Tags: Happy | Birthday | Mr. | Hope!

Happy Birthday, Mr. Hope!

Sunday, 01 June 2003 12:00 AM

You can't expect someone who's had a close personal encounter with the pope to be seen later as merely one individual among the cheering masses in St. Peter's Square.

You can't expect someone who's had a close personal encounter with the president to be seen later as just one more eager would-be hand shaker as the president works the rope line at the Dallas Airport.

And you can't expect ME to surrender my special experience and be nothing more than one of the reverent millions applauding Bob Hope on the occasion of his 100th birthday.

I don't care who you are, my close personal encounter with Bob Hope forever separates "Bob-Hope-and-YOU" from "Bob-Hope-and-ME!"

When I loaded all my belongings into an old Chrysler convertible in North Carolina to try my luck breaking into media in New York City, I was like a billy goat in a hot-pepper patch: much more aware of my ambitions than my abilities.

After I’d bloodied my nose against thick media walls for two months, a lucky accident blasted the hole I was looking for.

It was literally an accident – fortunately, a very small one. I was driving down Madison Avenue and a bus pulled away from the curb and dented the fender of the car just ahead of me. As the best possible witness, I stopped to give my name to the driver, thereby meeting a college buddy getting off the bus who had a fraternity brother already in the media who knew somebody influential in media who was nice enough to meet me and set up a meeting for me with somebody even MORE influential.

That final somebody was William Safire, super-star columnist of the New York Times, who back then was the top associate of broadcaster Tex McCrary. Like an old battery that never dies, I still feel that pleasant sting I felt when, after half an hour of talking with me about education, aspiration and experience in his office, Safire said: "That door there is McCrary's door. My job is to keep people OUT. I send in maybe one a year. You're the one I'm sending in this year!"

Tex McCrary, host of a popular TV and radio show with his celebrity-model wife, Jinx Falkenberg, hired me under the spell of a few Cold War adventures I’d gotten myself into that were pretty fresh at the time. He immediately hired me as his radio producer.

My job was to find guests for him and Jinx to interview. It was assumed I would know how to deliver the biggest-name guests at all times: celebrities, stars, public figures. I didn't. I was fresh up out of North Carolina, where a public figure was anybody who'd pulled jury duty.

It came very hard to me. I didn't realize how many of the movie stars whose names I knew were already has-beens, and how many of the real stars our competition was booking I'd never heard of.

The Broadway theater was even tougher for me. I had no idea who anybody was. I'd seen only one Broadway show and that was at the age of 17. If a fast-talking publicist could have gotten me on the phone, he could probably have gotten me excited about booking the man whose brother-in-law had the southernmost brass weathervane in New Hampshire.

I was a helpless, hapless pushover for the New York PR people, who had no trouble convincing me their clients were the best, the hottest, the greatest – all guaranteed to win me the love and praise of my boss.

Instead they brought me to the brink of obliteration.

Word fell upon me that McCrary was getting increasingly sick of the menu of third-raters, authors of unsuccessful books, and confused and confusing professors I was giving him. He wanted NAMES, BIG names, and he wanted them NOW, or else.

Being fired by Tex McCrary was not the best battering ram on a resume with which to go back onto the street and try to break through that wall again. North Carolina is a lovely state, but no better than any other when it comes to limping home in failure.

I noticed in the New York Times that Bob Hope was in town and staying at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. I knew Bob Hope was a big name.

If I were to overhear a young producer on my staff today do what I did then, I'd likely flip into a rage and fire him for terminal naiveté. I neither knew nor sought any Bob Hope agent, associate, assistant, manager or publicity person. I simply called the hotel and asked to speak to Bob Hope!

The voice that said "Hello" was unmistakably that of Bob Hope himself. Had his staff security and call-screening system failed? I didn't know and didn't care.

"Mr. Hope," I began, "I produce the ‘Tex and Jinx Radio Show’ here in New York and we'd love to have you as a guest on our show tonight."

"What do you pay?" Hope asked.

"Mr. Hope," I said. "We're a local radio show. We can't pay our guests."

"You can't treat me like that," he replied. "I'm a big star!"

The words may look cold on paper, but he was playing. Bob Hope at that moment was a giant cat toying with a mouse I hoped he'd wind up liking and helping.

"Can you give me one reason why I should come do your show tonight?" Hope asked.

"Yes," I said. "It's my birthday." (And it was!)

I've never knocked out a heavyweight champ or outrun an Olympic gold-medal sprinter. But I DID break Bob Hope up with that little comedy act.

He roared with laughter.

"It's your BIRTHDAY?" he bellowed. Then I could hear him telling the people in the room with him. "This kid. This kid on the phone here wants me to do a local radio show tonight because it's his birthday!"

It took a while on his end of the line for the merriment to be shared, enjoyed and finally subside. "Okay, kid. Where do I come and at what time?"

Bob Hope came live to our show. Moreover, he brought with him Anita Ekberg, the sexy, statuesque Swedish actress who was starring in a big movie at the time.

McCrary let me know it was the fire-from-the-hip celebrity-booking coup of all time, and all that preceded it was forgiven.

Now it's YOUR birthday, Bob. I hope it's as happy as the many ones you've given me, beginning with the one detailed above.

Bob Hope never made me laugh in a steaming jungle, a dangerous desert or on the deck of an aircraft carrier in a war zone. He did that for many thousands of others.

Bob Hope did not save my life.

But he most emphatically, personally, generously – and playfully – saved my livelihood.

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You can't expect someone who's had a close personal encounter with the pope to be seen later as merely one individual among the cheering masses in St. Peter's Square. You can't expect someone who's had a close personal encounter with the president to be seen later as just...
Sunday, 01 June 2003 12:00 AM
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