…A cop takes the Entertainer of the Century for a ride
Through three decades in police work, I’ve collected a host of memories. The twisted wreckage of smashed cars—tangled bodies smelling of blood and beer—sticks with you a long time. You never forget the death and the pain. But happy memories abound as well. Like the silly practical jokes officers play on one another. The crazy things people do that only cops on the streets at 2:00 a.m. see. Or the time Bob Hope went on patrol with me.
Star of vaudeville and the Broadway stage.
Singer. Dancer. Author.
Radio, movie and television star.
Yes, that Bob Hope.No one entertained more people through every imaginable medium than Bob Hope. Rising from vaudeville actor sharing the stage with barking seals and dancing Siamese twins, Hope became one of the best known, most beloved entertainers in the world. Besides dozens of movies, his numerous television specials and USO tours of military bases endeared him to millions of Americans.
In 1985, police officers didn’t make much money. You worked all the overtime you could finagle and spent frugally. Otherwise, you ran the risk of the proverbial “too much week left at the end of the money.” So when I heard Bob Hope would be performing at Louisiana Tech, my alma mater in my hometown where I worked as a police officer, the debate with myself over buying tickets was a brief one. I couldn't afford them.
A friend who was going said he would snap some photos. I would read about the show in the morning paper.
I worked nearly every weekend night that year on a special DWI overtime patrol. I rode a desk Monday through Friday, handling officer training and dealing with the news media. The Friday and Saturday night patrol was one of the few opportunities to get back in the field for some extra pay. While Bob Hope was on the stage at Louisiana Tech delivering jokes, I would be prowling the pavements for drunk drivers.
At 10:00 p.m., November 1, 1985, I hit the streets, focusing on the cars. Bob Hope was far from my mind as I concentrated on the job at hand. Traffic was light, the bars hosted scant crowds and it looked to be one of those rare nights when everyone behaves. Not long into my shift, my headlights caught an elderly man walking briskly along the darkened service road paralleling the Interstate. A younger woman trailed steps behind him. Ten yards behind her was Officer Jessie Winzer, a young cop I had helped train. He was trotting to catch up with the others.
Recognition and understanding came instantly. Bob Hope had left the only decent motel in Ruston and was taking a moonlit stroll. Or jog, may have been more accurate. And Jessie Winzer was apparently working overtime as his bodyguard.
I braked quickly, made a U-turn, and pulled up beside the rookie cop.
“What’s happening, Jessie?”
“We’re going to McDonald’s, I think,” he panted.
Jessie helped lead the 1982 Ruston High Bearcats to an undefeated season and the state football championship. Short, compact and quick, as a halfback Jessie could literally hide behind his linemen until a hole opened up for him to scamper down the field. An excellent police officer, he would eventually become one of the best.
I don’t want to give the impression that Jessie was out of shape. Hope got a head start on him and with Jessie impeded by twenty pounds of police gear, the 82-year old comedian was giving him a run for his money.
“Get in the back,” I ordered. “We’ll see if he wants to ride.”
Jessie climbed behind the black steel mesh screen used to keep prisoners from jumping on my back and off we went after his quarry.
I passed the young woman and pulled up beside the Entertainer of the Century.
“Hello. Would you like to ride?”
“Sure,” he said, as he glanced at my cluttered front seat and squinted into the darkness of the caged back seat. I scooped up my briefcase hurriedly to make room.
“Bob, you get up front. I’ll sit back here.” The woman had caught up and was climbing in with Jessie.
With our passengers secured, we were off. “Were you headed to McDonald’s?” I asked. It was the only logical destination.
“Yes,” Hope smiled. “Debbie and I were craving some ice cream.”
“Debbie” was Debbie Worley, a 1971 Miss America pageant first runner-up who was touring college campuses with Hope, he explained, warming up the audiences with her singing.
“Wish I could have made the show tonight,” I remarked. “Had to work. I’m on DWI patrol but it’s been quiet so far.”
Bob Hope smiled again and Worley asked him a question about the next day’s agenda.
“Do you want to use the drive-through or go inside?” I asked, wondering if he tried to avoid public places.
“We’ll go inside.”
Within seconds of entering the restaurant, the swarm descended. People flew to Hope, asking for autographs and posing for photos. I debated swatting them away but the comedian patiently signed French fry-stained napkins and shook hands. He finally got close enough to the counter to order a strawberry sundae.
Hope eventually tore himself away from the crowd. Jessie and I acted as a discreet blocking force to get the stars back to the patrol car.
“Anywhere else you need to go, Mr. Hope?” I asked.
“No. We have to get up early.” Not that there were many other places to go that time of night in Ruston.
“Aw,” I said in mock disappointment. “I thought you would help me catch a drunk.”
He smiled and I was halfway expecting a snappy one-liner but it didn’t come. I guess he saved those for the paying customers.
On the way back to the motel, I remembered my camera in the briefcase.
“Do you mind if we take a picture when we get back?”
“I would be glad to.”
Back at the motel, Debbie offered to take the photograph with Jessie and me flanking Bob. We exchanged good nights and handshakes and Bob and Debbie departed to their rooms.
Jessie and I stood outside for awhile. He wore his perpetual grin while I savored what had just happened. A man adored by millions had patrolled the streets with me. Well, maybe for only a total of four blocks but I was on patrol and Bob Hope was riding shotgun.
“Hey, I’ll get you an enlargement of the picture,” I told Jessie.
“Okay,” he replied with mild disinterest.
The next morning, I dropped off the film to be processed. My mother called and said she had something for me. I stopped by the restaurant where she worked as a hostess at the same motel where Bob Hope had stayed the night before.
“I got this for you this morning,” she said, handing over a ticket torn from a waitress’s order pad. It was signed “Bob Hope.”
“He had coffee here before leaving for the airport,” she explained.
With an autograph and a photo, I thought how nice it would be to have the photo of Jessie and me signed by the legendary entertainer. At 21, my brother already possessed an extensive collection of celebrity autographs. I dropped by his house and asked how I could make that happen. Thumbing through a stack of materials, he found a list with Hope’s address in Palm Springs.
“You have a chance of getting it back,” he ventured. “Hope’s supposed to be better than most stars in dealing with fans. But he also gets more requests than most.”
“Send a stamped envelope with it,” he said. “Better chance of getting it back. But don’t be surprised if you get a secretary’s signature,” he warned.
Some weeks passed and I had all but forgotten Bob Hope and the photographs when my self-addressed and stamped envelope returned in the mail. Quickly tearing it open, I found the photographs. Mine was inscribed, “To Sgt. Wesley Harris. Thanks for the memory. My best, Bob Hope.”
I tracked down my brother who had recently acquired a collector’s magazine featuring an article on distinguishing genuine Bob Hope autographs from fakes and secretarial signatures. Comparing the photos to the article and our mother’s in-person acquisition, he announced them authentic.
At work, I presented Jessie Winzer with his inscribed photo.
“Here, Jessie. Something you can share with your kids one day.”
“Here, Jessie. Something you can share with your kids one day.”
He accepted with quiet thanks but obviously without my enthusiasm for the keepsake. Back in the locker room with his eight-by-ten, Jessie cornered another officer, one of his high school teammates.
“Who is Bob Hope?” he asked.
I’m not sure how that question was answered but Jessie never brought up Bob Hope to me. Only then did I realize an entire generation had already missed out on the likes of Fred Astaire, Katharine Hepburn, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr. and other masters of their crafts. The Now Generation believed the world started and ended with them and yesterday was ancient history. Nothing from the past could be better than that of the present.
Ten years later, while attending a police training course in Orlando, Florida, I learned Bob Hope was scheduled to be at Walt Disney World. He was signing his latest book, “Dear Prez, I Wanna Tell Ya!,” a comedic look at his interactions with Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.
By the time I got out of class and made it to Disney, the meandering queue snaked out of the bookstore and through the bustling theme park. I took my place in line and at a snail’s pace moved along. Unfamiliar with book signings, I had no means to gauge how quickly the column would progress. Could he possibly sign books for this many people in the allotted two hours for the event?
The ending time came and I was still forty yards from the bookstore. I heard a cheer come up and spotted Hope leaving the store and climbing into a golf cart. The driver slowly made his way along the line as Hope waved and smiled. Someone shouted, “Thanks for the memories, Bob,” alluding to Hope’s signature tune.
“Yeah!” Hope replied, waving to the crowd. A Disney employee followed, assuring us there were plenty of signed books available but Mr. Hope had to leave. I bought my book but missed the chance to shake his hand one more time.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences never saw fit to nominate Bob Hope for an Oscar for his movies, although it did present him honorary and humanitarian awards. His longtime sidekick Bing Crosby garnered a Best Actor Oscar in 1944. Hope hosted the Academy Awards ceremony eighteen times and feigned lust for an Oscar became part of his routine. Introducing the 1968 Oscar telecast, he joked, "Welcome to the Academy Awards, or, as it's known at my house, Passover.”
After the Orlando trip, I wrote the Academy suggesting it honor Bob Hope as “Entertainer of the Century.” I spent days on the letter, carefully crafting it to express what Hope had meant to millions of Americans. No one had entertained more people in more ways for as long as Bob Hope. His seventy years in show business deserved an unprecedented honor.
I received a nice letter in return from the Academy president acknowledging Hope’s distinguished career. Bob had received scores of awards over the years, he wrote, and didn’t need one more to realize how much people appreciated him.
I was disappointed. Bob Hope was an American institution. He delivered a little bit of home to lonely troops stationed around the world. He gave millions to charity. He made us laugh.
Bob Hope lived to be 100 years old, telling his last joke in 2003. His longevity provides more evidence that laughter is indeed the best medicine.
Thanks for the memories, Mr. Hope.