What About Bob?

What About Bob?

James Lipton responds to his faithful fans and recalls the great Bob Hope.

Happy Thanksgiving! I'm back -- greatly encouraged by your responses to my first two blogs.

In my second blog I expressed my surprise at both the level of interest and acumen of the correspondents who took the time and trouble to weigh in on our Web site. Blogging, I've discovered, is like finding rooms full of friends you didn't know you had.

Thanks, Judith, for your shared admiration of Dickens. And, 1hotgranma, the "OTHER James Lipton" you found in the Bob Hope writing credits doesn't exist. Which is to say, I am that James Lipton -- a product of twelve astonishing years during which I was Executive Producer and one of the writers of Bob's Birthday Special, which took me on a magic carpet ride with Bob to the White House (twice!), all around America, London, Paris, and the Great Wall of China, where I produced the first American entertainment show, "The Road to China," a three-hour special on NBC.

You'll find all the details -- and some startling photographs -- of those unforgettable adventures in my book Inside Inside: But for now, 1hotgranma, and for all the other kind bloggers like Nan and Frank (FYI, Frank, my wife is left-handed , and I once wrote an essay on left-handedness in the "On Language" column of The New York Times), and Vivvy and Bella and all the rest of you, I'd like to include in this blog an excerpt from Inside Inside that describes the magic of those Bob Hope years. In the book, I explain that Bob, like most of the comedians who have come to Inside the Actors Studio's stage, is a night person. In his case, our meetings usually began at eight in the evening, and ended at midnight, at which point Bob was just getting warmed up. So the meeting always ended with "Let's go for a walk."

Whether we walked in Beijing, London, Paris or New York, what occurred was for me a matchless experience, because at that hour of the night, Bob was completely uninhibited -- and much franker than I have ever been able to be. It was my job to listen -- and learn, and here is an account in the book of what happened on one of those occasions:

Of all our walks and talks, the one that stands out took as its setting the deserted streets of Palm Springs, under a canopy of stars so thick and lustrous they looked as if they might collapse and smother us in diamonds. Bob had examined all the shop windows that interested him, and it appeared we'd run out of conversation as well, but Bob wasn't ready to call it a night. Casting about for topics, we came up with the hoary filler: If you could live in any other time and place than this, what would it be?

Bob considered the court of Louis XIV -- provided he could be Louis; I mulled Periclean Greece, Quattrocento Florence and Elizabethan England, rejecting them all finally for the poor quality of their medical care -- then suddenly I stopped dead with "I've got it!"

Bob turned to me, waiting, and I said, "I'd like to have been a star in Hollywood in the nineteen thirties."

Bob's response was unequivocal. "It was Paradise."

The next hour was one of the most entertaining of my life, as Bob strolled through the desert night, recalling Hollywood's Golden Age. "We didn't know it was Paradise. We just took it for granted. Everybody else had problems. The country was broke, but we were doing okay -- and no taxes!" Bob's eyes glittered in the starlight.

He relived riotous croquet games with Chaplin and Fairbanks and Pickford and Harpo. He described Will Rogers galloping along the bridle path that bisected Sunset Boulevard -- and that recollection reminded him of the Beverly Hills Hotel. "You know why they built those bungalows? To keep their stars out of trouble. Privacy!" he confided with a wink. "What happened back there was nobody's business. The studios made sure their bread and butter stayed out of trouble. And if you got in trouble, they got you out."

In Bob's account, Hollywood was alive and young and (moderately) innocent again, MGM was making good on its boast of "more stars than there are in the heavens," the Trocadero and the Brown Derby were crowded with America's idols, Palm Springs was a remote, private oasis for those fortunate few. Fred and Ginger danced across the desert floor that night, and Hope and Benny brought the populace together in front of their radios to laugh their troubles away. Plumbing his phenomenal memory, Bob replayed his favorite radio shows -- monologues that told the story of that time and place, sketches with Bing and Skelton and Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. "Can you imagine? A ventriloquist -- on radio!" he exulted. As magically as the shepherds of Mycenae had once revived the Greece of 1200 B.C. for me, Bob resurrected the Hollywood of the thirties. It wasn't surreal. It was better than that. It was real: I discovered I was right about the blessings of being a star in Hollywood in the thirties because that night in Palm Springs one of them ebulliently took me there.

Inside Inside is about the heroes of my life, and Bob Hope is certainly one of them. There are many more in the book, but no room for them in this week's blog. Maybe next time, but until then, please let me know what you're thinking ... because, as you see, that starts me thinking.

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