It would be a tremendous understatement to call Bob Hope a cultural icon. He was a comedian, singer, dancer, author, radio and TV personality, film and Broadway star and host of 19 Academy Awards shows, but Hope probably was best known for 50 years' headlining United Service Organization (USO) shows around the world, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, from World War II through the Gulf War. His mission was to bolster the morale of servicemen and women, often in war zones, through comedy sketches and performances with beautiful women performers.
On the Road With Bob Hope & Friends, presented by the National WWII Museum in its BB's Stage Door Canteen, is a nostalgic musical revue that revisits several of his appearances alongside glamorous songstresses, such as Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Maxwell (both played by Katelyn Gulotta), Ann-Margret (Skylend Roussell), Lola Falana (Jarrell Hamilton) and Fran Jeffries (Christine Tonry), among others.
Hope's career began in vaudeville, where he became famous for one-liners. For the USO shows, his joke writers would research the location's military officers, rations, climate and other information to incorporate into his routine. Bill Johnson plays Hope and bears an uncanny resemblance to him, swinging a golf club and mimicking his trademark deadpan delivery. He donned a hooded, fur-lined jacket for a scene from a show in Alaska.
"One thing to warm up a G.I. is a pretty girl, and I brought plenty," Hope says.
Hope lightened the tense atmosphere in war zones.
"If you exit stage left, you'd be captured," Johnson quips. "The other base invited me; this one dared me."
Christian Tarzetti is charming as Italian opera singer Anna Maria Alberghetti performing in South Korea. She sings "Love Makes the World Go 'Round" from the 1961 musical Carnival!, for which Alberghetti won a Tony Award for Best Actress.
Margi Cates performs Kaye Stevens' burlesque rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," slowly and suggestively peeling off opera-length gloves.
As Joey Heatherton, who had appeared on the TV dance show Hullabaloo and accompanied Hope for a decade, Roussell does a sexy gymnastic dance.
Hope describes the military's "secret weapon" ("serial number 35-24-35"), which would cause immediate surrender, while introducing Miss World 1967, Madeline Hartog-Bel (Tarzetti).
The Canteen's intimate cabaret space doesn't feel like an arena filled with thousands of excited soldiers anticipating a show, and it's hard to simulate the celebrity appeal of show-stopping Hollywood actresses like Mansfield. Hope's humor deliberately focused on those locations and moments. Some of the jokes about dumb blondes seem dated, but On the Road recalls some of the period's stellar talents and an American hero who gave the gift of humor to his country.