Bob Hope is nervous.
Hands in his pockets, his mouth moving as he goes over his lines, he paces up and down behind the doors of the Shoreham Hotel's Regency Room waiting to go on.
He peeks into the ballroom, packed with a couple thousand congressional wives and the first lady, just to get the feel of the crowd.
Finally, his name is announced, he pulls himself up and strides confidently into the spotlight.
"I've visited the House and Senate, and I came here today because I wanted to see the real power. I've never met Mrs. Carter before . . . I've never met Mr. Carter by the way. I think it's due to an oversight . . . mine. I forgot to take off my WIN button."
Laughter. Applause. His life's blood. And he's off, the familiar rapid-fire jokes coming one after the other, cajoling and teasing the audience. If one doesn't work, he picks up after it and moves quickly along until he hits again.
Joan Mondale is interested in art. She's going to do a portrait of her husband . . . from memory . . . the vice president travels so much . . . I've been trying to get into Wilbur Mills' car pool . . . I couldn't pass the physical . . . I know how busy you all are . . . you have to go to parties, entertain, make sure your husband's secretaries can type . . . it shocks me to learn Shirley Temple is 50 years old . . . its seems like only yesterday we were child stars together . . .
With almost 50 years of show business, with more fame and money than he could possibly use up in his life, he is still worried about the next joke, the next laugh, the next house he will play. He still talks to himself while he waits to go on, still thrives on the crowds.
Afterward walking out of the ballroom pleased with the audience's response, he snaps his fingers and says, "Damn, I forgot all the John Wayne jokes."
Bob Hope will be 75 years old next week. He's still a hoofer, a trooper in the best old-time sense of the word.
"There's nothing that makes me feel better than to perform," he says. "Like today, take the luncheon. I wanted to do something for this particular affair. I could have taken the easy way. I remember," he says, leaning forward intently, "I once asked Jack Benny a couple of years before he died what he was going to do for the summer.And he said, 'I'm going to London and rent a theater. I wanta sit on.' See, he wants to feel that audience. It's his therapy. It's my own therapy too," he says. "If I went in there today and did a fair job I wouldn't have been happy."
Outside the Shoreham, waiting for his car, Hope is besieged by admiring women from the luncheon, asking for photographs, or just giggling and staring at him. Not for a moment was he the blase star. Bob Hope stands beaming proud, as though it were the first time he'd ever been asked, signing away happily until the limousine arrives, then getting out when a woman knocks on the window and asks for a photo of them together.
Later, before lunch at the Madison Hotel, while posing for pictures, he begins mumbling again, talking to himself, humming, oblivious to the people around him. "It's a lie what they say about my age," he mutters. "I'm really 53. H & R Block found a loophole in my birth certificate."
Then he looks up and sees people watching. "I'm just rehearsing my jokes for the 75th Birthday Show at the Kennedy Center tomorrow night," he explains.
At 75 Bob Hope is easy, polite, charming in an old-fashioned sense. Somewhere along the line, if he ever had it he got rid of the hot-shot side of being a celebrity and just decided it was okay to be Hob Hope.
He asks for a menu at the Madison buffet, is told that it is a self-serve lunch. "Oh, good," he says, jumping up from the table, "I like that."
He also has more energy, looks and acts about 20 years younger than he is.
"I feel that way," he says. "I get out and do everything I want to do. I dance. And the exercise thing is important to me. At home I try to play golf at least two hours every day."
"When I'm in Palm Springs I play four hours. I don't know what I would do without golf. And I walk every night. I don't play golf like an old man. I play like an old woman. No." He laughs.
He's the kind of man who is more comfortable with male camaraderie than with female. He is shy about his emotions. Get him on anything serious and he will inevitably break it with a gag. He would definitely be uncomfortable talking about The Relationship.
He wears a delicate diamond and sapphire baby's ring on his left baby finger. He seems uneasy at first to talk about it. "Well," he laughs, "this'll make you cry." Then he goes serious. When he met his wife Delores she was packing to go to Florida. He went through her jewelry case and took the ring and put it on. He has never taken it off. "That," he says, "was in 1933."
Hope is another one of those people who, after several years of failure, became an overnight success. He remembers trying and failing, for five years on Broadway, in the '30s. "They had me acting like Jack Benny. It just died. It wasn't until I went to Hollywood to perform on the Hollywood Parade that I found my personality," he says. "I went with the fast one-liners. The I hired the best talent in the business, the best writers. That made the Pepsodent show a smash.
His personality then and his personality now are almost identical: The slightly self-deprecatory, penny-pinching ladies man was a winner. And it goes over today as well as it did in the old days.
He hasn't even gotten any more risque over the years, he says.
"I can't do that," says Hope, who is known to have one of the greatest private repertoires of dirty jokes. "I go into a theater and I see mothers coming in with their kids. I can't have them get up and walk out. You have to know where to draw the line. But you can't get too square either.People like some of the jokes to go a little over."
He does say, however, that the audience makes a difference. "I've been in clean-up position at the Friars Club (in Hollywood)," he says. "And that is some spot. I once followed 10 guys who had used every dirty word and position there is."
So was he clean? "No way," he laughs.
And he tells of another experience he had in 1942 with Bing Crosby when they were both invited to "this thing called 'The Cooking Club.' It's only for millionaires. Very exclusive. We said, 'What the hell is that? We went in, they gave us an apron, one of those big chef's hats and cigar. We thought it was going to be pretty square. Well, the first guy gets up and starts telling [dirty] rhymes . . . So Bing and I looked at each other and we said, 'Here we go.'" He laughs with delight. "Whew," he says, "that was one of the greatest nights we ever had."
He talks very little about Bing Crosby, but at the mention of his name he grows serious. He will say only that Bing's death had no effect on the way he has led life since and then he grows silent, changes the subject.
He will say that he made most of his money in the early days when he and Crosby invested in oil. "We were very successful" he says. "Then I bought a lot of real estate. But a lot of that stuff about my money is so overdone. Time magazine did a story in half-billion dollars" He repeats this done. Time magazine did a story in 1969 and reported that I was worth a half-billion dollars." He repeats this sum with disbelief. "A half a billion dollars! They didn't even check with me or my attorney. From then on my life was a circus. I only had to put on two more secretaries to answer my mail."
He likes t tell where he's played, what his schedule is and seems proud of the fact that he schlepps around from Valley Forge to the Music Fair to San Francisco Hebrew College to Boston University to Columbus, Ohio, to Carnegie Hall . . .
"I have to work up whole new acts for a lot of them," he says. "I enjoy doing that. You never want to settle back and say, 'That's it.' I work with my office in L.A., with my writers. Last night, for instance, they phoned in the stuff for the congressional wives' luncheon. Then I put it together. Then, this morning I wood-shedded (rehearsed) myself. Wrote out my note cards, one line to remind me of the joke. See," and he really turns on when he talks about this, "if you miss two or three key words, well, you're through."
Hope says he's never really bombed. "You don't bomb. And when you bomb on one joke you play with it, work it out with the audience, say something like, I'll never buy another joke from that writer.Sometimes you even deliberately bomb so that you can do a routine around it."
Like Johnny Carson?
He bristles slightly. "Oh," he says, "I've been doing that 20 years before Johnny Carson."
The old competitiveness rears its head. But when asked about competitiveness among other comedians, he will say, quickly, "That's one thing that doesn't bother me."
His favorite old-timer is Shecky Green, but "I really love this new boy, what's his name?"
"Yeah, Steve Martin. I really hope he continues. And I like Don Rickles. And," more quietly, of course, Carson."
"Comedians," says Hope, facetiously, "I think they're all outpatients. Even when they take the lampshades off their heads. No. They're the greatest. It's a great gift. We think you have to be born with it," he says seriously. Then, "You have to be born with your brain warped."
Still, he doesn't see himself as a particularly funny person, off the stage. "I hope I'm not," he says. "And I don't want to be in a position where I have to be funny. That's a chore."
And he also says that he doesn't worry about publicity, mainly, in his case, because, "In my years the pluses have outweighed the minuses.I probably read more of my notices than anybody I know. I believe it when people say they don't read them. You look at them, you analyze them. It helps you pace. You have to expect that there will be certain articles that don't flatter you. But you figure you've got to be doing something pretty close to right."
The worst "notices" he ever go, ironically, were not for his performances, but for the places he performed . . . with the USO troops in Vietnam. He still seems a bit confused by the bad publicity he got from continuing to perform for the troops in an unpopular war.
"I've always tried to stay out of politics," he says. "I remember when I was on the Pepsodent show FDR asked me to come back to do something for him. Albert Lasker, who was the board chairman, said to me, 'Listen, we sell Pepsodent to everybody. So keep quiet, will you.' But then I got kinda linked with Ike because of the golf thing. And then I got kinda linked up with Nixon. But I've been friends with every President since FDR. Then I got into this Vietnam trap. And people were saying I was supporting the war. That was silly. I was just doing the same thing I'd always done. Hell, I was looking at these kids in the hospitals. I'm more against war than anybody. But there was no reason for me to wind up working for the USO. I'd been working for them for 30 years. If there were another war, well, that would depend on whether it was serious, and they needed me. But if they did, I certainly would go. But I pray I won't have to."
Retirement, "No way," he says with vehemence.
And he lists his future projects with the same enthusiasm he did his series of performances.
"We're going to do 'Road to the Fountain,' and I'm playing Walter Winchell in the 'Walter Winchell' and co-producing it. Then I've got two more years left in my contract with NBC and if they don't renew my contract there are two other networks. Plus I've got my regular schedule.