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December 18, 2014

When Comedy Met Combat

Bob Hope’s Christmas shows in Vietnam — stocked with G.I. jokes and sexy gals — were turned into annual specials that drew massive ratings. An excerpt from the new Hope biography by Richard Zoglin.

Bob Hope’s first USO tour to entertain the troops occurred nine months after the start of World War II. Here, on October 31, 1944, he put on a show at an airstrip in Munda, New Georgia, in the Solomon Islands.

When Bob Hope got approval to take his Christmas tour to South Vietnam in 1964, the official U.S. presence in the country was around 23,000 men. By the end of the war in 1973, some 2.7 million would have served there, leaving 58,000 dead, more than 300,000 wounded and the country bitterly divided over the conflict.

But as Hope prepped for his first trip in country, South Vietnam was simply another global hot spot where American troops needed a lift.

He assembled a large troupe of 75 cast and crew members, including five sexy females: red-haired movie starlet Jill St. John, Italian actress Anna Maria Alberghetti, Hope tour veterans Janis Paige and Anita Bryant, and the current Miss World, Ann Sydney. Comedian Jerry Colonna, another tour regular, was also back, along with Les Brown’s band.

The cargo also included nearly a ton of 30x40 inch poster board, which Barney McNulty would lug around from show to show and turn into Hope’s cue cards.

The troupe stopped first in Guam and the Philippines, then paid another visit (Hope’s fourth) to Korea.

A helicopter carrying some of the entertainers developed engine trouble and had to make a forced landing in a blizzard, forcing a show in Bupyeong to be delayed while another chopper was sent to rescue them. From frigid Korea they flew to sweltering Thailand, where they were invited to a formal dinner by the king and did shows at U.S. air bases in Udorn, Tahkhli and Ubon.

Then, on Christmas Eve, they flew into the combat zone of Vietnam.

Hope had never faced more danger. His arrival in South Vietnam was shrouded in secrecy “greater than that normally used to veil the movements of generals and cabinet officers,” UPI reported. His exact itinerary was kept under wraps until the last minute, and for each show a stage was set up in two different locations, to confuse the enemy and thwart any potential terrorist attacks.

Director Jack Shea was told that for every 5,000 men Hope entertained, another 5,000 were on alert outside the perimeter to protect them.

But when Hope made his first appearance at Bien Hoa Air Base — dressed in shirtsleeves, his tie loosened, wearing a baseball cap to shield his eyes from the sun and casually twirling a golf club (the first appearance of Hope’s favorite stage prop, two months before the first Bob Hope Desert Classic) — the response was tremendous.

“Hello, advisers,” Hope began, a sardonic reference to the euphemism for U.S. troops, who were officially there only to advise South Vietnamese forces. He recycled a favorite line he used when venturing into hostile territory: “As we flew in, they gave us a twenty-one-gun salute. Three of them were ours.”

He made jokes about the new kind of guerrilla war that was already confounding U.S. military planners: “I asked Secretary McNamara if we could come here. He said, ‘Why not? We’ve tried everything else.’”

Henry Cabot Lodge had just been replaced as U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam. “We’re on our way to Saigon, and I hope we do as well as Henry Cabot Lodge,” said Hope. “He got out.”

From Bien Hoa they were supposed to travel to Saigon, 20 miles away, in a convoy of armed personnel carriers, but at the last minute the road was deemed too dangerous, and they were flown instead to Tan Son Nhut Air Base, just north of the city, and driven in from there.

But as they inched their way through the clogged streets and neared the Caravelle Hotel, where Hope and the entertainers were to stay, they found a chaotic scene: billows of smoke, piles of rubble, people running, and sirens wailing.

Minutes before, a massive explosion had gone off in the Brinks Hotel, a billet for U.S. officers just a block away from the Caravelle. The blast killed two Americans and wounded another 63 people, both American and Vietnamese.

The shaken entertainers made their way to the hotel, where glass littered the lobby and the electricity was out. There was talk of canceling the tour. But after MPs searched the hotel for explosives and assured Hope they could provide security, he forged on.

“We had no electricity all the time we were there and no water,” recalled Butch Stone, Les Brown’s saxophonist. “We just had candles. And all the glass from the windows had been blown into our beds. So before we could get in bed, we had to turn the beds over to get the glass out.”

Ambassador Maxwell Taylor had invited Hope and the cast to his house for cocktails that night, and the ones who weren’t too shaken by the bombing showed up with Hope. Afterward Hope, Colonna and Brown were driven to a Navy hospital to visit servicemen who had been injured in the Brinks blast.

To end the trying day (and keep a promise he had made to his wife, Dolores), Hope went to midnight mass. For safety reasons, it had been moved from the downtown cathedral to a small hotel nearby, where the service was conducted in a cramped single room and a priest heard confessions in the hallway.

The troupe spent two more days in South Vietnam, doing shows in Vinh Longh, a small base in the Mekong Delta; Pleiku, in the central highlands; Nha Trang, the seaside headquarters of the Green Berets; and the air base at Da Nang.

The memory of their near-miss in Saigon dominated the trip. “Just as we got to town, a hotel went the other way,” Hope cracked. “If there are any Cong in the audience, remember: I already got my shots.”

They returned to Tan Son Nhut Air Base for a show in front of 10,000 soldiers, their largest audience of the tour, and got an official welcome from General William C. Westmoreland, the new chief of operations in Vietnam.

The living conditions were even rougher than usual for Hope’s traveling crew. In Pleiku, mirrors had to be specially brought in so the women could do their makeup.

Janis Paige recalled arriving at her “tiny room, with one Coke bottle of water — for your teeth, drinking, everything — and a twin bed covered with mosquito netting. When I got in, it was still warm and covered with sand. Somebody had just gotten out of it. I didn’t care. I got in and went to sleep.”

The entertainers were impressed by the beauty of the country — and startled by the extent of the U.S. presence there. “We supposedly had 30,000 men there,” said Jill St. John. “But I saw 30,000 men everywhere we went. It was clear we had been misinformed. It was a much bigger commitment than we had been told.”

After they returned home, St. John tried to speak out during a press conference: “I started complaining. Suddenly there was no microphone in front of me. It was just removed.” Nevertheless, St. John saw Hope’s mission, at least at that early stage of a war she later opposed, as beyond politics. “He was definitely not a hawk. He was thinking of the servicemen.”

Footage from Hope’s 23,000-mile tour was edited into a 90-minute NBC special that aired on January 15, 1965. An evocative mix of documentary and variety show, it featured most of the elements that would become familiar on his Vietnam specials.

Hope narrates as the cameras show his entertainers boarding and exiting military planes, being greeted by generals, visiting with wounded men in military hospitals. There are clips of his stage shows, recorded by four cameras — three focused on the stage and a fourth handheld camera roaming the audience.

The bug-eyed Colonna turns up in the crowd at each stop, dressed in a different costume or service uniform, for some back-and-forth with Hope. Each of the female guest stars gets a musical number and some comedy shtick with Hope, and they appear onstage together for some banter at the star’s expense:

“How’d he get you to go on this trip?”

“He asked me to go on a walk in the moonlight.”

“He threatened me, too.”

Anita Bryant closes the show by singing “Silent Night,” asking the men to join in — a sentimental climax that would be repeated on all of Hope’s Vietnam specials.

For his studio shows, Hope never wanted reaction shots of the audience; he felt they disrupted the timing of his gags.

But in Vietnam the reaction shots are constant — men applauding and laughing wildly, often shirtless, cigarettes dangling from their lips, iconic faces of the GIs Hope felt so close to. He pays tribute to them at the end, offering support for a military mission that was still considered noble and necessary:

“Even though they’re putting up a great fight against tremendous odds in this hide-and-seek war, they’re not about to give up, because they know if they walked out of this bamboo obstacle course, it would be like saying to the commies, ‘Come and get it.’ That’s why they’re layin’ their lives on the line every day.”

The NBC special chronicling Hope’s first Vietnam tour was seen in 24.5 million TV homes, according to Nielsen — the largest audience for any Hope show to date, and the fourth-most- watched special of the season.

Hope had enough outtakes from the tour to put together a second hour-long special, which aired in late March. He even released a record album, On the Road to Vietnam , featuring highlights from the trip — though its sales were disappointing.

A startling footnote to the trip came two years later. In March 1967, U.S. troops captured a cache of secret Viet Cong documents, which revealed that the Brinks Hotel blast had, in fact, been directed at Hope and his group, but had detonated 10 minutes too early.

“Shortly after the explosion, the cars of the Bob Hope entertainment group arrived,” the document recounted. “If the bomb exploded at the scheduled time, it might have killed an additional number of guests who came to see the entertainment…. Basically, the results were not satisfactory.”

Looking back at their close call, members of Hope’s troupe recalled that, on the day of the bombing, they were held up for 10 minutes at Tan Son Nhut Air Base because of Barney McNulty. The cue-card stand had collapsed during their first show, and McNulty was hastily trying to put the cards back in the proper order before boarding the plane.

McNulty’s 10-minute delay may have saved their lives.

Hope’s Christmas tours, and the TV shows that resulted from them, were enormous undertakings.

After the itinerary was set in the fall — by the Defense Department, in consultation with the USO and Hope’s people — two Hope advance men, associate producer Silvio Caranchini and soundman John Pawlek, would travel to scout the locations, set up production facilities, and gather local gossip and other tidbits for the writers to use in creating Hope’s monologues.

For the entertainers and the crew, the trips meant two weeks of rough accommodations, sporadic sleep and holidays away from the family. Jack Shea, who directed most of Hope’s Christmas shows in the late 1950s and early 1960s, reluctantly told Hope after the 1964 trip to Vietnam that he could do no more of them; he needed to stay home with his family at Christmas.

Hope was taken aback, then wistfully sympathetic: “I’m past that.” Mort Lachman, Hope’s most trusted writer, took on the added duties of directing the Vietnam specials after that.

Each trip produced more than 150,000 feet of film, which had to be boiled down to around 8,000 feet for the 90-minute special that would typically air on NBC in mid-January. That meant a two- or three-week siege of round-the-clock work, to wrestle the massive amount of material into shape.

“On January first I would take a 30-day leave of absence from NBC to edit the show,” said film editor Art Schneider, who worked on many of them.

“There was an enormous amount of film. It would be shipped to us, and we’d spend two 12-hour days looking at every single foot of film.

“Bob would be there, Mort [Lachman], Sil [Caranchini], eight editors and eight assistants. We used to edit at Universal. They would have cots for us to lie down and sleep. I don’t think we even left for several days at a time.

"They’d bring in all the food we wanted, anything to keep us happy. Money was not spared. There was a big placard in the editing room, white letters on a black background: ‘We traveled 34,000 miles to get these laughs. Don’t cut ‘em.’”

The Hope Christmas specials are irreplaceable documents of the Vietnam era. The sight of Hope entertaining vast oceans of men brought home more vividly than anything on the evening news the enormity of America’s commitment in Vietnam. The TV specials were patriotic, corny, inspiring, self- serving — and unmissable.

The show edited from Hope’s 1965 Vietnam tour, which aired on January 19, 1966, drew an Arbitron rating of 35.2, with a whopping 56 share of the viewing audience — the biggest audience for any TV show of the season, and the most watched Bob Hope show ever.

By his 1968 tour, some Vietnam fatigue appeared to have set in, for the war seemed to be downplayed a bit. Vietnam was just one stop in an itinerary that also took him to Japan and South Korea — where tensions had risen following North Korea’s seizure of a Navy spy ship, the USS Pueblo .

Hope’s Christmas shows were by now well-oiled productions, a mix of news documentary, patriotic rally, barracks humor and vaudeville show.

There were Hope’s formula jokes playing off the exotic places he visited (“Os-San — that’s Korean for ‘take it and stuff it’”); his lightly suggestive patter with the new Miss World or Miss USA (inevitable question: “What are your measurements?”); his acknowledgment of the vast crowds, always pointing out the men perched on telephone poles or watching from distant hilltops (“Are you on our side?”).

Hope would call up servicemen from the audience and read letters from home — and maybe plant a kiss on their forehead from Mom or a girlfriend.

He commiserated with their plight (“21,000 men, all dedicated to one purpose — to get to Bangkok”), brought them news from home and tugged at their heartstrings with the closing chorus of “Silent Night,” by now a Hope tradition.

“What a boon he is,” wrote Variety , “to the sinking spirits of the men who defend our way of life.” His special that aired January 16, 1969, drew a mammoth 38.5 Nielsen rating, yet another Hope record.

Hope’s 1969 Christmas tour was a departure in two ways. For the first time, it was a round-the-world trip, with stops in Berlin, Italy and Turkey before the usual series of shows in Thailand and Vietnam.

And for the first time, Hope and his troupe (which included perky pop singer Connie Stevens, Teresa Graves of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In , and the Golddiggers, the singing- dancing troupe from The Dean Martin Show ) got an official presidential send-off, with a formal dinner and performance at the White House — a sign that President Nixon was actively embracing the Hope tours as part of his campaign to rally Americans behind his war policies.

That tour, however, was most notorious for an incident that called into question just how in touch Hope really was with the troops he claimed to speak for.

At his first show in Vietnam, before 10,000 men of the First Infantry at Lai Khe — so near the fighting, said Hope, “we had to give the Vietcong half the tickets” — Hope told the troops he had just been at the White House and assured them President Nixon had “a plan to end the war.” He was greeted with boos.

The extent of the booing was disputed. The first reports called it a “barrage of boos.” Hope, along with his publicist and biographer William Robert Faith, who accompanied him on the tour, described it as only a “smattering.”

Richard Boyle, a war correspondent for Overseas Weekly , described a more threatening scene in an interview with Rolling Stone a few years later (though he recalled it as taking place at Long Binh, not Lai Khe):

“After about 15 minutes of Hope’s show, he was being drowned out by the boos. When the TV cameras panned the crowd, the GIs were standing up and giving the finger and making power salutes.

"Then the troops started throwing things and tried to rush the stage. They brought out about 54 MPs to guard the stage, and it was getting very menacing… pretty close to a riot. Hope, who was visibly shaken, had to stop the show and leave.”

Connie Stevens, who was there, confirmed that the booing was loud enough to drive Hope from the stage — and that he turned to her in distress. “I happened to be walking by the stage,” she said. “And he said, ‘Connie, come here,’ and he threw me out there.” She wrestled with the unruly crowd for a few minutes and only managed to settle them down when she began singing “Silent Night.”

Yet the boos, she claimed, were a reaction not to Hope, but to his invocation of Nixon and his supposed plan for ending the war: “They weren’t booing Bob. They were booing the idea that there was any help coming. The war had gone on too long. They were frustrated at what he was saying. They didn’t want to hear it.”

Yet the outburst clearly took Hope by surprise. “It threw Bob, because I don’t think he had ever experienced anything like that,” said Stevens. “And I think that was a rude awakening for him.” When the booing incident was reported, Hope was infuriated. “A few kids, about five, went ‘Boo!’ which they will do, you know?” he said. “If you say, ‘Second Lieutenant,’ they go ‘Boo!’”

Yet in an account of the episode in his 1974 memoir The Last Christmas Show , Hope conceded that he had problems with the crowd that day at Lai Khe, calling it “the coldest, most unresponsive audience my show had ever played to.”

He found out later that many of the soldiers “were in a state of shock” because they had come to the show directly after a fierce morning of fighting, in which many of their friends had been killed.

“It had been a wipeout day for a lot of them,” he said. “They had lost a lot of friends, and they had been rushed in from a firefight to catch my show. After a morning like that, who could expect them to be in a mood for laughing it up at my jokes?”

Whether overblown or not, the booing incident exposed an undercurrent of frustration among at least a portion of the servicemen Hope entertained. Some of their gripes were trivial: complaints about being shunted to the back rows, so that injured soldiers could be placed in front for the cameras. Some charged that entire units were ordered to attend Hope’s shows, whether they wanted to or not, to ensure huge crowds for TV.

Most of the soldiers looked forward to Hope’s appearances; they appreciated the gags, the girls, and the break from their grinding routine. Others were more cynical.

“Our response to him came out of fear and loneliness — convicts in a prison would have done the same thing,” said Ron Kovic, the author of Born on the Fourth of July , who served two tours of duty in Vietnam before suffering injuries that left him a paraplegic.

“I remember not wanting to go to the show, and the men who did go came back very cynical. People didn’t laugh at his jokes; the war wasn’t funny anymore, and a hundred Bob Hopes wouldn’t have made any difference.”

By1972, with the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam continuing and the Paris peace talks dragging on, few entertainers were going there anymore. The USO had only three clubs left open in South Vietnam, down from 12 at the war’s height. But Hope had to see it through to the bitter end.

In December 1972 he made one more trip to Vietnam, announcing in advance that it would be his last.

The tour began in the Aleutian Islands and included stops in Japan, South Korea and the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, with just one show in Vietnam, at Tan Son Nhut Air Base.

“We figured it would be all over when we got here this time,” Hope told the crowd. “But no luck. Not only did they fail to reach agreement in Paris, but now they’re fighting over the hotel bill.”

In fact, a breakdown in talks had prompted Nixon to launch another major round of bombing just after Hope left on his tour. At Utapau, a B-52 air base in Thailand where Hope had often entertained, many of the flyers were missing because they were on missions over North Vietnam. At least 15 aircraft from the base were lost.

Hope had an uncharacteristic diplomatic lapse on his last trip to Thailand, when he offended the locals by making jokes about the country’s food, crowded living conditions and no-holds-barred politics (which he compared to Thai kickboxing).

After newspaper editorials claimed that he had insulted the country, the American embassy had to do some fast damage control, trotting out Hope for a Christmas Eve press conference in which he said he meant no offense.

But overall, Hope got a warm reception. “Back in the States, a negative press was writing that Hope was booed by the troops because he had spoken out in favor of our military presence. In fact, he was cheered wildly wherever he went,” recalled Ray Siller, a writer who accompanied Hope on the tour.

Siller was impressed with Hope’s focus and stamina, even in the last days of his last Vietnam tour.

On the way back home, Hope ordered a last-minute stop at Wake Island, and Siller had to gin up a monologue for him on the plane. With no time to put the jokes on cue cards, he simply read them to Hope from his notepad as they were circling the runway at midnight. Hope listened to them once, then asked for a second read-through. A few minutes later he went onstage and delivered all the jokes flawlessly, from memory.

It was an emotional farewell for Hope. At the end of the special that aired on January 17, 1973, he paid one last tribute to the soldiers he had entertained in Vietnam for nine straight Christmases:

“Everywhere we witnessed the kindness and humanity of our GIs. They went out of their way to help the civilian population with their time, their money and their goodwill. I can tell you that they’re more concerned with building and healing than destroying.”

He read a long list of thank-yous — to his entertainers, his sponsors, the technical crew, President Nixon. “And especially to the millions of guys we played to in every latitude and every longitude around the world. Thank you for Christmases I’ll never forget. Good night.”

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