High Hopes

Story by Mary Guthrie | Photos courtesy of SMU DeGolyer Library. Originally appeared in our 2019 MPrint issue. Read more here.

Vaudeville comedian Bob Hope walked off stage, threw his derby on the floor and slunk back to his dressing room. After a string of hit shows in the Midwest, how could he have bombed so badly in Fort Worth, Texas?

“I might as well have kept on walking to the Rio Grande,” Hope wrote in his book Have Tux, Will Travel of his 1929 Texas debut. “Nobody cared.”

A stranger walked into his dressing room. “What seems to be the matter, fancy pants?”

“I’m not for these people,” said Hope. “That’s all that’s the matter.”

“Why don’t you slow down and give them a chance?” said the stranger.  “It’s summertime. It’s hot. This is Texas. Let them understand you. Why make it a contest to keep up with your material?”

After the stranger left, Hope asked someone who the know-it-all was.

“That’s Bob O’Donnell,” came the reply. “He’s head of the Interstate Vaudeville Circuit.”

Hope took O’Donnell’s advice and slowed down his rapid-fire delivery. By the time he wrapped up his Fort Worth shows his audiences were laughing again. He later thanked O’Donnell, not just for the tips on how to woo a Texas audience, but also for the career-changing boost that happened after O’Donnell telephoned agents in New York, urging them to snap up Bob Hope as fast as they could. Within a few months of his Texas tour, Hope was performing at RKO’s opulent Proctor’s Eighty-Sixth Street Theatre in New York City.

Twenty years later, Bob Hope was a smash hit in radio, films, books and live performances all across the U.S. and abroad. He was well known for entertaining troops around the globe during and after World War II. By the 1950s, Hope was also a television star, hosting the Academy Awards and his own variety shows.

As Hope’s fame and fortune grew, so did his charitable giving. In the 1960s, Hope made two sizable donations to SMU, one in 1963 and another in 1965. His gifts totaled $800,000—worth nearly $6 million in today’s dollars—and were made for the development of a new namesake theatre to be located inside the future Owen Fine Arts Center.

Bob Hope was not an alumnus. He didn’t live anywhere near Dallas. What moved him to give so large a gift to SMU?

Bob Hope and SMU Connections

Hope’s first connection with SMU can be traced back to the festivities surrounding the 1936 Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, where the SMU Mustangs squared off against the Stanford Indians. In the week leading up to the game, the spirited SMU Band performed at the Paramount Theater, where Bob Hope and fellow comedian Gracie Allen met Peruna, SMU’s mascot. The game attracted a record-breaking, capacity crowd; the undefeated Mustangs fought hard, but Stanford won, 7–0.

Bob Hope and Gracie Allen meet Peruna at the 1936 Rose Bowl at Pasadena

Over the years, Hope became acquainted with several SMU trustees, alumni and administrators, among them Arthur L. Kramer Jr., SMU board of development member; Fred L. Bryson, SMU Student Center director; Willis Tate, SMU president; and Charles S. Sharp, Dallas  philanthropist and vice chair of the board of Fidelity Union Life Insurance Company.

Another significant connection was Eugene McElvaney, an SMU trustee and prominent banker. In 1952, McElvaney helped develop the Ponies Oil Company, formed to benefit SMU. Hope invested in the enterprise, owning 16% of Ponies Oil, thereby making his first financial contribution to SMU.

In the early 1960s, SMU’s Kramer approached Hope with the idea of donating funds for a signature theatre. Tate followed up with a letter to Hope; Bryson, along with Bob Bixler, Paramount Pictures’ publicity chief in Dallas, visited Hope in California; a visit from McElvaney followed. As a result, Hope donated a $300,000 parcel of California real estate to SMU.

On April 30, 1965, on the way to the Bob Hope Theatre groundbreaking, Hope casually handed an envelope to President Tate. Inside was a surprise second gift to SMU, a personal check for $500,000, bringing his total contribution to $800,000. When asked later why he made the donations, Hope replied, “Because they were the first to ask.”

Bob Hope is crowned “Homecoming King” in 1968.
Bob Hope on Campus

Hope was a repeat visitor to SMU over the years, first in 1949 when a group of SMU students brought him to an SMU-vs.-Notre Dame pep rally. Among multiple other visits, he was on hand for the Bob Hope Theatre’s inaugural show, Hotel Paradiso, in November 1968. That same year he was also crowned SMU’s first-ever “Homecoming King.” Hope served on SMU’s board of trustees from 1968 to 1976, and in 1969, he spent a week on campus rehearsing for a Meadows production of Roberta, the Broadway musical that first brought Hope to national attention. The nationally televised show drew Hollywood celebrities, Dallas society and SMU students. The $500-per-ticket event raised over $150,000 for SMU’s new Bob Hope Scholarship Fund.

Hope returned as a distinguished visiting professor for three days in 1984 to teach comedy classes on pacing, topicality and jokes.

His last visit to the SMU campus was for a black-tie gala in April 1992, “Onstage with Bob Hope,” at which he received the Medal of Distinction from the Meadows School. Associate Professor of Dance Patty Harrington Delaney directed and choreographed the celebration, held at the Hope Theatre.

“We did dance numbers from Hope’s 1940s series of ‘Road’ films,” recalls Delaney. “Bob was into his 80s by then, and because he couldn’t hear very well, he sat in the front row next to Dean Eugene Bonelli. Bonelli told me later that during one of the numbers, Bob turned to him and said, ‘Bing and I weren’t that good,’ indicating how well our students performed.”

Meadows Alumni Beyond the Hope Stage

The Bob Hope Theatre has been a proving ground and launch pad for hundreds of students who have gone on to careers in dance, music, theatre, film and more. Multiple celebrities and guest speakers have also graced the Hope stage over the years, bringing their artistry and inspiration to students and audiences alike.

Dance alumnus Michael Trusnovec (’96) recalls how dancing on the Hope stage as a student led him to meet legendary choreographer Paul Taylor, which led to a 22-year career with the Paul Taylor Dance Company as a dancer, director of worldwide licensing and associate rehearsal director.

“I recall such a sense of pride that, as a student about to graduate and embark on the world, there I was dancing the masterwork Esplanade with Paul Taylor—the genius who had choreographed it—sitting in the audience. I remember how generous and warm and genuinely pleased he was with all of the hard work we had done,” said Trusnovec. “How very grateful I still am to have had that early introduction to the great artist I would go on to serve for over two decades.”

Gary T. McDonald (B.F.A. Film ’73 and M.F.A. Theatre Arts/Playwriting ’74) says the USA Film Festival, held at the Bob Hope Theatre from 1971 to 1981, had a profound effect on him when he was a student, introducing him to a steady stream of accomplished directors and actors.

“Every year the festival brought in a great director to honor with a retrospective,” said McDonald. “During the time I was a student, there was George Stevens, followed by Frank Capra, Raoul Walsh, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, William Wyler, Mervyn LeRoy, King Vidor and George Cukor. It was great to see their films and hear their filmmaking war stories. Even when the Festival was not on, all kinds of people coming through town would stop by, show their newest film in the Bob Hope Theatre and visit our classes. Everyone from Bob Hope to Robert Wise, who edited Citizen Kane and directed West Side Story; to Michael Wadleigh, who directed Woodstock; to Dennis Hopper, who brought Kid Blue one year and a wild, unfinished print of The Last Movie another. For me, the USA Film Festival at the Hope Theatre was one of the best things about SMU.”

McDonald moved to Los Angeles shortly after graduating, and went on to become a producer on The Thin Blue Line; screenwriter for Tommy Boys; and filmmaker on The Fourth Noble Truth, among other projects.

Theatre alumna Marilyn L. Wilson (’76), former executive at ABC and now president of Marilyn Wilson Productions in Los Angeles, is best known for her work as executive producer of Chrisley Knows Best, Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, Househusbands of Hollywood and more.

Her audition for the theatre department in 1973 prepared the foundation of a successful career. “I specifically remember my singing audition,” said Wilson. “I had just done a ton of summer stock but I was terrified.  I’m not sure who was out there in the dark but I got up there and sang some brassy song on that beautiful stage hoping I wouldn’t fall on my face. I think I got one callback for one SMU show and that was it! But I made it into the department and was thrilled. The Bob Hope Theatre and that day shaped my life. It began my journey of being a warrior and developing a thick shell against failure and a work ethic for success.”

Work on Meadows opera productions helped prepare theatre alumna and costume designer Caitlin Rain (’12) for her career. Known for her designs on New York Opera Society productions of Upon This Handful of Earth and Letters from Ruth, Cain works nationally and internationally as an assistant designer on ballet and opera, and says her work on SMU’s Marriage of Figaro was extremely formative. “It was a chance to work on a grand scale, between the size of the house and the passions of the characters,” she said. “The design team was able to dream big, and lucky enough to have the resources to realize most of those dreams. The depth and larger seating capacity of the Hope gave me experience designing for larger venues. Since SMU, I’ve worked on large-scale productions including Anastasia at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre and two world premieres for American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House.”

Hank Hammett, director of lyric theatre, senior lecturer and chair of vocal ensembles at Meadows, has directed 11 full operas on the Hope stage, in close collaboration with the Meadows Division of Theatre design department and the Meadows Symphony Orchestra.

“To have a production where everything is built around the students is really rare in university theatre programs,” said Hammett. “At many universities, most things are rented from here or there, a sort of a mishmash. The quality that we are able to give our students—our training, costumes, sets, lighting design, performing with the Meadows Symphony Orchestra and more—is one of the most invaluable things we can offer.” The Hope Theatre itself, said Hammett, is a wonderful prize, calling the 392-seat venue intimate and appropriate. “Our vocalists know they have to be at the top of their game, giving authentic, effective, believable, natural performances—there are no sightline problems in the Hope Theatre. The intimacy of the house is great.”

Hope at the groundbreaking for the new Owen Arts Center, 1965.
Working for Bob Hope 

Theatre alumnus Milton Justice never performed on the Hope stage, having graduated in 1968 before the theatre was open. But he went to work for Hope in 1969, during the theatre’s production of Roberta, arranging a complicated transportation schedule for all the visiting stars.

“The producers were impressed with how I organized everything and invited me to work with them in Hollywood,” said Justice. “Much to their surprise, I took them up on their offer.”

They put him to work as a go-fer. “Bob had 12 writers, holed up in dark apartments all over Los Angeles,” said Justice. “There was a team writing in North Hollywood, West Hollywood, another one way out in the Valley. My job was to take material from the producer’s office and deliver it to each of the writers.”

In 1969, he went on Hope’s 14-day, 12-base USO tour in Vietnam. Justice helped get the “poop” sheets ready—12 pages of random questions for each area, on which the writers would build their jokes.

“We would send a poop sheet to all the military bases we were going to,” said Justice, “and somebody on the base would fill out the answers to questions like, ‘Where do the guys hang out when they are off base?’ Or, ‘Where do they go to meet girls?’

“The Da Nang show on Christmas Day had 25,000 soldiers. Bob got on the stage and the opening joke was along the lines of, ‘So, listen, we’re really sorry we’re late, but some of the band got stuck at Lola’s,’ knowing that Lola’s was the local pick-up bar. The audience loved it.”

After he’d worked with the Hope team for five years, Justice’s entertainment career took off. He produced Vanities, which opened on Broadway in 1976 for a 1,785-show run, and included multiple SMU theatre alumni: actress Kathy Bates (’69), scenic designer John Arnone (’70), playwright Jack Heifner (’68) and director Garland Wright (’69). He went on to win an Oscar and an Emmy, and taught acting and producing at Yale University and other colleges for many years.

bob hope oscar
Bob Hope receives an “SMU Oscar” from the SMU Arden Club, 1965.
Lasting Impact

Bob Hope’s 70-year career was unparalleled, nonstop and impressive. He held a 60-year relationship with NBC; hosted the Academy Awards 19 times; and wrote or co-wrote 14 books. Over a 47-year stretch, Hope and his entourage of Hollywood stars entertained more than 11 million American troops around the world. He starred in more than 50 films, earning Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys, Peabodys, People’s Choice awards and more.

Before Hope died at age 100 in May 2003, he and his wife Dolores donated his archive of personal papers, radio broadcast recordings, prints of movies and videos of television shows, scripts for films and radio programs, photographs, clippings and hundreds of thousands of jokes to the Library of Congress.

The SMU DeGolyer Library also has multiple holdings regarding Bob Hope, including photographs, news clippings, show programs and oral histories, and the SMU Hamon Library G. William Jones Film and Video Collection holds approximately 20 hours of behind-the-scenes footage of Hope at SMU, plus a collection of archival photographs from the USA Film Festival at the Hope Theatre.

Over 50 years, multiple well-known celebrities and luminaries have been featured on the Hope stage, including Meadows Award recipients such as playwright Edward Albee, musician Wynton Marsalis and choreographer Merce Cunningham. SMU Meadows School of the Arts continues this rich legacy with annual dance performances, a fully staged opera, the August Wilson Monologue Competition and numerous other performances and events held in the Bob Hope Theatre, an enduring platform for education, innovation and entertainment for students and the Dallas community alike.