A 75th anniversary of a celebrity visit to this area was overlooked last year because many folks who knew about the event had passed away or forgot the details.
For years, older friends had reminisced about wartime visits to this area by Bob Hope and comedian Red Skelton, but the exact dates were elusive. Then, while searching for some material about Navy Seabees and their construction training facility near Williamsburg, the Hope story emerged.
A visit by Bob Hope, “the well-known comedian of stage and film fame,” was planned for Camp Peary “at the largest theater in the camp,” the Virginia Gazette announced in two sentences in its June 4, 1943, edition; no date, however, was given.
The only other mention of Hope in the Gazette came the next week when a column on the front page asked, “Did anyone see Bob Hope this week? He must have been here because he gave the Seabees a treat on Tuesday night.” The Newport News Daily Press made no mention at all of the Hope visit.
In 1943 Hope generated little media attention, but 30 or 40 years later he was an international celebrity and had added television to his performing repertoire. Television critics and feature writers in those days clamored for interviews.
Known later for his Christmas USO tours near battlefields during World War II, then the Korean and Vietnam wars, and lastly in the Middle East conflict, Hope started to create popular television shows in 1951 from his various overseas military visits. Few know, however, that “The Pepsodent (Toothpaste) Show” starring Hope, became the first military entertainment radio program when it visited a California military base in 1941. Subsequently, Hope’s troupe traveled weekly around the country, broadcasting from training bases such as Camp Peary.
Hope brought his radio program to Peary on June 8, 1943 — now 76 years ago. The broadcast was during the show’s September through June, 1942-43 radio season. At Peary, the cast entertained seamen from various Seabee battalions being organized or trained there.
Thomas L. Williams, Colonial Williamsburg’s first official photographer and the College of William and Mary’s principal photographer for 35 years, was stationed at Camp Peary at the time of Hope’s visit and took a photograph of the performers. (Later while in the Navy, Williams worked on a secret project transforming aerial photographs into relief maps that were used to plan the D-Day invasion.)
Retired Newport News Daily Press editor and bureau chief Will Molineux recently was contacted about Hope’s appearance and found the old Williams photo he had stuck back in his files.
Cast regulars who visited the camp were Frances Langford, Jerry Colonna, Skinnay Ennis, the vocal group Six Hits and a Miss, and actress Barbara Jo Allen (Vera Vague). Hope’s special guest was bandleader Bob Chester, who led the program’s orchestra.
Langford, 30 when she visited Camp Peary, was a major singing star during the golden days of radio, the 1930s and ’40s. In addition to appearing with Hope, she was also a regular on Rudy Vallee’s and Dick Powell’s radio programs.
Colonna, a multi-talented musician, comedian and singer, who like Langford, appeared on numerous radio and later television programs between 1935 and 1971. Ennis was a jazz and pop music singer and bandleader, who was with Hope from 1938 to 1943, returning after the war to perform with his own band. Earlier he was featured with Hal Kemp’s orchestra.
Six Hits and a Miss was a popular vocal group during the swing, big band-era. In addition to appearing with Hope they also sang back up to Judy Garland, Jimmy Durante and Bing Crosby. Allen created the “Vera Vague” comic character who always spouted misinformation.
Camp Peary was created early in 1942, when the U.S. Navy seized land on the south bank of the York River and converted it into a military reservation. All the residents were forced to move within a few weeks from the towns of Bigler’s Mill and Magruder. Most of the townspeople at Magruder were African Americans who relocated to the Grove community in lower James City County. The camp was used in a variety of ways until it became “The Farm,” an active training facility run today by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Kale is a frequent contributor to the Gazette on historical events. Will Molineux assisted with this story.