we lived, through the Twin Peaks Tunnel, past the soon-to-be-infamous Castro District to Market Street. Within sight of the Bay and just a few blocks from the Ferry Building, one of the city’s largest department stores, The Emporium, stood grandly in the heart of downtown.
As we waited in the midst of the small crowd of expectant celebrity watchers that had gathered along the curb, our hearts beat like trip hammers — we were about to meet our first movie star! Since I had held the undisputed title of class clown at St. Gabriel Grammar School, it was no surprise that, just before I left the house, I grabbed a paperback copy of Bing Crosby’s autobiography, Call Me Lucky. I couldn’t wait to see Hope’s reaction when I asked him to autograph it instead of his own book.
Soon, a black stretch limo glided up to the store’s ornate entrance and out stepped the instantly-recognizable, matinee-idol-handsome, 52-year-old Hope. As everyone in the crowd applauded, whistled or cheered, he quickly combed back a still-generous shock of brown hair that had been suddenly rearranged by a gust from the Bay. “Where am I? Chicago?” Laughter joined the sound of passing traffic. He was funny in real life, too! As the star made his way through a path across the sidewalk that had parted for him like the Red Sea, we dutifully followed him to the book department. A special author’s table had been set up on a riser with stacks of Have Tux strategically stacked nearby.
A queue quickly formed and I got into it, my copy of Bing’s book clutched securely for action. Hope began signing, and, as he asked each person’s name, would add a little joke or comment — “O’Callahan. Jewish, huh?” — an accommodation that slowed the process, but one that presaged something in his nature that, years later, I would observe time and again: whenever he had the chance, he made fans and supporters feel that they were somehow special. It was the mark of a consummate salesman which, I would someday learn, he was.
I reached the head of the line and said, “Hi, Bob.” He nodded. Then, in that smart-alecky way only teens can handle just right, I said, “I can’t afford your book, but will this do?” He looked at the dog-eared paperback, held it up for the others in line to see — it had a picture of Bing with his pipe on the front — and tossed it straight up, where it hovered momentarily at mezzanine level and then fluttered to the floor like a wounded pheasant, landing beside a Hoover upright on sale in the adjoining housewares department. The crowd reacted just as I thought they would. My visual gag produced a spontaneous, genuine laugh. I had created my first comic routine for Bob Hope! I had no way of knowing then, of course, that some two decades later, he’d hire me to write thousands of them. There would be a few detours during my journey, but for a brief, fleeting moment I was in show business — and I liked it.
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When I grew up, the traditional path to happiness and riches included a college degree—for me it was San Francisco State University—followed, ideally, by graduate school—University of California, Hastings Law. A career in the law looked okay on paper, but eventually I realized I had less in common with Perry Mason than My Cousin Vinnie. I dragged myself to the office in Palo Alto (a suburb of San Francisco that would become the heart of Silicon Valley) for what gradually became a daily grind. Then, one day, while I was exploring the depths of my professional doldrums, the Comedy Fates suddenly and unexpectedly tilted their golden scepters in my direction. Some jokes I had submitted to a San Francisco radio disc jockey named Don Sherwood — stuff I’d jotted down while staring blankly out the courthouse window — landed me an introduction to his agent, Charles Stern.
Seeing something in my work, Stern pointed me in the general direction of Hollywood where dwelled a staff writer on The Carol Burnett Show named Gene Perret, a genial, kindhearted and generous man of my own age who soon became my mentor. Gene had been freelancing monologues for Bob Hope while working on Burnett and welcomed a little help that I was more than happy to provide. Ten years later, Gene and I would again work together when he joined Hope’s staff full time. Arriving in Burbank with my wife, Shelley, in December 1975, I would gain valuable experience on the staff of Dinah!, a 90-minute daytime talk show, and The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts before being inducted into the Hope comedy fraternity two years later.
* * * *
When I was born, Bob Hope was thirty-five and already a star who could boast a vaudeville career that dated back to 1924, a stint on Broadway in Roberta, seven short films beginning with Going Spanish in 1934 and a starring role with Jimmy Durante and Ethel Merman in Red, Hot and Blue!, which had been a highlight of the Great White Way’s 1937 season. When, forty years later almost to the day, Hope hired me to write for him, he had dominated the airwaves in radio and had starred in fifty-two movies. (The sudden death of Bing Crosby just two months later would scuttle plans for yet another, The Road to the Fountain of Youth.) Hope had been visiting America’s living rooms, first on kinescope and later on tape, for almost three decades. Yet, at the age of seventy-five, he was in many ways just hitting his stride and would, over the next fifteen years, produce and star in over eighty-five television specials, many of which would rank among his best.
When you signed on with Bob Hope, it was akin to entering an ancient, tradition-laden religious order where you agreed to forgo the temptations of the secular world in exchange for a life of unwavering loyalty, absolute obedience and, I have to admit, more thrills and excitement than anyone could possibly imagine. First, there was great professional satisfaction in being a “Hope writer.” In those days, a contract to write for him was considered gilt edged—the comedic equivalent of a degree from Harvard. As for the work itself, he might have been the pope and you a cardinal commissioned by the almighty to provide a never-ending supply of wit and drollery for delivery to the masses assembled in Vatican Square. Hope-staff-alumnus Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H, A Funny Thing Happenedon the Way to the Forum), quoted in the Museum of Broadcasting’s Bob Hope: A Half Century on Radio and Television, summed it up perfectly:
“Hope would never fire anybody. If he bought you, you were there. He knew pretty much you were going to stay. He got his help down to a science —people preparing him, massaging him, laying out his clothes. It was a little like preparing a bullfighter.”
The only difference being, the work was steadier. When a bullfighter dies, you’re out of a job. When Hope died, he kept coming back for more. When you were invited to take a seat at his comedy Round Table (to switch to a less religious metaphor), you were keenly aware that your name was being added to a venerable honor roll of humorists. Hope had employed more writers over a longer period than any performer in history and among the veterans of “Hope’s Army” (so labeled by the press) were Mort Lachman, Mel Shavelson, Larry Rhine, Sherwood Schwartz, Norman Panama, Jay Burton, Jack Douglas, Larry Marks, Si Rose, Mel Tolkin, Al Schwartz, Jack Rose, Les White, Johnny Rapp, Mel Frank, Bill Larkin, Hal Goodman, Marty Ragaway, Ray Siller, Hal Kanter and Milt Josefsberg. To a man, these veteran jokesmiths shared a common talent: the ability to put words into Hope’s mouth that appeared to have originated there.
Hope himself was the first to point out that having maintained a staff of the most able writers he could find contributed as much to his sustained popularity and prodigious body of work as the uncommon physical stamina with which he had been genetically gifted. The unique performer-writer symbiosis that developed between Hope and his comedic entourage was the first — and most likely will be the last — of its kind. What follows is an inside look at how Hope’s system operated — one that I hope will provide clues as to why it did for seventy years.
Excerpted from THE LAUGH MAKERS: A Behind-the-Scenes Tribute to Bob Hope's Incredible Gag Writers (c) Copyright 2009 by Robert L. Mills (All Rights Reserved)