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Don't shoot, it's only me.

Even the Bible had to have an ending. But there is none to this rambling valentine to my adopted country. I figure I'm only beginning. After all, when I appeared onstage at Madison Square Garden beside God, God had to sit down.

We're entering exciting times, the 90s; totalitarian governments are crumbling all over the world, and dozens of politicians have been running for cover. I plan to hang around until there are no good monologue topics left.

Since this is supposed to be some sort of a history, let me take you for a fast roller-coaster ride through the Marx Brothers comedy that was the late 70s and 80s.

If you were paying attention, you may remember that the Vietnam War finally ended in an agreement neither side intended to honor. It was like one of Zsa Zsa's weddings.

I announced it by saying, "I guess you've heard the good news by now. North Vietnam has finally qualified for foreign aid.... The reason they delayed the peace treaty for so long was that Hanoi wasn't sure they had enough ammunition for a cease-fire. . . ."

It wasn't long before the North Vietnamese overran the South and Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City. By that time the American public didn't care; they didn't want any more foreign adventures, unless Sophia Loren was in them.

That made it tough on presidents. After Vietnam, when we did launch a military operation, it had to be made to look as if we didn't mean it.

When Jimmy Carter was president, he had to try to rescue the Americans taken hostage at our embassy in Teheran with six old helicopters on loan from "M*A*S*H." They hardly made it to the first commercial.

During Reagan's administration, he had to find a country small enough to beat up without getting Mike Wallace upset. Ronnie finally found one and sent the marines into Grenada. Estelle Getty could have handled that one by herself.

Later, President George Bush figured he was playing it safe when he declared war on only one man. Noriega took refuge in the Vatican embassy. We all figured the Catholic Church would know how to handle him; we expected them to raffle off his car. Finally, the Army played loud rock music until he gave himself up. If he's convicted, there's talk of sentencing him to the Grammy Awards.

Going back again to Reagan: He won one big victory that secures his place in history-he went to China and opened the doors to the West even wider. He found out a lot about their ancient culture. In only two meetings with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, Ronnie learned how to eat jellybeans with chopsticks.

The atmosphere became so cordial, I decided it was time to do a show from Beijing. We called it Road to China, and the cast was a real chop suey of international talent: Mikhail Baryshnikov; the Peking Opera; Big Bird from Sesame Street; Chinese comics Yuan, Hong, and Li; the Shanghai Circus; Shields and Yarnell; Chinese ballerina Zhong Run Liang; the Philadelphia Boys' Choir and Men's Chorale; and Dolores. The biggest budget item was for interpreters.

We were all bubbling over with international good will, and I had no idea how ironic some of my opening remarks were to become: "This is Tienanmen Gate. Tienanmen means The Gate of Heavenly Peace.' It leads to Tienanmen Square, the biggest square in the world. It looks like Jackie Gleason's patio.... They can get a million and a half people in here. Of course, they're not here today. Nobody knew I was coming."

Heavenly peace didn't last very long. Only a few years later, the people were mowed down in Tienanmen Square by the People's Army. But at our show back then, we had a warm and happy audience, including Ambassador Leonard Woodcock and a lot of Chinese VIPS. I got laughs with lines like, "I really can't believe I'm here, but this must be China. Last night, I went to a movie called America Syndrome.... I'm part of a cultural exchange. The State Department sends me over here and the Chinese send back a yak who can count to ten. .. We had a great flight over, but I'll tell you one thing: this is a long way to come for a Coca-Cola.... They gave me quite a ride to the hotel from the airport. Twice, I fell off the handlebars.... And can you believe the auto horns? Peking sounds like a whole city that just got married.... And let me tell you, I loved the Great Wall. Of Gourse, I love anything as old as I am.... Service at the Peking Hotel is really fast, especially the laundry. Yesterday they washed my pajamas, and I was still in them."

And I summed it all up by saying, "What this trip is all about is getting to know each other. Talking and laughing and singing and dancing together, the way good friends should. And liking each other. The Chinese are easy to like."

But behind the scenes, there were warning signs. We had a brilliant Chinese actor, Ying Ruo Cheng, to act as interpreter and show us around Beijing, or Peking, depending on when you studied geography. You may have seen Ying in the Marco Polo miniseries, playing Kublai Khan. Later, he translated Death of a Salesman into Chinese and played the lead. I don't know what a Chinese salesman would sell, maybe fortune cookies, but Ying was a great performer. He used to translate my jokes for our Chinese audiences and started getting bigger laughs than I did, until he realized his mistake. He helped us do a spot from Democracy Wall, a wall in Beijing where the people could post their opinions, including opinions of the government. The deputy minister of culture got a look at it-the Chinese reviewed all our film-and said, "We don't like it. Take it out." So we rewrote it and tried it again. They still didn't like it. Too much democracy was showing up at the Democracy Wall. They finally took Ying away from us and replaced him with a member of the Communist Party. Apparently, his party dues weren't paid up, because after we shot the scene with him, they took it out again and it never reached the air.

After that, we didn't have much heavenly peace. They gave us a terrible time at the airport when we were leaving, searching our luggage for our film. They opened Dolores' bag, and she told them, firmly, "If you unpack that suitcase, you're going to pack it."

There's something in Dolores' voice that doesn't require translation. The customs officials closed her suitcase immediately. It was the biggest Chinese defeat since CBS canceled Charlie Chan.

Jimmy Carter had the tough break of becoming president at a time when the whole world was becoming paranoid. You may have heard the latest definition of a paranoid-that's anyone who's in possession of all the facts. As I mentioned, the Iranians took the entire staff of the American embassy in Tehran hostage. They wouldn't let them go until after Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election. Not that they were that anxious to see Ronnie as president; they were afraid if he didn't get elected, he'd go back to acting.

The years that followed were a merry time of hijacking, hostage taking, and terrorism. Anybody in Lebanon who hadn't been shot at wasn't really trying. The Israelis, the Syrians, the Muslims, and the Christians were all fighting at the same time. Beirut was the only town where you could get mugged at confession. So many U.S. citizens were being taken hostage, there was talk of putting the ransom on your American Express card.

On April 18, 1983, the U.S. embassy in Beirut was virtually destroyed by a car bomb. A U.N. peacekeeping force was sent in, but there was no peace to keep. Two American marines were the first U.S. fatalities when they were hit by mortar fire near the international airport. The United States sent in the navy, the French sent in planes. If this wasn't a war, why was everybody eating K rations?

Naturally, there was a big peace conference, and a ceasefire was declared. Everybody knew what that meant. They put their fingers in their ears and waited.

They didn't have to wait long. On October 23, a terrorist drove a truckload of high explosives through the barriers of the driveway at the U.S. Marine Corps headquarters in Beirut, blew up the building, and killed 241 U.S. marines. It made the explosion we escaped at the Brinks Hotel in Saigon seem like Palm Sunday at Pat Boone's.

The U.S. Department of Defense ordered the Hope Gypsies out of mothballs and into box lunches. After ten years of soft beds and home cooking, there was finally an area of the world unsafe enough to fly us into. There was more hatred in Lebanon than at an Academy Awards rehearsal.

And by that time, it was Christmas.

In ten years, of course, the Gypsies had changed, and not only around the waistline. Our producer was now Elliott Kozak, a man of infinite patience and talents, one of which was his ability to sleep standing up. That was a necessity on this tour, where our schedule was so tight you only got a chance to lie down if somebody was shooting at you. Our director was Sid Smith, and the writers, commanded by Gene Perrett, were Bob Mills, Fred Fox, Seaman Jacobs, Martha Bolton, and Jeffrey Barron. Of the old gang, only Silvio Caranchini was still with us. Sil had tried to escape several times, but I always got him back with the promise of more money. He believed me, showing how nine trips to Vietnam can soften the brain.

Most of our shows were done on the decks of U.S. ships on patrol in the Mediterranean and off the Lebanese coast, ships like the old battleship U.S.S. New Jersey. I had talked a great group of performers into coming along; they believed me when I told them we were going to entertain the croupiers at Monte Carlo. We had Cathy Lee Crosby, Ann Jillian, Brooke Shields, and the new Miss U.S.A. Some of the ships were too small to do a show on; so we just phoned in the act, although there's no way you could phone in what those gals had. If you could, the military could recruit a whole navy by promising each man a cordless phone.

The ships were packed with marines, all of them on alert. Most of them were kids who hadn't heard the jokes; it was a pleasure to get laughs with some lines that were older than the audience.

"It's great to be playing in front of marines. These guys are so tough they use barbed wire for dental floss. . . . I saw some marines eating a plate of nails. The sissies were the ones who had to put salt on them.... After chow the other night I said to one of them, Toothpick?' And he said, No, thank you. I'll use my bayonet. . . ' Discipline is very strict in the Marine Corps. They're not even allowed to turn their electric blankets above just friendly.' "

I began to hope this was the last generation I could use those jokes on. Or would have to.

Laughter doesn't solve anything, but then, neither do battleships today. They certainly didn't solve what was going on in Lebanon. I wanted to take our whole group ashore to do a show for the marines in Beirut, or what was left of it, but I was told it was too risky. This war was just soldier against soldier, but sometimes father against son, brother against brother. The terrorists on both sides drove trucks loaded with TNT to their targets, and only the cowards bothered to get out. Any American was a sitting duck.

There was no point risking valuable lives, so they let me go in alone.

I didn't quite know what to expect. We took off from a carrier on Christmas morning and landed at the shot-up marine compound, where the marines now lived in underground bunkers. After the big bomb went off, they'd learned their lesson. Don't sleep anyplace that has a driveway.

The marines issued me a flak jacket and a helmet. I guess my old movies play everywhere. I saw somebody else similarly dressed, and it turned out to be Johnny Grant, the L.A. radio personality who has played almost as many trouble spots as I have.

There was no time or place to do a show; we were there to see one they put on for us.

In a makeshift chapel, American marines in combat dress sang Christmas hymns, and a minister delivered a prayer. And then all the marines sang "Silent Night."

They couldn't forget it would always be silent night for 241 of their marine buddies.

I flew back to the ship, and the Gypsies finished the tour and returned home. The mood in the States was like during the last days of the Vietnam War. President Reagan gave up trying to play MP to the whole nation of Lebanon and withdrew the navy, the marines, and every American who wasn't chained to a bedpost. We pulled everything out of Beirut except one branch of our em - This one was blown up by a station wagon. Trucks were no longer chic.

The Gypsies never went back to Beirut. Neither did the marines. I can't say any of us misses it.

Not everything that happened around that time was a disaster, depending on whether you were a Republican or a Democrat. The presidential campaign was between Ronnie Reagan and Walter Mondale. They scheduled a big TV debate, and it certainly stirred a lot of interest. And monologue jokes.

"Ronnie's advisers are afraid that Reagan will fall asleep while Mondale's talking. Or worse, while he's talking.... The two candidates have started fighting about who's more religious. Mondale got a little nervous when he saw skywriting that said: REAGAN in 84. There was no plane. Just a giant finger. Reagan told his campaign manager, 'I've never let religion have any influence on my presidency. Make a note of that and give it to all my disciples.' "

Ronnie and George Bush won the election easily, which is something of an understatement. Mondale and his veep candidate, Geraldine Ferraro, only carried one state, Minnesota. Ronnie would have carried that one too, but nobody told him it was there.

Before he left office, Reagan was offered more than five million dollars for his autobiography. Gorbachev had just written his own and was paid 14 rubles for it. Gorby asked for a summit meeting with Reagan to find out the name of his literary agent.

Their meetings made history. Reagan was the actor, but Gorby upstaged him every time.

I went on the air with: "Gorbachev started his visit by stopping his limo in Washington so he could shake hands with the spectators. He was the first leader of a country to hold out his hand in our nation's capital and not come away with foreign aid.... It was easy to spot Gorbachev. His limo had a bumper sticker saying, t brake for reporters. . . ' Everything Reagan does, Gorbachev does him one better. Reagan wears the flag of his country on his lapel. Gorby wears the map of his country on his forehead."

Glasnost came to mean considerably more than "openness." Gorbachev was the first disciple of Marx and Lenin to travel with a press agent.

We all felt this was truly the beginning of the end of the Cold War. This revolution, everybody would eat strawberries and cream. Things were looking so rosy, I even traded in my Kaopectate.

And then, in 1987, the Ayatollah Khomeini decided to close the Persian Gulf to oil shipments during Iran's war with Iraq. It was a national crisis. If America didn't get that oil, Reagan would have to comb his hair with the dry look. He ordered the navy in. Things got pretty tense around November. When it looked like all the oil tanks in the Middle East would go up in flames, somebody in Washington with a sense of humor sent for the Gypsies to do our Christmas act again. After all, if everything blew up, the air force would only have to fly us one way.

We were sent by way of Hawaii, Manila, and Cape Espiritu Santo (I think the Defense Department was trying to confuse us) until we finally located the 6th Fleet. We did our final Christmas show December 1987, in the Persian Gulf, some 44 years after our first one, in Europe. This time the villain had a Santa Claus beard instead of a Charlie Chaplin mustache. I guess that's progress.

We called it "Bob Hope's U.S.O. Christmas Show from the Persian Gulf, or Around the World in Eight Days." We had to make it in eight days; that's as long as I can go now on tuna sandwiches. We did one show from Bahrain, an Arab oil sultanate on some islands in the Persian Gulf where everyone was so rich, they hired Merv Griffin as a garbage collector.

The U.S. had a busy navy base there, and the strange customs of this strange country made for some strange jokes.

I told a huge audience of sailors and marines, "Here we are in Bahrain, the real land of brotherly love.... Everyone here looks like Danny Thomas. And that's just the women.... No show of public affection is allowed. In Bahrain, that's called the law. Back home it's called marriage.... Women here can't show any skin. I ordered a chicken breast and it was wearing a bra.... This is the kind of country where they cut off your hand for stealing. I don't even want to think about what they cut off if you steal someone's wife."

We left them laughing in Bahrain, flew out over the north Arabian Sea, and made a helicopter landing on the deck of the U.S.S. Midway. The flight deck was jammed with men who had come, as usual, to see our girls: Cathy Lee Crosby, Ann Jillian, Brooke Shields, Barbara Eden-who had brought her two daughters along-the Super Bowl Dancers, and Michelle Rogers, the new Miss U.S.A. Of course, the U.S. Navy now included women, but the men on the Midway outnumbered the females stationed aboard by 300 to one. On this carrier, you didn't ask for a date; you called ahead for a starting time. So we were doubly welcome, first for bringing them more females, but mainly for showing them they were not forgotten during their strange duty, playing tugboat in a floating shooting gallery, 10,000 miles from home at Christmas time with the thermometer at 1061-that was at night. It was the only part of the world where Santa Claus arrived in a bikini. I started my routine with "Here we are in the north Arabian Sea aboard the Midway.... I think this is appropriate, the oldest aircraft carrier meets the oldest operational comedian.... I knew this carrier was old when someone grabbed my Geritol and poured it into the fuel tanks." In spite of the laughs and cheers and applause, we all began to feel a little uncomfortable on this hurried trip, as if we were being used as a Band-Aid on public opinion. Our navy and marines were doing their dangerous jobs, but again this was no all-out military effort, and many people questioned its wisdom. Sure, we did need the oil in America. How else could Dolly Parton get into some of her dresses? But the navy wasn't sure how best to carry out its mission in the Gulf. I told the men on the next ship, the U.S.S. Kennedy, "You ought to drain the sucker. Then it'll be the army's problem." Jokes couldn't make it go away, but we could do a little to help the men endure the heat and the boredom of another nonwar. The U.S.S. Kennedy was on station very close to Iran, the Disneyland for fanatics. Iran is where Santa makes three lists: Who's been naughty, who's been nice, and who's nuts. But before we laugh-or, preferably for me, after we laugh-we ought to consider how sane any nation was during the paranoid '80s.

We left the Gulf after doing our final Christmas show aboard the U.S.S. Okinawa, where everybody sang "Ave Maria" on the flight deck.

We had hardly finished the hymn when both sides in the Gulf began firing at each other again.

The insanity at home continued with another political campaign. Sen. Gary Hart, running for the Democratic presidential nomination, was seen by the press coming out the backdoor of his girlfriend's house.

His wife was not amused.

Then came November of 1989, when East Berliners danced with West Berliners near the spot where I had swiped the swastika flag from Adolf Hitler's bunker. We hadn't seen so many happy Germans since the last Lowenbrau commercial. Three million East Germans danced through the Wall, took one look at the prices, and danced back home.

I remembered all the shows we had done in the days when Berlin was in ashes, and later when it was sliced in half like a pumpernickel sandwich. And now, the Wall was coming down and being sold in little pieces in the doorstop section of K Mart.

And all the Communists voted themselves out of office and admitted they had been incompetent. This frightened the hell out of Congress; they were afraid democracy might spread to the United States.

Maybe all this means that the Gypsies are now obsolete. I hope so, but knowing the ingenuity of men when it comes to blowing each other up, I'm not going to unpack yet. It's the suspense that keeps me young.

Everything in my life seemed to come full circle on October 2, 1989. 1 went back to where it all began: vaudeville. I had started out in Cleveland in 1923, doing that dance act with that girl named Mildred Rosequist. Mildred was about 15 at the time and the act bombed, so I figured this time I'd go for a little more experience. Almost 14,000 people showed up at Madison Square Garden to see two guys whose ages added up to 179 years do a live act, which I guess a lot of the audience came to see if we could prove.

They needn't have worried. George Burns on a stage is as good as Mildred Rosequist ever was. And she couldn't dance and smoke a cigar at the same time. George is what vaudeville was all about. When he walked out in that spotlight, you could feel the electricity between him and the audience. Of course, when he first walked out on a vaudeville stage, only George and Benjamin Franklin knew what electricity was. When George walks into a restaurant today and orders a three-minute egg, they make him pay in advance.

Madison Square Garden would seem to be a pretty outrageous place for two guys to try to keep a crowd's attention, unless they were trying to beat each other's brains out with boxing gloves. But with microphones, a good sound system, and seats crowding right up to the stage, it proved to be sensational.

We both wanted to show as many people as possible what vaudeville used to be like. After all, we were only going to give one performance; it was a little late for us to turn it into a career.

And of course, we both needed the

money. Those hormone shots are expensive. Vaudeville in the old days was something different every night, because you never knew what to expect from the audience. If they got ugly, it was the performer's job to keep them from throwing overaged tomatoes. No laugh machine, no retakes. It was all as live as life itself.

As we stood out there, two lonely figures in the glare of the spotlights, I felt lucky to have the best 93-year-old tap dancer in the business as my partner. We only had to look at each other to see all those years of one-night stands in places like Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and Hamtramck, Michigan, when we both learned to cook hash over a hotplate in our dressing room and wondered if we'd eat again tomorrow. We both knew it hadn't really changed for us since the days of the Gus Sun Time and the Balaban and Katz vaudeville circuit. This wasn't an audience that we faced in Madison Square Garden; it was a jury. These weren't GI's grateful for any kind of free entertainment, but New Yorkers only half a mile from Broadway. Go ahead, we could almost hear them saying; lay an egg, with two old yolks. This could be the flop heard 'round the world. Of course, if it had been, I wouldn't be mentioning it here. We must have done pretty well, because we got offers to play the Miami Arena, the Detroit Dome, and Sun City right after we finished. In Sun City we'll be considered a kiddie act. When it was my turn to get into the ring at Madison Square Garden, I pretended it was still Cleveland. I hit 'em with local jokes. George Burns came out all alone, and held the stage for almost an hour. After all the years of being Gracie's straight man, he has finally been recognized as one of our best stand-up comedians. Even though he had to sit down.

When the laughter died down, I walked out to join George for the first time on a stage. We did one of the routines George had made famous in vaudeville with Gracie; I played Gracie under protest and a lady's hat, which somebody tossed to us from the audience. It was a strange feeling, being half of Burns and Allen, even in fun. The two of them had been the real vaudeville, and one of the true love stories of another generation. I wondered what George was thinking, but I couldn't see through the cigar smoke. But after we danced "Tea for Two" together, George said, "Say good night, Gracie," and I said "Good night, Gracie," and he smiled, and we walked offstage, arm in arm. The team of Burns and Hope had finally made the Big Time.

The audience in the Garden stood up and cheered the way the crowd did when Joe Louis kayoed Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium.

You don't remember that far back? It doesn't matter. George and I do.

It was only yesterday.
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Author:Hope, Bob
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jan 1, 1991
Previous Article:Kindergarten Cop.
Next Article:Coming home; the experience of fighting a war wasn't over yet - the most important lesson lay ahead.

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