Bob Hope and I sitting on the Great Wall of China in June, 1979. He had just completed taping our opening number, "We're Off on the Road to China," ala The Road to Morocco.
In 1974, soon after Richard Nixon opened relations with the Peoples Republic of China, Hope began a behind-the-scenes campaign to become the first American entertainer to tape a television special there. He spent the next five years cajoling the State Department and the Department of Defense -- at the start of every new season I'd say, "We doing China this year?" and he'd say, "Any day now. Stay packed."
Leaning on a raft of influential government pals including Henry Kissinger and calling in markers he'd been collecting from the government since World War II, he finally received permission to take our show there as part of a cultural exchange program dubbed by the press "Ping Pong Diplomacy."
On June 16, 1979 after a four-hour flight from Narita, Japan, a Chinese Airlines 707 filled with our merry band of mirth makers eager to get their first look at this hotbed of Communism, touched down at the Peking Airport. The group included Bob and Dolores Hope, their daughter, Linda, her co-producer Jim Lipton -- with whom Gig Henry and I would share writing credit -- Jim's wife, Kedakai, director Bob Wynn and a support crew made up of pretty much the same gang who had earned their Hope Squadron wings on our trek to Australia the previous year. Since Hope was the most recognizable American to set foot in China since Nixon, we'd be whisked through Customs with some of the usual formalities either waived or abbreviated -- an accommodation I'd later come to regret.
Our guest stars would arrive over the next several days -- Mikhail Baryshnikov, Crystal Gayle, Big Bird from Sesame Street, mimes Shields and Yarnell and a popular disco-duo, Peaches and Herb. Booking the show had not been easy since we'd be spending a full month on location -- three weeks in Peking and a week in Shanghai. While many major stars would have welcomed the opportunity to see China, most are unwilling to commit that much time to any project short of a film and Hope wasn't paying movie caliber fees.
At the airport, we disembarked and discovered we were on our own. We would learn later that a delay in our arrival time had put us in conflict with a group of American mayors whose plane had touched down several minutes before ours. The junketing hizzoners included LA's Tom Bradley whom we would meet later. The PRC officials were busy rolling out the red (no pun intended) carpet for them, so there we were, standing beside the plane -- no movable ramps back then -- holding our carry-on luggage. "Well," said Hope, "looks like we'll end up tipping ourselves." We started off toward what looked like the main reception area -- it had a portrait of Mao over the front door -- and after a minute or two spotted a convoy of government limos speeding toward us. Out climbed several officials from the Ministry of Culture who immediately began spewing apologies that would have put Kobe Bryant to shame. Presently there was more bowing than a convention of Sumo wrestlers as they led us into the airport's reception area.
They had a long table set up in the lobby offering refreshments that the crew proceeded to devour while Hope was giving the first of his many interviews on Chinese soil. Shortly, we were convoyed to the twenty-five story Peking Hotel in small vans that carried about six people. (They would be available to us throughout our visit like free taxis.) During the half- hour drive, we got our first look at the hustle and bustle of life in the PRC and noticed among the seemingly endless lines of bicycles, few vehicles. Bicycles were the norm -- millions of them. The hotel was about six blocks from Tienanmen Square and on the main thoroughfare that leads to the Forbidden City. There, a few years later, a student protester would gain the admiration of the world by making a Chinese Army tank blink first.
We were welcomed by the starched hotel staff standing in formation on the front steps. Each smiled and bowed as we passed. This custom would be repeated when we checked out and again in Shanghai when we checked into the hotel there three eeks later. Gig and I were shown to our rooms on the eighth floor while the Hopes were escorted to the twenty-fifth. Immediately, there was a problem. Dolores's room was on the same floor as her husband's, but about fifty yards down the hall. She was told that was the custom among upper class Chinese. Apparently, our hosts believed that the centuries-old norm for emperors should apply to tourists with emperor status on their home turf. Dolores would have none of it, requesting that her bed be placed in a large anteroom just inside one of the entrances to Hope's suite where it would remain for her entire stay.
Most of the company -- staff, crew and talent, forty-five of us in all -- were lodged in the Peking whose marble-heavy architecture resembled a Hilton shipped in from Moscow. The Russians had supervised its design and construction and it showed. Our rooms were basic, comfortable -- a color TV was included, but for some strange reason, received only programs in Chinese -- and they were never locked. The sliding doors to the balconies were double pane glass to keep guests insulated from the street noise below. On each floor near the elevator, a concierge stood guard with the vigilance of a rock concert rent-a-cop. Strangely, we came to feel no hesitation in leaving valuable belongings in a hotel room with the door open. Maybe the penalty for petty theft in China -- death -- had something to do with this.
Gig and I were assigned a young, affable Chinese college student who spoke excellent English and was spending his summer with the government, to act as our guide and interpreter and to make sure we didn't wander onto any military installations. When behind the Bamboo Curtain, one feels much safer with a plainclothes agent within earshot. Or any kind of shot.
In 1979, first class hotels in China had yet to come equipped with gyms, spas and swimming pools, but we had the next best thing -- Dale Huffstedler, Hope's masseur. Whenever we worked late, Dale would drop by, deliver a quick rub-on-the-run , and we'd soldier on, refreshed.
Each morning, there would be a large thermos of hot tea outside the door, which was the closest we ever got to Room Service. All of our meals were served in a cavernous, high-walled dining hall with huge murals of the Yangtze's Three Gorges. It was about the size of UCLA's Pauley Pavilion and every bit as intimate. Mealtimes were posted and if you missed them, you were out of luck. McDonald's and other fast food meccas had yet to invade the Peoples Republic, but going hungry was never a problem since the Chinese traditionally demonstrate their hospitality through copious gifts of calories. Important visitors rate eight to twelve course banquets -- almost every evening. We ended up attending more banquets than a major league manager in the off-season.
An admitted sweetsaholic, Hope became a frequent flier at the hotel’s
ice cream bar which featured one of his favorites, chocolate mocha
with sprinkles. But he had to pay a steep price when he got back
home — six weeks at the Betty Ford on a non-fat yogurt drip.
Hope never refused autograph-seekers anywhere in the world.
Having attained icon status, Hope wasn’t treated like an ordinary
megastar. He was on another level — not just a celebrity, but an
American institution. Note Barney McNulty over my left shoulder.
Every day, lunch was a buffet that was heavy on seafood. Piles of shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, oysters, crab, calamari, octopus, sea snails, fresh salmon and sea bass and other undersea creatures known only to the Chinese were arranged in attractive displays along with the usual items found on most Chinese menus back home -- the only noticeable difference being a subtle "gaminess" due to the duck fat used in China for frying.
Gig claimed he was allergic to seafood so had to be careful. His allergy severely limited his choices, but one day, he announced that he'd found sliced tongue that was as good as the Stage Deli's in New York. It was available daily, so he took advantage of it. Toward the end of our stay, I was in line with one of our Chinese technicians and said, "Have you tried the tongue? My partner says it's fantastic." He said, "That's not tongue. It's sea slug." I never had the heart to tell Gig.
When not out on location somewhere, Gig and I spent our days grinding out material in our rooms or working with Hope in his suite. One day, waiting for him to return, I was there with Don Marando and left to pick up something from my room. I couldn't have been gone more than two-minutes, tops. When I returned to the suite, I found the door locked so I knocked. A voice I thought belonged to Don said "Who is it?" Always clowning, that Don. "Me, ass----!" The door opened a crack and Dolores said, "I beg your pardon." She had come back to her makeshift bedroom-alcove during the two minutes. I said, "You're supposed to be Don." She laughed and said, "And I thought you were a good Catholic boy." She smiled again and added, "Don said he'd meet you for dinner later." It always helps when your employer is married to a good sport.
Dolores and I had a history of mistaken identity. One day, while I was working with Hope at his house, his phone rang. He was across the room and said, "Grab that, will you." I picked up the receiver and a voice said, "Hello, Bob?" Instinctively, I said, "Yes?" I recognized the voice, but before I could stop her, she said, "Betty Ford called. She wants us to join them for -- " "Dolores, it's me -- Bob Mills." I cut her just short of revealing any state secrets, but we both knew it was a close call.
Co-producer Linda Hope (Hope's daughter) stops by to make sure the assembly line is running smoothly. Linda, the eldest of four children, is the only one who opted for a show business career. She had to work in a broad shadow and her relationship with her dad was sometimes contentious — she jokingly referred to him as “The Ayatollah.” Today, she manages Hope Enterprises, overseeing the comedy empire her dad built.
Hope and I are comparing war wounds — actually, our reaction to the myriad shots we had to get before departing for the Orient. In 1979, China required inoculations against everything from chicken pox to restless leg syndrome. So we all reported to a doctor in Hollywood who gave us a group rate. I just wish he hadn’t used the same needle. Today, no shots are required. I guess we’ve gotten healthier.
We taped the show's opening segment which featured Hope singing "We're Off on the Road to China" -- a la "The Road to Morocco" -- along the walkway atop the Great Wall. There weren't many visiting tourists and the few there were agreed to remain out of sight while we filmed. As Hope proceeded to strut down the ancient cobblestones, he lip-synched to a music track from speakers set up behind him. Only occasionally did he glance at cue cards with Jim Lipton's lyrics that Barney McNulty had taped beneath the guard rails just out of the camera's view. Using a 3-wood as a walking stick, he sang:
Hey, we're off on the road to China
With fun and adventure in mind
The seventh Wonder of the World
Is here beneath our feet
Compared to this the road to
Mandalay is obsolete
We're off on the road to China
Who knows what we're going to find
Like Marco Polo long ago
We enter starry-eyed
Ready to be Peking-eed
And hot to be Shanghaied
We'll meet on the road to China
If you're into foreign affairs
And since there is so much to see
From sea to shining sea
We'll sample one from column A
And one from column B
It's neat on the road to China
We've nothing to lose but our cares
We're half a world away
From old New York and London Town
We're doing pretty well for people
Standing upside down
It's time for the feast to begin
Our table's set with China
So let's all dig in
With the Great Wall spiraling into the distant sky, it was the most auspicious and visually impressive opening Hope ever performed on television. We had no doubt that it was worth the time, expense, and full day of shooting it had taken to get it on tape.
Here we are making sure we’d have proof to show the folks back home that we really had made history — the first American TV crew allowed in China. The only notable absence is our star himself who was elsewhere taping a commercial for Coca-Cola. Gig is missing, too — probably with Hope to help punch up the ad copy. Front row: (l to r) Don Marando, the author, Carl Jablonski (choreographer), Marcia Lewis (associate producer), Robert Shields & Laureen Yarnell (mimes), Chinese liaison, Mrs. Hope’s interpreter/guide, Barney McNulty (cue cards). Second row: a production assistant, Linda Hope (coproducer), sound and lighting crew. Standing: Chinese aides, Dale Huffstedler (masseur), Lon Stucky (lighting), Dolores Hope, Bob Keyes (Handicam), Bob Wynn (director), Chinese assistants, Kedakai Lipton, James Lipton (producer), Chinese assistants, Will Oborn (comptroller).
Anxious to see as much of the wall as we were allowed to, and while Hope was off taping a commercial for Coca-Cola , several of us headed north way from those sections with which the outside world is now so familiar.
About a half mile past the steepest inclines -- where it's one step at a time, slowly -- the rebuilt portion ends. Beyond stretches a band of rubble that extends as far as the eye can see. At this remote location, what strikes the first-time visitor is the silence. It's been that way for at least a century, we were told, the result of starving peasants denuding the landscape of insects, birds, small and large mammals -- the entire kingdom of indigenous wildlife that once thrived there. With no ambient sounds save for the breeze gently rustling through the undergrowth -- which looks like that in northern California -- the atmosphere is eerie and unearthly. It's the sound you'd imagine on the surface of the moon. It's a grim reminder of the fragility of the earth's ecology and the irreversible carnage mankind can inflict on it. Rush Limbaugh should see it. Just once.
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On the bus ride to the Great Wall, we learned that in some unexpected ways, China is more like the West than any of us had imagined. We were about an hour out of Peking as the bus started its winding ascent into the hill country north of the city. Peering out the window with that glaze the eyes get when wonder begins giving way to monotony, one of our young sound engineers spied something on the roadside that he'd seen a few times before, but never expected to see in collective-farmville. Soon everyone on board agreed that the foot-tall plants lining the roadway for about a mile were what some refer to as "happy hemp," others as "giggle weed" -- mature marijuana.
Putting work before pleasure -- an honored tradition among Hope staffers -- it was on the return trip that the fun loving Future Farmers of Shanghai prevailed upon the driver to pull over so they could do a little harvesting. Granted, the crop was a bit on the green side, but it was nothing that a few hours under a hair dryer couldn't -- pardon the expression -- cure. Within hours, toasts were being made to the Peoples Republic by a few enterprising young Americans who had no idea that fifteen years later, an 18-year-old Westerner in Singapore would be caned for spraying graffiti on a Mercedes. I didn't join them, of course. My generation had Woodstock.
The Communist Chinese government is divided into Ministries -- a Ministry of Commerce, a Ministry of Health, a Ministry of Education and so on. From day one, the nemesis of The Bob Hope Show -- and Hope personally -- was the Ministry of Culture.
As a condition of being allowed to tape within their borders, the government insisted on approving every word of our script beforehand. This was not only unrealistic, but virtually impossible since we made script changes right up until tape began rolling. Allowing them to check each segment after it had been shot wouldn't have been a problem, but for some reason known only to Confucius, the Culture Ministers wouldn't go along.
Their insistence on a policy of prior approval would be major stumbling block during the entire shoot. Looking back on it, I think the Chinese officials had heard of Hope's legendary reputation for political jokes, feared they would be in his cross hairs, and decided to make sure they'd be protected from his comedic barbs. (Can't blame them there. They were correct on all counts.) Our first run-in with the policy evolved as follows. Gig and I had written a spot that was to be taped in front of the Democracy Wall, a poster forum in downtown Peking that had recently received a lot of ink in the world press. Now that they had undergone a Cultural Revolution, the theory went, any Chinese citizen was free not only to criticize the government, but to post his thoughts for all to read. Our version of this newly-found right of free speech went like this:
HOPE (to Chinese man pasting): Sir, would
you mind translating that for me?
MAN: Not at all. I'm complaining about all
the crime in the streets, traffic congestion,
loud music at night and air pollution.
HOPE: Gee, I had no idea Peking had all
MAN: Oh, I'm not from Peking. I'm from
from Passaic, New Jersey.
A permit to film at the wall had been requested and granted. The problem was, the actual script was completed just minutes before it was to be shot. There simply was no time to obtain an additional signature on our permit covering the changes. News of the sketch we shot reached Culture faster than the invasion of Nanking. You'd have thought the guy was from Tibet. The officials demanded the tape right out of our camera. Bob Wynn explained that it couldn't be removed without destroying other material on the same reel. After several head-to-head meetings, Hope was issued an ultimatum -- unless the Democracy Wall tape was turned over to them by day's end, no tape of our special would be allowed to leave the country. While Hope, Lipton and Wynn continued the delicate negotiations, we managed to smuggle out the offending segment hidden among footage being sent back to Los Angeles with Jess Marlow, a local newsman who was covering our trip for KNBC.
The Ministry backed down only after receiving a signed affidavit from Hope that the segment wouldn't be included in our special. It wasn't, but from that point on during our visit, even the food served at our honorary banquets seemed markedly cooler. The Democracy Wall was demolished shortly thereafter and has never been rebuilt. Ironically, there were other segments more deserving of Chinese scrutiny than the poster wall sketch. During our three-week stay in Peking, we would tape at locations from one end of the city to the other, hoping to capture just a hint of China's mystery and fascination for the Westerner. But our Hollywood brand of chutzpah could kick in at any time. We actually taped disco duo Peaches and Herb doing a number on the steps of the tiled, gold-encrusted Temple of Heaven that had provided Chinese peasants a place of worship since 1420. You could almost hear the emperors spinning in their sarcophagi.
We didn't know it yet, but the Democracy Wall debacle was just round one of what would turn out to be an ongoing game of cat-and-mouse with the Culture Ministers. We would soon learn just how serious they were about enforcing their version of the rules. Each morning, Gig and I met with Hope in his suite to discuss ideas for the show. Gradually, we noticed that Culture was saying "no" faster than the Parole Board on Devil's Island. It was almost as if they knew what we wanted before we submitted a formal request. As it turned out, they did.
One day, as we arrived for our usual strategy session, Hope motioned for us to join him outside on the balcony. As we slid the door closed behind us, he pointed toward the drain at one end of the deck and invited us to join him at the other. He whispered that he had been warned by someone at the American Embassy that his suite might be bugged, confirming our own suspicions that the rooms were in need of a visit from the Orkin man. I said "Does this mean the Dali Lama sketch is out?" Hope said, "Number One Son very observant." Needless to say, from then on, we tried to make sure that the only microphone Hope spoke into belonged to NBC.
We had a feeling that the Red Flag limousine assigned to Hope by the government also sported some after-market wiring. Moving from location to location on shooting days, Don Marando would have to juggle Hope's heavy aluminum makeup case on his lap because, according to the driver, the trunk was off limits to visitors.
We couldn't blame him. It's not easy to explain why a spare tire needs an antenna. Even though we were with NBC and not the CIA, it didn't seem to matter. Cold War suspicions run deep.
You are reading an excerpt from the 365-page book, THE LAUGH MAKERS: A Tribute to Bob Hope's Incredible Gag Writers by Robert L. Mills, J.D. To order the book online, go to: www.bearmanormedia.bizland.com/id370.html
As a further condition of being allowed to tape in China, Hope had agreed to deliver a "hands-across-the-oceans" speech extolling the new-found friendship between the two nations. Wielding a golf club and standing near the entrance to the Forbidden City with the portrait of Chairman Mao visible over his shoulder, he said:
HOPE: Peking China -- amazing, isn't it? Ten years ago, who would have dreamed that an American comedian would be standing here in Tienanmen Square saying whatever he pleased and photographing anything he pleased. In those days, the Peoples Republic was the Red Menace, a stern and implacable enemy who ridiculed our way of life and pictured us as wallowing in decadence. But
in this fast-moving world, radical changes can occur overnight. So here I am, and in the words of Oscar Hammerstein "getting to know you -- getting to know all about you, getting to like you, hoping that you like me."
I guess that's what this trip is all about. Getting to know each other -- talking and laughing and singing and dancing together, like good friends should. And liking each other. The Chinese are easy to like, ready to smile, courteous and helpful. And they make every effort to understand us -- and with a troupe of actors, that's not easy... (points) Behind that gate is the Forbidden City which is not forbidden to anyone anymore...
Unless, perhaps, you were Chinese and didn't toe the party line. Fifteen years later, on the very spot where Hope had stood to deliver this speech, unarmed student protesters were shot by soldiers of the Chinese Army.
* * * *
As soon as Hope learned that he'd be allowed to visit China, he made an arrangement with King Features Syndicate to send back weekly reports of his impressions of the mysterious Orient. As each deadline approached, Hope would say "Isn't it time I had a few more impressions?" and while he took his afternoon nap, we'd tap out the columns. Then, after he approved them, we'd run them through a teletype machine -- a cast iron monster we had to learn to use since neither of us was a teletypist. The thing looked like a church organ and had to date back to the days of gunboat diplomacy. The columns were sent to the King Features field office in Tokyo and later condensed in the October 1979 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Here's a sampling of Hope's impression of the Great Wall:
"Separating sky from jutting mountain crests as far as the eye can see, it snakes its way across Northern China like a giant ribbon on a Christmas package -- a present that was gift-wrapped twenty-five centuries ago. They say that high walls make good neighbors, but as you experience the breathtaking grandeur of this one -- stone laid upon stone, millions and millions of them -- it's hard to believe that it
all began centuries ago when an unemployed brick mason whispered into the emperor's ear 'But what if they show up from the north at night wearing sneakers?'"
We taped the stage-show segments of our China special on the Fourth of July at Peking's Capital Theater (one of the few things that Chairman Mao had allowed to contain the word capital) before an audience of PRC officials, foreign dignitaries, U.S. Ambassador Leonard Woodcock, his family, staff and American Embassy employees. The language breakdown was about half Chinese, half English-speaking. Waiting backstage with Hope as the audience filed to their seats, we peered through a gap in the curtain as a dozen high-ranking Communist Party leaders were being seated in the front row. They wore gray, baggy suits with the impeccable tailoring of pajamas from Walmart. They looked to be in the neighborhood of 80 -- and it must have been a rough neighborhood. Their lined faces reflected years of proletariat struggle, party in-fighting, industrial revolution and chain smoking. Watching this grim potpourri of Maoists, Hope frowned. "Look at them. Not a smile and they don't even speak English. How am I supposed to get laughs?" "Don't worry, Bob," Gig offered soothingly. "How many peasants could they have purged? A couple of million. Three on the outside." Hope said, "You're right. What am I worried about? I survived vaudeville."
At rehearsal that afternoon, we had to settle on the most efficient method of translating the material into Mandarin. First, we tried projecting the Chinese characters on a large screen beside the stage, but the Chinese, well-known as fast readers, would laugh before Hope could finish each joke. We decided he'd need an interpreter on stage beside him. We called for a volunteer and we got a good one -- Ying Ruo Cheng, one of China's leading actors who, a decade later, would play the disgraced Mayor of Peking in "The Last Emperor." Cheng's sense of comic timing proved an equal of Hope's and he got as many laughs from the Chinese as Hope was getting from the Westerners. I had seldom seen Hope more delighted -- two laughs for the price of one. His opening line that night was hardly designed to divert the minds of our hosts from the Cold War:
I can't believe I'm really here, but this must be China. Last night, I went to a movie called 'The America Syndrome.
Starring Jack Lemmon and Jane Fonda, The China Syndrome was playing to big box office in the states and concerned a threatened nuclear meltdown, a somewhat touchy subject in the PRC. But we were there to get laughs and, remember, this was before the age of political correctness.
I've been seeing all the sights. Yesterday, I stopped by the Academy of Science and they offered me a job as an exhibit.
Then I visited the Hall of Longevity. I promised my insurance man I would.
And I loved the Great Wall of China. Of course, I love anything as old as I am.
Though Hope was now seventy-seven, until recently lines like these would never have made it into the monologue. But he was beginning to take a certain pride in having arrived in Senior-Citizenland. And especially in China, where age is revered, jokes like these fell on appreciative ears.
Then we visited the Forbidden City. What opulence! It looks like Caesar's Palace without the slot machines.
At this juncture, Cheng turned to Hope and asked "What's a Caesar's Palace?" The Chinese may have been in the dark, but as you would expect, the line got a huge laugh from the Westerners. Hope said, "It's a little place that takes the money the IRS didn't get." That's a pretty quick ad-lib, but you ain't seen nothin' yet.
Yesterday, I visited your Marble Boat at the Summer Palace. A boat made entirely of marble. At first they said it wouldn't float -- and then Billy Graham showed up.
Again, Cheng interrupted his translation and asked, "Who is Billy Graham?" And in one of the quickest ad-libs I had ever heard, Hope replied "Billy Graham is an advisor at Caesar's Palace." The line proved yet again what a consummate ad-libber Hope was. During rehearsal, we got word that the Ministry of Culture had cut this joke from the monologue:
They serve a drink over here called mai tai. One sip and your head feels like it's going through a Cultural Revolution. Two sips and it feels like a Gang-of-Four.
We gladly complied and excised the offending material. After all, we were batting five-hundred. We lost this joke, but we managed to slip America Syndrome by them -- most likely because they didn't have a clue as to its meaning.
During our visit, we never doubted for a moment that the officials running Chairman Mao-land were serious about their Communist faith. Theirs is a godless society and in 1979, they still meant to keep it that way. This, however, wasn't about to interfere with Dolores Hope's devotion to her Catholic faith, the fervor of which made Mother Teresa's look lukewarm. To call Dolores devoutly Catholic is to call Bill Gates "PC-obsessed." The godless society that can keep her out of church hasn't been invented.
One afternoon, returning from an extended shopping expedition, she announced excitedly that she had managed to put the slip on her interpreter to search for a priest. She not only managed to find one, but he invited her to attend an underground mass the following Sunday. Asked if I wanted to join her (she was aware that I had once studied for the priesthood, but not that I had long since defected), I said, "I think I'm already in enough danger with my jokes."
Hope couldn't seem to share her excitement, either. "Don't you know," he said, "people here have been shot for that?" "Of course," she replied confidently. "But at least I'll die in the state of grace." Today, there are an estimated three hundred million Christians in China. But back then there were about three and Dolores managed to find the two Catholics.
Dolores traces her roots to Italy (her maiden name was DeFina) and is well known from Toluca Lake to Palm Springs for her considerable culinary skills. She had taken no chances when facing a month of nothing but Chinese food. She brought along several large suitcases packed with every non-perishable item she could gather up at Monte Carlo, Burbank's premier Italian deli which had been "By Appointment to the House of Hope" for decades. Each evening, we feasted on salami, pickles, sesame crackers, mushrooms in olive oil, garbanzo beans and other assorted delicacies that would complement our daily Happy-Hour pitcher of dry-martinis that Dolores would prepare at five o'clock sharp. Shaken, not stirred.
Happy Hour at the bar/gazebo located in the garden behind the Peking Hotel. Instead of a bar, the hotel offered an ice-cream counter located just off the lobby. L to R (standing) Ron Tom (NBC photographer), Marcia Lewis (associate producer), Bob Wynn (director), me. L to R (seated) Gig Henry, March Fong (NBC executive), lighting crew member, Jess Marlow (KNBC Los Angeles).
A friendly game of Texas Hold ’Em with (right to left) Gig, Ron Tom and Don Marando with yuan that we received as per diem. But there was nowhere to spend it — no bars, clubs, pool halls, bowling alleys, or fitness centers. Not even a Starbucks, a McDonald’s or a KFC. Not so today, however. When I returned to China in 2007, I found a country as Americanized as Cleveland.
We were allowed to shop during our visit but -- officially -- only at government-sponsored retail outlets for tourists called "Freedom Stores." Here the prices were set and clearly marked. No dickering. Even so, they were reasonable and I brought home three good quality wool rugs which still serve admirably.
I’m auditioning a child’s mini-violin which I was about to buy when our guide cautioned me that
it might be confiscated by Chinese Customs — in my hands it could be considered a deadly
weapon, banned for export. Even in China, everybody’s a comedian.
Gig and I head back to the hotel after an afternoon of shopping at the Freedom
Store. That’s one of the carpets that still lie on our floor in Studio City. Leaving
China, you had to account for the funds you brought in, and official receipts for all
purchases were strictly required.
Longing for a little more adventure, one afternoon Don, Gig and I slipped away from our guide for a couple of hours. In a narrow alley about a mile from the hotel, we discovered a small antique shop, obviously not intended for tourists. The musty interior was piled high with artifacts from estate-sales -- rugs, furniture, household utensils, silverware, paintings, photos, lamps, vases, family stamps called chops made of marble or ivory and decorated with dragons, lions, monkeys and other characters from China's ancient mythology. More items made of ivory -- chopsticks, statuary, and finely-carved jewelry. Up a narrow flight of stairs was the clothing -- kimonos, mens' suits, jackets, caps, sandals, shoes -- all in a pile that said it hadn't been disturbed in years. Hanging on one wall of the dimly lit mezzanine, almost unnoticed, were old costumes retired from the Peking Opera -- multicolored capes, pantaloons, garments weighted down with gold embroidery. Here was a treasure trove that foreigners weren't supposed to find! We felt like Sydney Greenstreet stumbling upon the Maltese Falcon. We made a few purchases and headed back to the hotel.
That night over dinner, we casually mentioned our find to Mikhail Baryshnikov -- Mischa to his friends, thank you -- and he went giddy with excitement. Peking Opera costumes? Authentic ones? Immediately. we had to draw him a detailed map so he could check them out next day. A few days later, Mischa's manager asked me if I'd be willing to lend his client some money. He had run out of cash and he had arranged to buy five of the costumes for around $300 apiece. I said, "Like I'm gonna lend money to a Russian defector who's in show business? This is a joke, right?" Actually, I had about tapped out too, but suggested he ask our production cashier, Wil Oborn -- we were issued a daily per diem in yuan -- for an advance. I'm told the five priceless costumes are now on display in his Manhattan brownstone.
We weren't allowed to take photographs inside the Forbidden City, although I did manage to sneak a few. We were given a guided tour of the ancient structures located just a hop, skip and fortune cookie from the hotel. Directly across from the now-infamous Tienanmen Square, in the days of the emperors it was -- and remains today -- real estate as hallowed as Buckingham Palace or Taj Mahal.
Forbidden indeed it was. Only royalty and senior bureaucrats were allowed through the ancient turnstile and the loftier their title, the deeper into the low rows of buildings they were allowed to proceed.
As we were escorted from one chamber to the next, each more ornate than the one before, even Hope, who had seen just about everything, was impressed. As we arrived at the very center of the complex, the emperor's living quarters, we stood for a long time in silence, inhaling the musty smell of ten centuries and drinking in the royal opulence. Finally, Hope broke the silence. Examining the intricately-carved and bejeweled throne which had cradled royal derrieres from every dynasty, he turned and whispered just out of earshot of our guide, "When does Yul Brynner show up?"
A Night at the Opera
We set aside a full day for our visit to Peking's Chinese Opera School, which can best be described as the New York School for the Performing Arts -- with barracks. Hand-picked by the government, kids from all over China are given free room, board and training to someday take their place in the cast of the Oriental version of the Met -- the Peking Opera. I take that back. Compared to the Met, this ensemble is a Green Beret unit. With more centuries under their belt than they care to admit, the Opera combines tumbling, juggling, gymnastics, slapstick comedy, fencing, acting, dancing and singing. The entire company consists of a first string unit as well as a number of road versions that constantly tour the provinces. Sort of Triple-A Opera.
The kids, who range in age from about eight to twelve, gave us a heart-pounding demonstration of calisthenics that seemed to transform them into prepubescent pretzels. We would later borrow six of these talented youngsters for a musical number that Hope would perform on Peking's famous Marble Boat -- the one Billy Graham managed to float in the monologue.
Near the city's edge is a lake, on the banks of which the emperors built a Summer Palace -- for those times when the pressures of emperoring called for a little R and R. Its most famous resident was the Empress Dowager, who apparently handled money something like Leona Helmsley who left her fortune to her dogs. Somehow she managed to blow hundreds of thousands of yuan that the Chinese parliament had allocated for a navy. To appease an unsatisfied admiralty, she ordered the construction of a boat made entirely of marble. The size of a small Mississippi paddle-wheeler, it forever stands immobile at the dock, a monument to the Dowager's quick thinking gift-giving. Not to take advantage of such a weighty set -- and one with a fascinating history to boot -- would have been unthinkable, so we dressed Hope as a Chinese admiral complete with a uniform borrowed from the Peking Opera, backed him with the six singers, and gave him "The Queen's Navy" from Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore with lyrics by James Lipton:
When I was a lad I tapped my feet
For nickles and dimes on a Cleveland street
I sang at picnics to the crowd's delight
And came in second at an amateur night
I came in second so frequently
That now I am the ruler of the Queen's navy
I knew I'd never get rich that way
So I took my act on the two-a-day
After six short months in Vaudeville
I worked my way to the bottom of the bill
When Vaudeville died, I was all at sea
So now I am the ruler of the Queen's navy
When Broadway beckoned one lucky day
My career was launched on the Great White Way
The critics rose with a mighty roar
And heatedly announced I wasn't Barrymore
So many shows sank under me
That now I am the ruler of the Queen's navy
My next adventure was radio
At last I was captain of my very own show
It pleased my family and it paid the rent
And it also sold a tube or two of Pepsodent
I sailed the airwaves for NBC
So now I am the ruler of the Queen's navy
So here I stand in my navy blue
On a marble boat with a Chinese crew
When I give commands they stand and stare
If I say """"Let's Go, They Reply "Go Where"?"
This boat hasn't moved since the Qin Dynasty
And neither has the ruler of the Queen's navy
On my return visit to China in 2007, I saw the marble boat once more, still dead-in-the-water near the Summer Palace. I could almost see Hope on her deck with the six Peking Opera dancers twenty-eight years before. I doubt she ever had a more talented captain.
It seems almost everyone in China begins the day with fifteen or twenty minutes of an ancient series of gentle exercises known as Tai Chi. Starting around six, Chinese of all ages can be seen everywhere practicing their version of Eight Minute Abs -- called "forms" -- that combine grace, balance and controlled strength. In city parks, on roadsides, or on the sidewalks in front of their homes, health-conscious Chinese have discovered a perfect alternative to Curves.
So one bright, sunny morning we jostled Hope out of bed at an hour he probably hadn't seen since vaudeville and hustled him over to Peking's Bai Hai Park. There, Bob Wynn plopped him into the center of about two-hundred Chinese factory workers gathered for their sunrise stretch session. As Hope did his best to mimic their movements to an amplified track of Gordon MacRae's Oh, What a Beautiful Morning, the camera meandered through the crowd. Though Hope missed a few pirouettes and generally resembled a reject from the second unit of the Bolshoi Ballet, the segment worked because it gave him an opportunity to pay homage in a comedic way to a daily ritual obviously held in high regard by our hosts. This close attention to local customs and attitudes paid big dividends in every country we visited -- especially so among the Chinese, whose culture is so different from our own.
The Accidental Tourist
TV was becoming more and more accessible to the peasants, but the bill-of-fare was strictly Chinese -- mostly Peking Opera clips, agricultural programs, documentaries highlighting the latest factory technology or crop yields, and a sketch oriented variety show that might have been entitled Communist Propaganda Tonight. At first, Hope enjoyed the anonymity that he hadn't experienced since he'd become famous. He'd often corral Gig and me to join him on long after-dinner walks through the industrial neighborhoods near downtown where most of our taping was done. He could stroll along freely, unhindered by the curious celebrity-watchers so common back home. We'd stop and peer past dusty parking lots that looked like bicycle burial grounds into assembly plants whose machines ran twenty-four hours a day, operated by hundreds of peasants -- men and women all dressed alike in white shirts, gray pants and black cloth slippers. Three shifts, around-the-clock in decrepit-looking buildings that boasted Peking's version of air conditioning -- permanently open windows. We didn't spot any Nike labels, but only because China was still on its way to becoming the land of the American basketball-shoe.
After several weeks of this nightly routine, we noticed that Hope was growing uncomfortable with his new found anonymity. Where were the milling throngs -- the adoring, autograph-seeking fans? Adrift in a sea of blank stares -- glazed unknowing l eyes -- he was starting to realize that all he had was us! But we were still in Peking. "When we get to Shanghai, the people there will know me," Hope would say, believing that his English birth would hold him in good stead in British-influenced Shanghai.
He was correct in one respect. Shanghai did look a lot more like London. Both the architecture and the rich mahogany interiors stood in stark contrast to the sterile marble so much in evidence in Russian-influenced Peking. But, alas, the good citizens of Shanghai were no more familiar with that famous profile than those in the capital had been.
One early evening, while scouting locations in Shanghai's shopping district, our small group had been walking with Hope for several blocks. It was obvious that we were noticed by hundreds of passersby, but only as visiting Westerners. Then from around a corner materialized a group of squealing teenagers waving what appeared to be autograph books. As they ran toward us, Hope said, "You chaps go on ahead and I'll catch-up after I take care of these -- " The girls rushed past him and into a department store that looked to be having a sale on Junior Miss kimonos. The girls were waving coupon books and, watching them rush by him, Hope looked slightly embarrassed. I felt sympathetic and said, "Well, Bob, now you know how it feels to be a nobody." Without breaking stride, he shot back, "How do you stand it?"
* * * *
Our accommodations at Shanghai's Chi Ching Hotel were as comfortable and steeped in history as any we'd ever been assigned. Gig and I shared the entire fifth floor with two production assistants, with a private elevator that opened onto our common foyer. We had a full-sized living room (with a fireplace), a dining room and a kitchen! The bedrooms at either end of the floor were castle-like turrets with leaded-glass windows that opened onto a view of upscale homes on the poplar-lined streets below. My spring-less bed was cushioned with down from swans that must have been plucked during the Qin Dynasty. Before entering my large, black-and-white tiled bathroom, I'd knock to alert the cockroaches whose honorable ancestors had to have taken up residence when that mattress was delivered. This wasn't a Roach Motel, it was the Roach Waldorf-Astoria! But all-in-all, Gig and I were so enchanted by Shanghai, we included this description in our dispatch to King Features:
"Shanghai -- the word itself evokes visions of a
China we in America have always thought typical
-- gray sampans slowly gliding across the evening
shadows of the Yangtze, steamy back streets,
narrow and pungent with all the exotic and
forbidden smells of the Orient -- opium dens,
gambling, vice. I think I'm homesick. Former
occupation by the British has left its mark
everywhere. This morning, I could have
sworn I was awakened by Big Ben chiming in
Cantonese. Everything seems stamped with an
English benchmark. It wouldn't surprise me to
come around a corner here and run into a
beefeater wearing a Mao jacket."
Gig and I joined Hope in the Chi-Ching Hotel conference room
where Nixon and Mao had signed the 1974 Sino-American Trade
Agreement opening China to the West. The desk they used is
directly behind us.
One night, cast and crew were seated at a banquet hosted by the Chinese Army. As he did at all the formal dinners, considering it a gracious gesture toward our hosts, Hope was attempting to operate a set of chopsticks ("My instructor says I'm doing so well, next week he's letting me use two.") While giving it the ol' college try, he lost control of a large fried shrimp that sailed over his shoulder like an aquatic Scud Missile, barely missing an ancient artifact -- no doubt Ming Dynasty -- on a table nearby. He looked around to see if anyone had caught his faux pas. It had gone unnoticed except by Don Marando who leaned over and whispered, "Bob, why don't you take a Mulligan?" (For you non-golfers, a Mulligan is a free shot to replace an errant one.)
As important to Hope as using chopsticks, was his rule that, no matter what, he'd at the very least, sample every entree that was served to us. At one banquet, he leaned over to me and said, pointing to an item on the lazy susan, "What's that?" "Fried salmon lips," I said. "Pretty good." Placing several of them on his plate, he whispered, "From now on, don't tell me."
Compared to today’s modern construction boom in China (office high-rises can take as little as a week per floor to erect), 1979 construction was rudimentary, labor intensive and slow, using methods that had been the norm for centuries. Scaffolds which could extend upwards four or five stories were made of sturdy bamboo stalks lashed together with hemp. Hard hats had not yet been introduced -- workers wore large-brimmed straw coolie hats as they scrambled along bamboo platforms that looked like the raft Tom and Huck ran away on. Tricycles with large, wooden flat beds between the two rear wheels were used to transport building materials -- everything from twenty-foot tall stacks of bricks to bags of cement to steel re-bar and girders.
One day, I noticed one of these flat beds had pulled up beside us at a stop light (all stop lights came with a white-uniformed traffic control officer perched on a raised platform in the center of the intersection). The bed was empty save for a large canvas cover cinched around the edges with twine. Three sets of feet, toes upward, protruded beyond the edge of the canvas at the rear of the flat bed. Pointing, I said to our guide, “Get a load of these guys catching forty winks on the way to the job site.” He shook his head and said, “No more work for them. They’re dead.” He explained that so many peasants came to Peking looking for employment, they became part of a faceless horde with no ties to local families and no means of identification. The flat bed driver was part of the city’s “corpse corps,” charged with picking up the deceased and taking them to a central location for disposal.
From the moment we arrived in China, I’d had a sense of how vastly different our cultures were, but that day I realized how wide the chasm really was. Though it's been twenty-nine years, I can still see those six toes pointing heavenward.
On every overseas trip, Barney McNulty, a naval history buff, would check out the local maritime museums. During our week's stay in Shanghai, he struck a motherlode and was spending much of his free time exploring the museum he found in that ancient seaport upon which the British had so thoroughly stamped their influence. As would happen occasionally, on one foray, he lost the concept of time's unceasing march and was nowhere to be found when Hope and Mikhail Baryshnikov arrived for a scheduled run-through. Without the cue cards, they were helpless and, as the minutes ticked on, Hope became more and more annoyed. He was slow to anger, but cross the line and he could make the offending party wish he or she had stayed in bed or even out of show business -- witness his dressing down Tony Randall in Chapter 2. Since Barney's tardiness was not that unusual, when it did happen we'd all pitch in to protect him, making sure we'd catch him before Hope did to warn him.
Barney McNulty (shown here with Hope PR man Ward Grant on the right) had been Hope's personal cue card man for thirty years. In the 1950s, he was working as a teenage page at CBS in New York when one day during a rehearsal of the "Ed Wynn Show," Ed came over to him and said, “I’m having trouble remembering my lines. Could you run over to Woolworth’s and buy me some cards to print them on?” Barney ran across Times Square, picked up some Bristol
board, india ink and broad-tipped pens and ran back to the studio and into a career he’d spend the rest of his life pursuing.
Finally, Barney strolled into the hotel -- forty-five minutes late -- and we were able to alert him that he'd better have a solid story ready. He did and immediately began pleading his case -- he'd never seen so many books on the British Navy, he was so fascinated by the ship models that lined the museum's walls, he was transported to another place, another time -- a place where cue cards weren't on the top of one's list. It was a gallant effort, but Hope was all over him like Simon Cowell on a tone deaf American Idol contestant. "This is it, Barney -- the last straw! You've gone too far this time. I've let it slide in the past, but now it's too late. You're through. Done. I can't rely on you and you're no longer of any use to me." Barney looked genuinely crestfallen. "Sorry, boss..." It was an apology that was all too familiar. We'd heard it before. As Barney slowly turned to leave. Hope said, "Where are you going now?" "To find a Chinese guy who can print in English." "Okay, as soon as we land in Burbank... "
Barney had a unique relationship with Hope because he was, while holding the cards, always up front and visible, vulnerable -- the ideal flack-catching position if anything went wrong. Worse, he was almost in the audience. He was like an all-too-convenient whipping boy. But there was a special bond between the two men that you could feel just watching them together. Maybe part of it was due to an incident that happened in Vietnam toward the end of the war. A secret itinerary for a USO Christmas special had fallen into the hands of the Viet Cong who scored a direct hit on the suite Hope was supposed to be occupying at the Brinks Hotel in Saigon. The room, and several to either side of it, was completely destroyed and the only reason Hope wasn't in it was because Barn had failed to show up for a rehearsal. Barney had saved Hope's life and the memory of that close call was never far from their minds.
One Mime at a Time
We found that having brought along Shields and Yarnell and Big Bird, whose acts were visual requiring no translation made producing a television special in a non-English speaking country much easier. A segment with Bob Shields and Lureen Yarnell mimicking mannequins in a Shanghai department store had no words, but needed none -- the smiles of delight on the faces of the unsuspecting shoppers said it all. And Sesame Street's Big Bird so totally captivated the kids, there's a whole generation over there now that's sworn off Peking duck.
Inside the Big Bird costume resides a talented puppeteer named Carroll Spinney who, thanks to a special contractual arrangement with Jim Henson Productions, operates the only Muppet character allowed to work solo. Besides the constant maintenance he requires (he loses about 350 turkey feathers per outing), the bird is no piece of cake to operate. While providing the voice, Spinney must keep his left arm extended over his head to work the beak and simulate neck movement. All the while, he's watching a three-inch TV monitor inside the bird's chest cavity just to be able to navigate. A small fan supplies some air circulation, but Carroll usually emerged looking like he'd been in a sauna. He relies on an assistant named Kermit Love (no relation to the frog) to keep the Bird looking spiffy and his operator from falling off a stage or walking into traffic. Of all our guests over the years, Big Bird was probably the most underpaid, considering what goes into every performance.
On getaway day, I reported to the airport and presented my passport and Chinese travel-papers to the authorities -- a group of guys in brown khaki uniforms with a little red star on their cap. I was informed that my documents were virtually riddled with irregularities that likely would preclude my departure that day -- soon -- or quite possibly, ever. Stunned, I looked at our interpreter -- by now we had become pretty close pals -- who explained that, in the confusion of our arrival with Hope's party a month before, someone had neglected some extremely important stamping and initialing. As more -- and successively higher ranking -- army guys arrived behind the counter to help determine my fate, I sensed the interpreter was pleading with them to release me.
The engines on the Chinese Airlines 707 were revving up just outside the lobby door. I could see that the folding stairs up front were still down, but the rear boarding ramp had been rolled away. Inside, secure in their seats, were the Liptons, the Spinneys, Micha, Crystal Gayle, Don, Barney and most of the staff. They were about to take off and my seat was empty!
As my increasing panic was growing more obvious (sweat was spurting out of me like the Trevi Fountain), my young interpreter leaned over and whispered, "When I nod, walk directly to the plane, board, and whatever you do, don't look back." My parting gift to him of several reams of high-quality erasable bond from the show's supply locker had paid off. (Tips are frowned on in China, but gifts are welcome and back then paper was as scarce as gasoline is today.)
Now the bureaucratic summit meeting behind the counter was reaching fever pitch. As soldiers behind the counter motioned for their superiors, my trusted student agent nodded toward the door. I shook his hand, spun around and walked toward the plane with that same determined stride that had worked so well for Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca.
As instructed, I didn't look back as several young sound guys pulled me aboard the taxiing plane, yanked the stairs in after me and latched the door. I learned later that Jim Lipton, a pilot himself, had asked the Chinese pilot to delay the takeoff until I was aboard. I am forever in his debt for his rescue from a bureaucratic nightmare -- and to the Bob Hope Show for ordering that extra paper. When I finally plopped into my seat, everyone was applauding and a few shook my hand. I could tell they believed I had come that close to not making it out of there -- but by some miracle I had and we were on our way home. It would take me twenty-eight years to muster the courage to go back.
Excerpted from THE LAUGH MAKERS: A Behind-The-Scenes Tribute To Bob Hope's Incredible Gag Writers published by Bear Manor Media. Copyright (c) 2009 by Robert L. Mills
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