Thursday, November 3, 2011

Who's Bob Hope?

This, a TV network catering to the substations that began to appear after the switch from analog to digital broadcasting, recently showed I’ll Take Sweden, a Bob Hope flick with Tuesday Weld and Frankie Avalon (on break from American International’s Beach Party series to give the United Artists comedy some “youth appeal”). It’s one of several films that the ski-nosed comedian made for United Artists in the 1960s (Call Me Bwana, Eight on the Lam, Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number, and The Private Navy of Sgt. O’ Farrell were among the others), a decade in which he thrived on television as the host of numerous NBC specials and the annual Academy Awards, but found his big screen appeal on the wane. The movie audience by that time was growing increasingly younger, and had turned their attention to more contemporary comic personalities like Peter Sellers. Even Hope’s older fans were finding his movies embarrassing as he continued to play the would-be-Lothario even in his mid-60s. In his final big-screen starring vehicle, 1972's Cancel My Reservation, released by Warner Bros., Hope, then nearing 70, tells someone he’s 42, and, no, it wasn’t meant as a joke, a variation on Jack Benny’s running gag that he was always 39.

In I’ll Take Sweden, Hope plays his age. He’s married to Dina Merrill. Tuesday Weld plays his daughter who is being wooed by Avalon, of whom Hope probably disapproves. I say “probably” because I wasn’t following the intricacies, such as they were, of the plot. Seeing Hope in this movie made me wonder if the comic, once a godlike figure in American culture, and a controversial one for his outspoken conservative politics and support of the Vietnam War, is known to anyone under 30 today?

On a recent episode of The Late Show with David Letterman, bandleader Paul Shaffer made a reference to Hope when pop star Britney Spears made an unscheduled appearance, something Hope had done many times on The Tonight Show during the reign of Johnny Carson.

“Who’s Bob Hope?” she asked.

Who’s Bob Hope?!!!

In the 1960s and ‘70s (and in earlier decades), such a question would have been unthinkable. Britney Spears may not be typical of her generation in being unfamiliar with a man whose presence was impossible to avoid when I was growing up, but I think she is. The days when the three major TV networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) dominated American culture are long gone. Even a casual TV viewer would have likely been exposed to Bob Hope in the ‘60s and the ‘70s, either through his Christmas specials, his old movies (and some of the older ones, like My Favorite Spy and those Road movies with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, were good ones) on local television late shows, itself a remnant of the past, or through his regular visits to the evening and afternoon talk shows. Even if you didn’t actually watch these shows, you would have been aware of them during the commercials breaks during Star Trek or The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Hope’s NBC specials were ratings powerhouses, always placing in the top 10 of the weekly Nielsen ratings. In the late ‘70s, however, his drawing power began to deteriorate. His much ballyhooed trip to China, the subject of a 1979 special, was creamed in the ratings, even losing to ABC’s airing of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, ironic considering that Hope was a mainstream establishment figure with wide appeal, and Allen, who idolized Hope, was a comparatively fringe performer whose appeal was to a younger, more intellectually inclined (and pretentious) clique.

Hope continued cranking out specials into the ‘80s with disappointing results, then retired the next decade, finally passing on at age 100 in 2003. Hope’s death was front page news and received massive media coverage, but NBC, the network at which he spent several lucrative decades, didn’t bother to commemorate his career with a prime-time special compiling clips from his many specials. Times had changed and tastes had shifted. Hope was an historical figure of interest to viewers other than those in the age bracket (18-49) that appeals to advertisers, and, therefore, worthy of a news report but not an even an hour of prime-time.

Times waits for no one, as the Rolling Stones observed, and time passed Bob Hope by as it is passing by many icons for the 20th century. The icons include performers, but also products that were once essential to our daily lives. Timex may have sponsored many of Bob Hope’s TV specials, but the wristwatch is no longer a necessity to a generation raised in the age of the cell phone. Many young people don’t wear watches. They simply whip out their cell phones to check the time, and since it’s displayed in digits, knowing that it’s, say, 2:30 when the small hand is on the 2 and the big hand is on the 6, is almost useless. Newspapers have been a staple of American life since the 1800s, but their considerable influence was usurped by the Internet and most, even such venerable institutions as The New York Times, are unlikely to survive with their power intact, if they survive at all. Magazines are still around, but their circulation and revenue, dependent on advertising dollars, are dwindling and their future is looking increasingly precarious. Newsweek has been losing $20 million a year and has been put up for sale by its owner, The Washington Post. Time, which debuted in 1923 and on whose cover one was thought to have reached the pinnacle of fame, may be doing better, but no one really cares about “making” the cover anymore. I’m more likely to read it online than in print. Movies survive, but 35 mm film, on which movies have been shot and printed since their invention in the last years of the 19th century, is likely to become obsolete as digital becomes the format in which movies are made and projected. Television is still with us, but those three networks - ABC, CBS, and NBC - that once dominated the industry, must now compete with Fox which started in the ‘80s as a minor niche network, but now has the single most popular prime-time program thanks to American Idol. Now there are four networks, and while they still command the largest chunk of the viewing audience, cable channels have made inroads into their audience. Some younger viewers watch their favorite shows online.

Also competing with television is home video, introduced to the market in 1976 with the debut of the Betamax. Soon, the Betamax lost out to VHS, which became the format of choice among consumers. Now, tape has been replaced with discs, DVDs and now Blueray. Eventually, discs will disappear as movies are downloaded via the Internet. The accessibility of movies in these formats threatens movie theaters as they become less important. Will they disappear, too? Technology has had the greatest impact on the recording industry. It was in 1877 that Thomas Edison invented sound recording which soon became available to the public on cylinders. Dials made of wax and rubber soon took their place and pre-recorded music was available to the public on discs that played on phonographs at 78 rpm (which stood for “revolutions per minute”). The long-playing 33 1/3 disc was introduced in the middle of the 20th century, along with the 45 rpm single that traditionally contained two songs, one per side. Reel-to-reel tape made its debut shortly thereafter, followed by 8 Track cartridges, then cassettes. The vinyl record dominated until the ‘80s when the compact disc, a tiny metallic object little bigger than the average palm, took its place. Now, however, music is being downloaded from the Internet, sometimes illegally. Disc sales are way down, and the major recording companies, including such famous names as RCA, Capitol, and Columbia, are almost certainly going to crash and burn as recording artists bypass them completely and market their music themselves. And that music is heard more often than not on the Internet or played on tiny hand-held devices like the MP3 player, rather than on the radio. It’s a new world.

It’s a world in which many people are likely ask the same question that Britney Spears posed to Paul Shaffer: "Who’s Bob Hope?"

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks