By Mike Case and Sandi Gohn
Bob Hope knew what it meant to be away from home during the holidays.
From World War II to Desert Shield, the legendary star spent scores of December days on the front lines entertaining service members all around the world.
Hope’s decades-long tradition of entertaining service members began in May 1941, when he recorded an episode of his NBC radio show, the “Pepsodent Show,” during a visit to a California naval base.
Over the next 18 months, the comedian continued to host and tape additional radio and USO performances at bases across the U.S. (including during the holidays!) before heading on his first overseas USO Camp Show tour in 1943. During this and the many WWII USO Camp Show trips that followed, Hope hosted dozens of variety-style shows featuring some of the biggest names in Hollywood.
In fact, during WWII, with only a few exceptions, all of Hope’s shows were performed for a military crowd.
The Tradition of Bob Hope Christmas Shows and USO Visits
Although Hope’s WWII performances won him the adoration of many service members, it arguably wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century, when he began regularly hosting his infamous “Bob Hope Christmas Show,” that the iconic entertainer cemented his legendary status among the military and civilian communities alike.
Although sources vary as to when the first official Bob Hope Christmas Show aired on radio or television, National Archives records state Hope hosted special recordings of the “Pepsodent Show” at Sawtelle Veterans’ Hospital on December 24, 1946. Similarly, Navy records show that on December 23, 1947, Hope hosted a special recording of the “Pepsodent Show,” at Corona Naval Hospital, California in front of a military audience.
A year later, in December 1948, Hope and his USO troupe (which included Irving Berlin at the time) recorded a “Bob Hope Show” radio episode in front of troops stationed in Germany supporting the Berlin Airlift, at the request of the Pentagon. According to the Bob and Dolores Hope Foundation, it was this USO trip that inspired Hope to begin his tradition of entertaining the military community during the holiday season.
Fun fact: After 1948, Hope’s radio show changed names to “The Bob Hope Show.” Over the next few decades, his various specials on television and radio would fall under several names and iterations of this new show name.
In December 1950, reluctantly beginning to appear more regularly on television, Hope recorded his first-ever holiday variety TV special for a New York studio audience, just after returning from a fall USO tour to Korea, where he also recorded episodes of his show. A year later, in San Diego, Hope recorded a December episode of his show in front of service members returning home from Korea on the USS Boxer.
By 1954, Hope started taking his show overseas to record its holiday episodes. For the next several decades, he continued the annual tradition of filming a series of special holiday episodes of his show in front of a military audience serving overseas in places like Iceland, Greenland, Alaska, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the Western Pacific.
Christmas Shows, USO Trips and the Vietnam War
In 1964, Hope took the first of nine USO trips to Vietnam to record special holiday episodes of his show and he never went alone. In retrospect, it was these performances that endeared Hope into the hearts and minds of patriotic citizens for years to come.
With him on each annual trip, Hope brought along major celebrities and stars of the day: Ann-Margret, Lola Falana, Raquel Welch, Rosie Grier, Neil Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jr., as well as other lesser-known acts comedians, singers and dance troupes, such as TV’s “Golddiggers.”
Fun fact: Jerry Colonna, Hope’s longtime sideman since WWII, would often play Santa.
For troops who were lucky enough to see him live — despite having very different tastes and attitudes compared to the generation of service members before them — Hope’s Vietnam era shows were the highlight of their time in Vietnam.
Letters from the time or later reflections show that their USO “Bob Hope Christmas Show” experiences were often very similar: being selected to go to the show; being issued clean uniforms; the trip from the field to the base where the show was being held; the disbelief at seeing Bob Hope and other stars; the singing of “Silent Night” at the end of the show.
Americans back on the home front, too, eagerly watched Hope’s holiday specials, hoping to catch a glance of their soldier serving overseas.
In fact, Hope’s Christmastime specials were so popular that his 1970 holiday broadcast still stands as one of the most popular television episodes of all time. The final “Bob Hope Christmas Show” from Vietnam was recorded in 1972.
“I hope I can be excused a little sentimentality as I look back over 22 of these Christmas trips [and remember] the millions of servicemen and women who responded to our efforts with warmth, enthusiasm and affection.”
Though the annual tradition ended at this point, the end of Hope’s time in Vietnam was not the end of Hope’s USO tours or his holiday-time military shows.
The Final Bob Hope Christmas Shows and USO Holiday Shows Today
In addition to hosting other USO trips and recording non-holiday USO themed television specials, Hope went on to film further holiday tours overseas.
In 1983, he spent Christmas with U.S. troops in Beirut and in December 1988, performed on bases and ships in the Persian Gulf. Two years later, Bob and his wife Dolores Hope headed on their final USO tour, again to the Middle East, and hosted their last “Bob Hope Christmas Show” for service members deployed as part Operation Desert Shield.
Many of the service members in the crowd during this last USO tour had a grandfather who had seen Hope perform in WWII or Korea, as well as a father who had seen Hope perform in Vietnam.
“It’s the best audience,” Hope said in a 1991 Baltimore Sun article.
“I mean, it’s amazing how high the morale is. On account of that general saying we’re not ready, my opening line was, ‘Are you ready?’ And they went wild. You know, they just jumped up at it.”
Interestingly, Dolores Hope was the only woman allowed to perform for Americans in Saudi Arabia during the tour; the other women were only permitted to perform on aircraft carriers stationed off-shore. Apparently, this worked to Dolores’ advantage as she stole the show with her performance of “White Christmas”.
Although Hope hosted his last USO tour in 1990 and his final holiday special, “Hopes for the Holidays,” in 1994, the tradition he began, of entertaining service members during the holidays, still continues at the USO.
In the past decade alone, the USO has sent big-name stars like Scarlett Johannsen, Chris Evans, Daughtry, Elizabeth Banks, Ray Allen, Wilmer Valderrama, Meghan Markle, Dianna Agron and more to brighten the faces of deployed military members today.