When Bob Hope Used His Fame for Good

If you had to stick a pin in a timeline to find a key moment in Hollywood philanthropy, it might be May 6, 1941. That’s the date Bob Hope took the stage at an Army Air Corps base in Riverside, California, and opened the curtain on the very first USO Camp Show.

The United Service Organization had been formed that year, at the suggestion of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and through the combined efforts of the YMCA, YWCA, Salvation Army, Jewish Welfare Board, Catholic Community Charities, and the Travelers Aid Society. It was a nongovernmental agency designed to provide relief and recreation to the growing number of American soldiers who would soon be sent overseas to fight in World War II. It was an unprecedented partnership in volunteerism, and in many ways it paved the way for the way many philanthropic organizations operate today.

But it was Hope who made the USO a true cause célèbre, starting a decades-old tradition of stars entertaining American soldiers on remote military bases around the world. From Marilyn Monroe to Scarlett Johansson and Frank Sinatra to Jon Stewart, thousands of singers, dancers, actors and comedians have traveled to war zones like Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan over the past 83 years, doing their best to bring a little Hollywood glamour to the front lines.

After that first show in Riverside, Hope continued to visit the troops for the next 50 years, twirling his beloved golf putter while spreading his inimitable joie de vivre (“To give you an idea of ​​how long these guys were at sea,” he said during a show on an aircraft carrier in 1967, “they just made Phyllis Diller their pin-up girl”).

His last tour of duty was in 1990, in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, during the Gulf War in Iraq. Hope, or “GI Bob,” as the soldiers called him, was 87 at the time. He died in July 2003 at the age of 100.

This article first appeared in the July 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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