Taking a cue from Will Rogers, Hope never met a holiday he didn’t like. Be it Easter, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s, Groundhog Day or the Ides of March, a holiday theme was always as welcome around the production office as a hot buttered rum in a winter snowstorm.
Christmas, of course, was Hope’s annual theme champ even during peacetime when his military fatigues were folded away in the cedar chest awaiting the next outbreak of hostilities. Even in the years that he entertained troops overseas, he produced a domestic Christmas special as well and aired the military shows in January.
The Christmas specials had become perennial ratings bonanzas that left high Neilsens in Hope’s stocking year after year. Even beyond that, they were television’s longest sustaining Yuletide specials, continuing well after Andy Williams, Glen Campbell and Perry Como had packed away the prop fireplace and the flocked Douglas fir.
Whatever mysterious combination of elements made Americans take a break from their last-minute shopping to tune in the mid-December offering, Hope wasn’t about to tinker with it; the Christmas show segments were as cast-in- stone as the Ten Commandments and the format was as predictable as the story of the Nativity itself.
Every Yuletide special was made up of these five elements:
• Holiday monologue
• Associated Press All-America Football Team
• Seasonal sketch
• Rose Bowl Queen and Court
• “Silver Bells” duet
Each December, our rhyming dictionaries saw yeoman duty as we struggled to give the headline of the day a "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" spin. Be it Ollie North or a Cabbage Patch doll (strangely similar in many respects), we somehow managed to capture them in a couplet as this one in 1988:
"It’s Christmas time once again
But have fun while you can
We just got word that Ollie North
Sold Donner and Blitzen to Iran"
Or this 1983 entry:
"It’s Christmas time around the world
A season that’s merry to all
But this would be the best one yet
If I could just find a Cabbage Patch doll"
Next in order came reminders of how the holidays were being celebrated in Southern California, with particular emphasis on the tract housing adjoining Rodeo Drive:
"They try to have a traditional Christmas in Beverly Hills, but it isn’t easy. Yesterday, I saw Santa behind the wheel of a Rolls-Royce being pulled by eight Japanese gardeners." (1978)
Then we’d make our mandatory stop on Hollywood Boulevard:
"The fellas celebrate Christmas a little different. Down there, they decorate each other." (1985)
Though Santa wasn’t due to arrive for another week or two, we had the welcome mat out for him:
"We’re having a typical Hollywood Christmas. Yesterday, Larry Flynt announced that he has secret tapes of Santa doing weird things with the elves. (1983)
During the Holiday Season, Hope's writers were not unlike elves, battling a deadline to meet our quota of gift-wrapped shopping jokes:
"A big seller this year is the ‘Baby Tears’ doll. I asked the sales clerk, ‘What makes it cry?’ And she said, ‘Nothing, but when I tell you the price, you will.’” (1981)
"And with all the crowds this year, I’ve never seen the sales people so nasty. I saw one floorwalker who got rid of his carnation and was wearing a Venus fly trap. (1978)
Each year, the Associated Press sports writers voted for their college dream team, and Hope would fly the winners to Burbank — at considerable expense — from all over the country.
Each player would trot out in full uniform and announce his name, college, and position. Then Hope would deliver a joke befitting the guy’s size, speed, kicking or passing ability:
PLAYER: Dee Hardison, University of North Carolina, defensive tackle.
HOPE: At school, they call Dee “Peanut.” That’s because when he gets through with you, you’re shelled, salted and stuffed into a jar of Skippy.
Next, Hope would interview the Pasadena Rose Queen who annually showed up on stage with her entire eight-member court, girls chosen from tony local high schools in Pasadena or La Canada.
After covering her love of horses, dream of becoming a brain surgeon, or her collection of porcelain elephants, we never failed to have the Tiara-ed-one play straight to Hope’s self-deprecating AARP-ster in an exchange like this:
QUEEN: Gee, Mr. Hope, you look so young for your age. How do you do it?
HOPE: Well, I eat well, get plenty of exercise and I have a makeup man who has a summer home in Lourdes.
Next up would be a Christmas-themed sketch. The year George Lucas propelled Star Wars across America’s movie screens, we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to spoof it. Our version, entitled "Scar
Wars," starred Olivia Newton-John as Princess Hialeah, Perry Como as Luke Sleepwalker, and Hope as Barf Vader.
The epic would recount the abduction of Santa Claus, complete with his sled and reindeer, literally gobbled up by Vader’s space vehicle. (We ordered a small model of a space ship with a set of iron jaws in the front from the prop department.)
The Princess learns of the kidnapping and million-dollar ransom demand at Space Police Headquarters by phone — “If you speed, we can clock it, ’cuz we have a cop in an unmarked rocket!”
Her deputy, Luke, challenges Barf to show up in person to collect the money. Hope says, “You’ll never catch me, you cosmic creeps!” Perry says, “That’s easy for
you to say ten million miles away, but you’d never say it to my face!”
(Hope, dressed in a sinister-looking black leotard with a
cape and wearing a Darth-like mask, crashes through the
HOPE: Sorry I’m late. The traffic was nose cone-to-nose cone!
(Music up: “You’re the Top”)
HOPE: I’m the pits!
I’m an Edi A-meanie!
I’m the pits!
I am cold linguini!
I’m a lunar louse,
Who will tear your house to bits!
’Cuz, baby, I’m Barf Vader!
I’m the pits!
(He turns his back to the camera, and we see printed
across his cape: HONK IF YOU LOVE ROTTEN.)
Princess Hialeah introduces her sister, the grossly obese Princess Gluttonia, who waddles over to Perry and attempts to kiss him. Perry sings: It’s impossible, to get my arms around you, it’s impossible... (Can you believe the depths to which we would stoop to collect ASCAP royalties?)
Following some swordplay with our version of light sabers called "Life Savers," and the announcement by Barf that he now has an even more powerful weapon than The Force, called the credit card force (Did we run
out of gas on this one or not?), the festivities conclude with the arrival of the real Luke Skywalker, Mark Hamill, accompanied by some burly, uniformed Los Angeles cops. They cuff Barf and lead him off.
“What’s the charge?” asks Hope.
“Public defacement of a marvelous movie!” says Hamill.
After watching this sketch, we were on the verge of calling Hope’s lawyers to bail us out of jail; but luckily, Mark was only kidding and the cops were extras. But why take a chance?
Just a year later, Hope would emcee the fiftieth Academy Awards presentation at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (on which we got writing credit). Standing beside Fred Astaire, Jack Nicholson, Natalie Wood,
Kirk Douglas, Greer Garson, Joan Fontaine, Barbara Stanwyck and William Holden, Hope delivered this opening line:
“Welcome to the real Star Wars.”
Hope had introduced the classic “Silver Bells,” the Jay Livingston and Ray Evans classic, in the movie "The Lemon Drop Kid" and he sang it on every Christmas special — in a different setting — with duet mates ranging from Olivia Newton-John, Katherine Crosby, Loretta Swit, Bonnie Franklin and Melissa Manchester to Winona Judd, Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, Marie Osmond and — whenever the featured female guest was tone deaf — his wife, Dolores.
This holiday format -- virtually unchanged from year-to-year -- held Hope in good stead for over forty TV seasons, and despite the onset of his declining health in the early nineties, NBC continued airing some sort of Hope Christmas special until 1994 when he took down the holly and the mistletoe for the final time, leaving no doubt that he had become an integral part of Christmas for millions of Americans.
Excerpted from THE LAUGH MAKERS: A Behind-the-Scenes Tribute to Bob Hope's Incredible Gag Writers (c) 2009 by Robert L. Mills and published by Bear Manor Media: . The book was chosen by Leonard Maltin as a “Top 20 Year-End Pick“ for 2009. FREE sample chapters can be read at: : http://www.laughmakers.blogspot.com
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