I'm a neophyte reporter assigned to the Byron Nelson Golf Classic in Dallas, where the big event of the day is the arrival of Bob Hope. I birddog him all day long as he makes speeches, plays a round with the mayor, and gives an impromptu performance in the country club locker room where, among other things, he tells a Polish joke.
I then have the following conversation with my Bolshevik managing editor:
"So what's this you mention in the piece about an ethnic joke?"
"It was a Polish joke."
"Bob Hope told a Polish joke? Was it an ethnic slur?"
"No, it was just a Polish joke."
"What was the joke?"
"I'm not going to tell you, because I can already see where this is going. It was harmless."
"Are you deciding what's news?"
"I'm the eyewitness you hired to be there, and I'm deciding it was harmless. Take it out of context and you're turning locker room humor into some assault on a European race." "I want you to print the joke."
"No, I don't want to print the joke."
"What possible stake could you have in protecting Bob Hope?" "I'm not protecting Bob Hope. I already put in the article that he told an ethnic joke. You're wanting me to blow that up into something it was not."
The editor changed the word "ethnic" to "Polish." I waited two weeks, until he was relaxed and nursing a cocktail, then screamed at him and ruined his day.
Bob Hope told Polish jokes, Jewish jokes, Italian jokes, black jokes, Irish jokes, and every other kind of ethnic joke, and he frequently used one of H.L. Mencken's colorful slang terms for the butt of the ethnic humor. (What I didn't tell the editor is that it was actually a "Polock" joke, not a Polish joke.)
But for those of us who knew his whole career, there was a reason for this: the man was an ENCYCLOPEDIA OF JOKES. He would tell ANY joke. Every ethnic joke he told was balanced out by a joke about people who tell ethnic jokes. There was no kind of joke he didn't tell, and so my defense of him was based on the sheer catholicity of his humor. Besides which, he tailored his humor for his audience -- the locker room joke was for a private group -- and he was always telling jokes that were written by other people.
There are very few comedians left who use other people's material. It's not considered cool today. And that's a shame, because Bob Hope was the perfect vehicle for a stable of writers who would themselves be TERRIBLE if they tried to tell the same joke. His talent was the timing and delivery, and he could do it so that it seemed effortless -- even though, if you were to write out the joke, you would see that it was always technically superb, with not a single extraneous word and never an "an" or "the" out of place.
At the time, I was so enamored of the man that I sought out his press agent -- I remember him as an elegant man, dressed in the style once called "snappy" -- and I passed him a little slip of paper and said, "Here, it's a joke for Mr. Hope."
"You're a joke writer?"
"Not really. I just wanted to write a joke for Bob Hope. See if he likes it."
"You want money for this joke?"
"No, no money. Just, well, it would be an honor if I could say I wrote a joke for Bob Hope."
I really did say that.
He looked me up and down. "Well, you're a fine young man.
I'll see that he gets it."
And later that night he told my joke. The press agent sought me out the next day and said, "Bob wanted me to personally thank you for the joke."
So I never met him, but I never got anything in professional compensation that compared to that moment.
Second Bob Hope story:
Years later I'm driving in rural Tennessee, and I'm listening to a local station -- I want to say it was the station in Cleveland, Tenn. Who should come on the program but . . . Bob Hope.
Now. I don't mean he came on via a satellite feed or a network hookup. I mean he picked up the phone wherever he was and called this tiny radio station in the middle of nowhere to talk about one of his upcoming TV specials. He called the host by name, mentioned that he'd talked to him before, even recalled the other times they'd met -- what kind of card catalog did this man have! -- and was cordial and unhurried and funny. Do you know what it would take today to get any leading national comedian to call a rural radio station in Tennessee? Do you know how many thousands of radio stations there are in America? It's JUST NOT DONE.
But he came from that era, when entertainers talked to people. All people. Everyone. And they always remembered, and they always sent out Christmas cards, and they always gave you the interview if you'd done anything at all to support them in the course of their careers. No doubt he had a staff that did nothing but keep track of people in all the farflung parts of the world where he'd met someone who was nice to him.
Third Bob Hope story:
Not too long ago I was traveling by train and had to stop for a day in Elkhart, Ind. Elkhart has never been a major stop for the train, and the quaint little station reflects that.
The waiting room is barely the size of a couple of bedrooms, with wooden church pews for seating. And on the wall they have a letter from Bob Hope.
Apparently they renovated the station in 1997, and they asked Bob Hope to be there for the ceremonies. He couldn't attend, but he sent a long letter reminiscing about his visits to Elkhart and the great times he and Dolores had while traveling on the old New York Central overnight express between New York and Chicago.
The letter is personal, contains facts that are specific to the occasion, and is typed with an old-fashioned typewriter on engraved stationery. He had to be at least 94 when he sent it.
Many performers do things like this in order to keep up their public image. But I don't know any 94-year-old performers who do this. What was in it for him? He could have saved thousands a year by getting rid of whatever staff he maintained for things like writing perfectly executed letters to historic restoration committees in Elkhart, Ind.
What the letter said to me was that he really did have fond memories of Elkhart. He had fond memories of everyone and everything.
I like to think he had fond memories of my joke. It went like this:
I love Texas. Big hats on the men and big hair on the women. Even the golf courses are big. I lost my ball three times today, and I was putting.
OK, I admit it, not that funny. The point is, when Bob Hope said it, it was hysterical.
John Bloom writes a number of columns for UPI and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his Web site at joebobbriggs.com. Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.