In May 1941, Bob Hope’s producer suggested the entertainer take his popular radio show on the road, to the troops at nearby March Field in southern California.
Reluctant at first, Hope eventually relented, a decision that would alter the course of his career.
For the next 50 years, Hope, a native of Cleveland, would entertain an estimated 11 million servicemen and women. In the summer of 1944 alone, he starred in 150 shows in the South Pacific.
“I was resisting an idea that would change my whole life,” he wrote later. “We had no idea we were going to encounter an audience that was so ready for laughter.”
“So Ready for Laughter” is the name of a new exhibit that opened last week at the National Veterans Memorial and Museum in Columbus. It focuses on Hope’s five decade-long career entertaining troops during wartime.
“He was a soldier’s entertainer,” said Lt. Gen. Michael Ferriter, the president and CEO of the museum. “He probably didn’t talk to the generals and admirals when he visited. You can sense that in 2 seconds. He wanted to get to the soldiers. He portrayed a real understanding of the day-to-day stuff they go through.”
The exhibit, on loan from the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, features artifacts, photos and video footage from Hope’s many years on the road, which started during World War II and extended through Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm.
Included in the exhibit:
* The script from his radio broadcast on Sept. 2, 1945, the day Japan surrendered, bringing an end to the war. “All of us together will have to learn how to reassemble our broken world into a pattern so firm and so fair that another great war cannot soon be possible,” he wrote.
* His suitcase, USO ID, and a diary from the summer of 1944, in which he recorded jokes, names of people he met and meals eaten. Also: souvenirs from fans, including knives and hats and shot glasses.
* An 11-minute film that talks about Hope’s commitment to the troops and his influence on entertainers who came after him, including Conan O’Brien, Tom Selleck, Brooke Shields and others.
Also included: a Nov. 27, 1944 letter from Mrs. A.A. Stumpf, who thanked Hope for bringing some joy to her son’s final days. The son saw Hope perform with Jerry Colonna, Frances Langford and Patty Thomas shortly before his death in the Battle of Peleliu.
She quoted him in her letter to Hope: “They really put on a show and I still can’t figure out why they would come to a weather-beaten hole like this. It was the most enjoyment we’ve had — in fact, it is the only one.”
The exhibit only briefly mentions Hope’s childhood in Cleveland — he and his family immigrated to Ohio from England in 1908 — and includes a photo of the family in front of their Cleveland home.
Rather, the gallery is tightly focused on Hope’s decades-long interactions with the troops.
Ferriter saw Hope perform in 1968 in Berlin, where his father was stationed in the Army. The most memorable part of the performance for Ferriter was not Hope, however, it was the kiss he received from actress Connie Stevens, who was on stage with the comedian.
It’s a small exhibit, easily seen in an hour. Use the rest of your time to tour the excellent permanent collection, filled with the inspiring, heart-wrenching stories of our nation’s veterans, covering a range of topics, from enlisting to combat to coming home.
The museum opened in late 2018, and recently celebrated its one-year anniversary. Ferriter said the museum welcomed about 75,000 visitors its first year, a number he hopes to double in 2020.
“So Ready for Laughter” is on display through April 17; it travels to the New-York Historical Society in May.
If you go: National Veterans Memorial and Museum
Where: 300 W. Broad St., Columbus, Ohio.
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday
How much: $17 adults, $15 seniors, $12 college students, $10 ages 5-17; veterans, active-duty military and Gold Star families, free
More information: nationalvmm.org, 1-888-987-6866
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