Alaska Life

At the peak of his powers, legendary comedian Bob Hope made multiple visits to Alaska

Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

Long before the Grateful Dead and Ozzy Osbourne played at Anchorage’s West High, the school was the host for a very different type of entertainer. During one of his many tours to entertain the troops, vaudevillian comedian extraordinaire Bob Hope headlined two shows there in late 1956, just a year after the school opened.

Hope (1903-2003) was one of America’s most famous actors and comedians, especially during his 1940s to 1950s peak. Over eight decades in show business, he appeared in theater productions, radio programs, television shows, movies, comic books, books and every other medium you could imagine. He starred in 54 films — in addition to numerous minor appearances — including one partially set in Alaska. “Road to Utopia,” part of the Hope and Bing Crosby hit “Road to ...” series of movies, was released in 1946. Hope and Crosby play good-natured con artists during the Klondike Gold Rush.

In addition to his performing career, he is also well remembered for his volunteer efforts to support American troops via his lengthy partnership with the United Service Organizations (USO), which provides entertainment to members of the United States Armed Forces. Between 1941 and 1991, from World War II to the first Persian Gulf War, Hope headlined 57 USO tours, and this is how he ended up in Alaska.

Hope first visited Alaska in 1942, also his first USO tour outside the contiguous United States. Among several stops across the territory, Hope was scheduled to appear at a dance party in downtown Anchorage. The stage was built, and on Sept. 16, roughly 4,000 locals showed up despite the rain, almost certainly the largest crowd in city history to that point. Just three years earlier, before the construction of Fort Richardson, there were less than 3,500 residents within city limits.

Unfortunately, Hope and his traveling troupe were trapped aboard an airplane circling overhead, unable to land because of dense fog. Said Hope, “I was a little concerned. Oh, boy. The fog ran right down to the ground and there we were flying over the town and couldn’t get into the airport. We were flying at 13,000 feet and it was blowing sleet. It looked really bad, brother ... We were afraid we would crack into the hills at any minute.”

Everyone aboard donned parachutes. One of the engines on the Lockheed Lodestar C-60 iced up, sputtered and quit. The radio went out. As the airplane lost altitude, Hope worked his way forward and told pilot Robert Gates, “Everybody back there is praying.” Gates replied, “You tell ‘em don’t stop!” Once the ground lost radio contact, the commander at Elmendorf ordered the searchlights switched on, a significant gesture given wartime blackout protocols. The pilots spotted the glow through the weather and safely landed. With the out-of-commission engine, they could not taxi in, so the various military brass in attendance rushed to the field to verify Hope had survived. Though he missed the downtown show, Hope gained a legendary story for his repertoire.


In December 1949, Hope returned and toured military bases at Kodiak, Fairbanks and Anchorage, speaking to around 5,000 service men and women at an Elmendorf Field hangar. The following November, he played Alaska again, including a two-hour performance with 40 other entertainers for a reported 10,000 military personnel in the same Elmendorf hangar. A Cup’ig mask from Nunivak Island and several ivory pieces were among the gifts showered upon the comedian.

Bob Hope movies played at the Empress and Fourth Avenue theaters while his shows were constants on radio and television, but the man himself returned to Anchorage in 1956. Confirmation came late with a single month’s advance notice. Hope and company would perform at Elmendorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson in Anchorage, as well as Ladd and Eielson Air Force Bases outside Fairbanks.

Comedian Jerry Colonna, who was also a passenger on the nightmarish 1942 C-60 flight, joined Hope as he did on so many tours. The other entertainers included actress and dancer Ginger Rogers, singer Peggy King, actress and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, Miss Universe Carol Morris, musician Les Brown, the Purdue University Glee Club, and the novelty folk group, the Del Rubio Triplets.

One of the accompanying personalities was about as famous as Hope, though certainly not for his acting ability. Baseball legend Mickey Mantle, then the American League triple crown winner and reigning most valuable player, also made the trip north. His visit marked the first public Alaska appearance by a current major leaguer since Stan Musial, Dixie Walker, and Hank Borowy took part in a military base tour during World War II.

A “Welcome Bob Hope” banner was strung across Fourth Avenue. Upon arrival, the performers good-naturedly endured an hour-long ceremony outside city hall in subzero temperatures, stamping their feet to keep warm on a makeshift stage. When the crowd applauded their appearance, Hope joked, “Thank you, thank you, it’s nice of you to take your hands out of your pockets.” After an introduction to 1956 Miss Fur Rendezvous Bobby Wilkinson, Hope declared, “the most beautiful pair of frozen legs I’ve ever seen!”

As in 1942, 1949, and 1950, Hope’s primary intent was to provide entertainment for troops, service men and women often stationed far from their homes. However, this time, he also scheduled two shows off base. On Dec. 20 and 21, he and his troupe performed at the Anchorage High School (now West High School) auditorium. Technicians and crew from NBC filmed both shows and edited them into an episode of “The Bob Hope Show,” which aired on Dec. 28, the first network television show filmed in Anchorage.

After initially limiting attendance to enlisted men, women and their families, the military opened some balcony seats to the civilian public. The Chamber of Commerce handled the distribution of those tickets and, unsurprisingly, exclusively offered them to the “respective heads of community-wide organizations, service clubs, school and city authorities.” In other words, attendees were either in the military, a military family member, or a local VIP.

In the Anchorage Daily Times, editor Bob Atwood opined, “Bob Hope can go a long way toward accomplishing what Alaskans have been trying to do for years. Through his show he can help win a better understanding of Alaska among the people of the nation. He can help overcome the misconception of Alaska as bleak land of dogteams and igloos.” Atwood was too optimistic. As might be expected, Hope leaned into the Alaska cliches, including totem poles, weather, gold mining and dog sleds, for jokes. Regardless, the crowd ate it up.

The show began with a Bob Hope monologue. He hit on the military early on, saying, “They have all kinds of servicemen up here, in Alaska. They have the Army, Navy and Air Force. It’s a new unified command, and it’s working out beautifully. It’s the biggest crap game you ever saw. I don’t know what stakes they play for, but I was looking around Anchorage this morning, and it’s the first time I ever saw a B-47 jet transport in a hock shop window.” “And I want to tell you one nice about these men up here, they all volunteered.” He paused while the military crowd booed, then added, “for Honolulu.” The crowd erupted in laughter.

About the weather and seasons in Alaska, he noted, “I don’t care what you’ve heard about the weather up here, it’s true ... right now it’s about 10 degrees below. I don’t know what it is outside. Up here, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer isn’t a song; it’s a weather report.” He added, “Seriously, I didn’t believe how cold it was up here until a seal came over and begged me to make a coat out of him.” “The time I really love up here is sunrise. Also sunset. It’s the same time. You get up at 10 in the morning and say, ‘nice day wasn’t it.’ ”

And about the wildlife, he said, “I mean it though, the hunting here is really great, where else can you shoot a walrus without it getting out of your bunk? It’s rugged country. One soldier I know rolled out of his lean-to one morning and shaved three times before he realized he was staring into a bear.”

From there, the program shifts into the first of two lengthy skits. Hope plays a clueless tourist and rock collector who takes a taxi to a dive bar. As this scene is set in Alaska, the cab is actually a dog sled driven by Anchorage musher Earl Norris. The bartender, played by Colonna, asks Hope, “How much money you got?” Hope, who had made enough visits to Alaska to know about the high prices, replies, “I’ve been touring for quite a while up here. I haven’t got much left; I bought a meal.”

As Hope empties his pockets, he finds a yellow rock: gold! Suddenly, he has everyone’s attention in the saloon, including the bartender, servicemen, townies, and a passing polar bear. The sultry Ginger Rogers enters and seduces Hope for the location of his gold strike. Finally, he relents and agrees to draw a map on Rogers’ naked back. The cheers from the men in the audience grew louder at this point.

The identical Del Rubio Triplets sing while the cast and backstage crew prepares for the next skit, which features Hope as a veteran, seen-it-all Army sergeant. An announcer declares, “he rules his men with an iron head.” After Hope orders the men to “polish the rocks and change the snow, it’s getting dirty,” a colonel intrudes and orders Hope to treat his men more gently. “You’re running the men too hard. You’re not treating them like human beings,” says the colonel. “But they’re soldiers,” Hope replies.

However, a pampered fresh recruit, played awkwardly by Mantle, tests Hope’s patience with the new mandate. The recruit’s gear includes slippers, curtains for his bunk, and a letter from his mother requesting “not wake him too early in the morning.” Unable to handle a gentler Army, the sergeant is demoted to private.

The Purdue Glee Club sings, Peggy King sings, Hope dances with Rogers, and Lt. General Frank Armstrong, Alaska commander in chief, thanks the performers. Hope then closes the show in a more somber fashion, noting, “These men of the Alaska Command stand between you and possible attack. Our hats are off to them.” The itinerant entertainers made their escape amid the howling cheers. There were always more shows, more towns to hit.

Key sources:


“Auditorium Jammed for Bob Hope Performance.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 21, 1956, 1, 11.

“Bob Hope Troupe Plays to 10,000 at Base.” Anchorage Daily Times, November 2, 1950, 1.

“Famed Gag Nearly Kicks Hope in Neck.” Anchorage Daily Times, September 24, 1942, 1.

“Final Plans Underway for Bob Hope Show.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 17, 1956, 1.

Gallagher, Jay. “Mantle Scores Hit in Debut as ‘Mama’s Boy’ TV Actor.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 21, 1956, 1, 12.

“Hope, Mantle Coming to Alaska.” Anchorage Daily Times, November 20, 1956, 1.

“Hope Show Tickets Out.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 20, 1956, 1.

“Little Hollywood.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 19, 1956, 8.


Maksel, Rebecca. “Thanks for the Memories: Air Crews Recall Their Service as roadies for Bob Hope’s USO Show.” Smithsonian Magazine, January 2010.

Pumphrey, Fritz. “Cold Weather, Warm Hospitality Welcome Hope in Civic Ceremony.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 22, 1956, 1, 9.

“Rental Allowance Boost Set for Servicemen.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 24, 1949, 1, 3.

“Stellar Visitors.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 22, 1956, 6.

David Reamer | Histories of Alaska

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.