The Bootleg Files: Bob Hope on the Road to China

BOOTLEG FILES 730: “Bob Hope on the Road to China” (1979 television special).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube in a truncated form.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Out of circulation for many years.


On January 1, 1979, President Jimmy Carter established U.S. diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. Two months later, the longtime rivals established embassies in each other’s capitals. Remarkably, the two countries retained their diplomatic ties despite NBCs ‘s broadcast of the astonishingly atrocious “Bob Hope on the Road to China” in September that year.

By the late 1970s, Hope’s television specials were beginning to grow stale around the edges and felt like an anachronism in a decade defined by edgy and often outrageous comedy. But while he still managed to keep his fans and an extremely lucrative contract with NBC, it was difficult not to acknowledge that his output was far below what he was capable of producing.

Nonetheless, Hope’s star power was strong enough for NBC to secure the first U.S. television special to be shot in Communist China. Hope and his producers assembled a hodgepodge of guests to join him across the Pacific: the ballet great Mikhail Baryshnikov, country music singer Crystal Gayle, the mimes Shields and Yarnell, R&B singers Peaches and Herb, the Philadelphia Boys Choir and Men’s Choral, and Sesame’s Street Big Bird. Hope’s wife Delores tagged along to sing with some Chinese children.

Not to be outdone, the Chinese offered up their own stars to shine before the American cameras: a seven-foot-tall basketball player, a ballerina to perform opposite Baryshnikov, a trio of loud comedians, an 8-year-old ping-pong champion, the cast of the Peking Opera, acrobats from a circus and trained panda bears doing elementary tricks.

The resulting production seemed like a wobbly collaboration between Ed Sullivan and Mao Zedong: a show that gave the impression that American and Chinese culture was primarily fueled by vaudeville-level shtick with only a few glimmers of fine arts allowed to peek through. And at the center of the madness was Hope, who decided to make himself the center of attention rather than highlighting the country he was visiting.

From the opening, “Bob Hope on the Road to China” gets off on that proverbial wrong foot and never gets its balance. The production opens with Hope sauntering down the Great Wall of China, swinging a golf club while lip-syncing to new Sino-focused lyrics saddled atop the tune “Road to Morocco.” He then tours Tiananmen Square and refers to the massive space as looking like “Jackie Gleason’s patio.” A weak laugh track follows Hope’s wisecracks, which is odd since there is no outdoor audience watching this.

Hope gets to perform for an indoor audience made up of the foreign diplomatic corps in Peking (as the capital was called at the times) and unidentified Chinese who were probably part of the government bureaucracy. Hope shared the stage with a deadpan Chinese translator, and the only genuine funny moments come when the translated jokes fall flat with the local audience. Hope’s writers unwisely decided to pepper his opening monologue with references that were obscure to the Chinese audience – remarks about California’s Gov. Jerry Brown, Caesar’s Palace, Billy Graham and Raquel Welch caused the translator to stop and ask Hope what he was talking about.

Hope and his company used the capital city as a backdrop for corny segments that did little to enhance the exotic nature of the venture. Lip-synced musical numbers with Peaches and Herb and Crystal Gayle are shot against Chinese exteriors that have no bearing on the songs – Gayle and Hope do a duet with new lyrics written to “If They Could See Me Now” – while the local Chinese watching these segments are happily baffled over what is going on.

Incredibly, Hope gets into yellowface make-up and an Imperial Chinese robe for a riff on the Gilbert & Sullivan ditty “When I Was a Lad” that is rewritten to highlight his vaudeville and radio career. A group of Chinese male dancers bounce around him, occasionally offering a phonetic echo of the song’s chorus.

Even moments that are supposed to be spontaneous, such as Hope conversing with Baryshnikov before the latter tries to show him some ballet steps, are forced and tiresome. The one classy moment is the ballet number with Baryshnikov and Chun Ren Lian – their brief performance from “Giselle” feels like it was grafted from a PBS special.

In fairness, Hope realized that he could not push the envelope in the Communist setting. “I couldn’t do anything political,” he told an Associated Press reporter. “I said I had one Mao-Tai (a powerful local drink) and my head felt like the Gang of Four. They said that was political. Then I said I felt like my head was going through a cultural revolution. That was also political.”

“Bob Hope on the Road to China” premiered on September 15, 1979, and I can still clearly recall the show – seriously, something that bad is not easily forgotten. But I did not see the entire three-hour event – I turned it off about one-third of the way through. I don’t think I missed much. Tom Shales of the Washington Post reviewed the production as “the season’s first huge disappointment. Poorly organized, sloppily performed and stingy with views of Chinese life, this marathon jaunt turns quickly into a plod. NBC is counting heavily on Hope specials for ratings this season, but if Hope’s producers can blow a sure thing like this China show, it’s likely Hope’s best roads are behind him.”

Hope clearly wanted to keep this show behind him – it was never reissued on any home entertainment format. A slightly blurry and truncated version can be found in a four-part unauthorized posting on YouTube, but only Hope-worshipping masochists are advised to seek it out this road to Chinese awfulness.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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