Image courtesy of NYHS.
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The New-York Historical Society celebrates the golden age of comedy with “So Ready for Laughter: Bob Hope and World War II,” on view February 5–September 5, 2021. Organized by The National WWII Museum in New Orleans and supported by the Bob & Dolores Hope Foundation, the special exhibition highlights the legendary performer and his unique role during World War II entertaining troops overseas. Coinciding with the 80th anniversary of the founding of the United Service Organizations (USO), the exhibition features artifacts, films, and rare photographs to illustrate how Hope helped lift spirits both abroad and on the home front with his USO and radio shows during a dark time in American history. A companion exhibition, The Gift of Laughter, delves into Hope’s varied career after World War II as a USO entertainer, television star, and Academy Award host demonstrating the many hats worn by comedians. His legacy will be brought to life with many items, including costumes from the Emmy Award-winning series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, as well as objects related to other comedians—real and imagined—influenced by Hope.

Born in the U.K. in 1903, Bob Hope immigrated to the United States as a boy, entering the country through New York’s Ellis Island with his family. In the years that followed, Hope developed his act and shaped his comedic timing on the vaudeville stages before landing on Broadway. In 1933, he met Dolores Reade, a talented singer, in New York City; the couple married a year later. By the start of World War II, Hope was just emerging as one of America’s most popular radio and film stars, and when the nation went to war in 1941, Hollywood responded by entertaining troops, raising funds, and boosting morale. Hope took his wartime programs on the road to military camps and bases across the country, inspiring other entertainers to join him.

So Ready for Laughter explores Hope’s major USO tours and travels during World War II through some 50 artifacts, including rare and unpublished photographs of Hope; a World War II-era aircraft fragment, mess kit, and other relics engraved to Hope; videos of his traveling, wartime troupe; and Hollywood Victory Caravan programs and scrapbooks. Hope received countless letters from service members and families—in 1944 alone, he received an estimated 38,000 a week—and on display are samples of this wartime correspondence, including a coconut stamped with 17 cents of postage and mailed to Hope as well as a heartfelt letter from a mother thanking Hope for giving her son “two hours of fun” just before he was killed in battle in 1944. An original 11-minute documentary produced by award-winning filmmaker John Scheinfeld is also featured in the exhibition.

A companion exhibition, The Gift of Laughter, blends fact and fiction to illustrate Bob Hope’s wide-ranging career as USO entertainer, television star, and Academy Award host and the many roles comedians fill. Objects on view include an honorary Oscar presented to Hope in 1953 for “his contribution to the laughter of the world,” mementos from his later USO tours like a Viking helmet, awards and memorabilia including a NBC microphone and Friars Club Trophy, and the outfit worn for Bob Hope’s Bicentennial Star Spangled Spectacular.