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The Legacy of Hope

by Nov 17, 2019

During the 1919 Ohio State Boxing Amateurs tournament at Cleveland’s Moose Hall, 16-year old Packy East made it to the finals. There he faced Happy Walsh, who encouraged him to consider other opportunities, or as Packy East described the encounter: “I gave him my Sunday punch. He smiled. Then everything went black”.

He was born in England, moved with his family to Cleveland, Ohio when he was five, and struggled. His father was a stone mason and jobs were hit and miss. His mother took in boarders to help make ends meet. The fifth of seven children, Leslie Townes Hope, his real name, dropped out of school at 16 and got to work, contributing to the family stash, variously, as a newsboy, soda jerk, pool hustler and otherwise. What he seemed to have a real knack for, what the family remembered fondly, was his ability to entertain.

In the 1920’s, having changed his name to Lester Hope, he was among the 20,000 or so vaudevillians that performed around the country during that period, first performing in the “small time” venues, six shows a day, as he learned his trade and demonstrated his talents. In five years, he was playing the big time “two-a-day” houses, finally reaching the top of the heap in the early 1930’s when he played the Palace Theatre in New York City; a long way from Cleveland.

His experiences in the boxing ring and on the vaudeville, stage set the course of his later performing career. He found opportunity on radio, on the big screen, but is best remembered by the servicemen and women he entertained far from home in the midst of war.

With his trademark one liners, self-depreciating humor and genuine affection and respect for the rank and file in uniform, as well as his welcome tongue-in-cheek disrespect for the higher ranks, he endeared himself to generations of servicemen and women from WWII to Desert Storm.

During the Korean War, in 1950, he and his troop entertained aboard Missouri in Wonsan Harbor. (Sadly, no film footage was recorded of the two performances aboard).

I happened to see him, the limos passing by, on the air base outside Saigon in 1969, going where he was really needed. I caught up to him a couple years later at an air base in Thailand. By that time, during that time, the gap of generations was a big deal and you’d think Bob Hope would be out of touch. But he and his entertainers always brought the sound and laughter and comfort of home with them, and for those longing for it, wishing they were there, his willingness to come, wherever America’s servicemen and women were assigned, will always be appreciated.

We remember.

Bob Hope performing in the Solomon Islands, 1944.