WEDNESDAY, August 8, 2012

STRIPED BLOUSE -- Thanks to a labor dispute,  for the first time in league history, a woman will be a line judge for the preseason  Green Bay at San Diego game.  Fans may notice a few changes instituted to accommodate  Shannon Eastin -- like the coin toss replaced by the credit card toss, infraction handkerchiefs replaced by embroidered hankies, and a ten degree increase in  stadium air conditioning.

BLIND JUSTICE -- Lawyers are circling and salivating like crazed vultures over the potential payday that will result from the Stevie Wonder divorce from his wife of eleven years, Kai Millard Morris.   Grounds?  Seems Stevie became enraged when his wife committed the unpardonable sin -- she laughed at Eddie Murphy's impression of him.


NOTICE ANYTHING DIFFERENT? -- Italian robotologists (generally acknowledged to be among the world's finest) have successfully created a robotic face that recreates five basic and familiar human expressions.  In other words, it has the ability to mimic both Joan Rivers and Cher, not necessarily in that order.

ULTIMATE DINING -- Las Vegas's protected landmark Caesar's Palace just spent a whopping $17 million to re-vamp their buffet that now seats 590 and offers 524 items.  Interesting floor show, too.  The first 524 diners get one item each and the rest fight over the remaining sixty-six.

CALLING HOME -- GOP nominee for the Texas Senate Ted Cruz told reporters he'll be happy to work with Democrats, Republicans and even Martians if necessary.  "Voters are taking him too literally.  He just meant he'll sit down with anyone," said Cruz campaign spokesperson R2D2.



In 1974, soon after Richard Nixon opened relations with the People’s Republic of China, Hope began a behind-the-scenes campaign to become the first American entertainer to tape a television special there. He spent the next five years cajoling the State Department and the Department of Defense — at the start of every new season, I’d say, “We doing China this year?” and he’d say, “Any day now. Stay packed.”

Leaning on a raft of influential government pals including Henry Kissinger and calling in markers he’d been collecting from the government since World War II, he finally received permission to take our show there as part of a cultural exchange program dubbed “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” by the press.

On June 16, 1979, after a four-hour flight from Narita, Japan, a Chinese Airlines 707 filled with our merry band of mirth makers eager to get their first look at this hotbed of Communism, touched down at the Peking Airport. The group included Bob and Dolores Hope, their daughter, Linda, her co-producer Jim Lipton — with whom Gig Henry
and I would share writing credit — Jim’s wife, Kedakai, director Bob Wynn and a support crew made up of pretty much the same gang who had earned their Hope Squadron wings on our trek to Australia the previous year.

Since Hope was the most recognizable American to set foot in China since Nixon, we’d be whisked through Customs with some of the usual formalities either waived or abbreviated — an accommodation I’d later come to regret.
Our guest stars would arrive over the next several days — Mikhail Baryshnikov, Crystal Gayle, Big Bird from Sesame Street, mimes Shields and Yarnell and a popular disco-duo, Peaches and Herb. Booking the show had not been easy since we’d be spending a full month on location — three weeks in Peking and a week in Shanghai. While many major
stars would have welcomed the opportunity to see China, most are unwilling to commit that much time to any project short of a film and Hope wasn’t paying movie caliber fees.

Where’s The Stretch Rickshaw?
At the airport, we disembarked and discovered we were on our own. We would learn later that a delay in our arrival time had put us in conflict with a group of American mayors whose plane had touched down several minutes before ours. The junketing hizzoners included LA’s Tom Bradley,
whom we would meet later. The PRC officials were busy rolling out the red (no pun intended) carpet for them, so there we were, standing beside the plane — no movable ramps back then — holding our carry-on luggage.  “Well,” said Hope, “looks like we’ll end up tipping ourselves.”

We started off toward what looked like the main reception area — it  had a portrait of Mao over the front door — and after a minute or two spotted a convoy of government limos speeding toward us. Out climbed several officials from the Ministry of Culture who immediately began spewing apologies that would have put Kobe Bryant to shame. 
Presently there was more bowing than a convention of Sumo wrestlers as they led us into the airport’s reception area.
They had a long table set up in the lobby offering refreshments that the crew proceeded to devour while Hope was giving the first of his many interviews on Chinese soil.

We were soon convoyed to the twenty-five story Peking Hotel in small vans that carried about six people. (They would be available to us throughout our visit like free taxis.) During the half-hour drive, we got our first look at the hustle and bustle of life in the PRC and noticed few vehicles among the seemingly endless lines of bicycles. Bicycles were the
norm — millions of them. The hotel was about six blocks from Tiananmen Square and on the main thoroughfare that leads to the Forbidden City. There, a few years later, a student protester would gain the admiration of the world by making a Chinese Army tank blink first.

We were welcomed by the starched hotel staff standing in formation on the front steps. Each smiled and bowed as we passed. This custom would be repeated when we checked out, and again in Shanghai when we checked into the hotel there three weeks later.

Gig and I were shown to our rooms on the eighth floor while the Hopes were escorted to the twenty-fifth. Immediately, there was a problem.  Dolores’s room was on the same floor as her husband’s, but about fifty yards down the hall. She was told that was the custom among upper class Chinese. Apparently, our hosts believed that the centuries-old norm
for emperors should apply to tourists with emperor status on their home turf. Dolores would have none of it, requesting that her bed be placed in a large anteroom just inside one of the entrances to Hope’s suite where it would remain for her entire stay.

Most of the company — staff, crew and talent, forty-five of us in all — were lodged in the Peking (whose marble-heavy architecture resembled a Hilton shipped in from Moscow). The Russians had supervised its design and construction, and it showed. Our rooms were basic, comfortable — a
color TV was included, but for some strange reason, received only programs in Chinese — and they were never locked. The sliding doors to the balconies were double-pane glass to keep guests insulated from the street noise below.
On each floor near the elevator, a concierge stood guard with the vigilance of a rock concert rent-a-cop. Strangely, we came to feel no hesitation in leaving valuable belongings in a hotel room with the door open. Maybe the penalty for petty theft in China — death — had something to do with this.

Gig and I were assigned a young, affable Chinese college student, who spoke excellent English and was spending his summer with the government, to act as our guide and interpreter and to make sure we didn’t wander onto any military installations. When behind the Bamboo Curtain,
one feels much safer with a plainclothes agent within earshot. Or any kind of shot.

In 1979, first-class hotels in China had yet to come equipped with gyms, spas and swimming pools, but we had the next best thing — Dale Huffstedler, Hope’s masseur. Whenever we worked late, Dale would drop by, deliver a quick rub-on-the-run , and we’d soldier on, refreshed.  Each morning, there would be a large Thermos of hot tea outside the
door, which was the closest we ever got to Room Service. All of our meals were served in a cavernous, high-walled dining hall with huge murals of the Yangtze’s Three Gorges. It was about the size of UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion and every bit as intimate. Mealtimes were posted, and if you missed them, you were out of luck. McDonald’s and other fast food meccas had yet to invade the People’s Republic, but going hungry was never a problem since the Chinese traditionally demonstrate their hospitality through copious gifts of calories. Important visitors rate eight-to-twelvecourse
banquets — almost every evening. We ended up attending more banquets than a major league manager in the off-season.

Every day, lunch was a buffet that was heavy on seafood. Piles of shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, oysters, crab, calamari, octopus, sea snails, fresh salmon and sea bass and other undersea creatures known only to the Chinese were arranged in attractive displays along with the usual items
found on most Chinese menus back home — the only noticeable difference  being a subtle “gaminess” due to the duck fat used in China for frying.

Gig claimed he was allergic to seafood and had to be careful. His allergy severely limited his choices; but one day, he announced that he’d found sliced tongue that was as good as the Stage Deli’s in New York. It was available daily, so he took advantage of it. Toward the end of our stay, I was in line with one of our Chinese technicians and said, “Have you
tried the tongue? My partner says it’s fantastic.”  He said, “That’s not tongue. It’s sea slug.”  I never had the heart to tell Gig.


(Excerpted from THE LAUGH MAKERS: A Behind-the-Scenes Tribute to Bob Hope's Incredible Gag Writers by Robert L. Mills.  Foreword by Gary Owens. Published by Bear Manor Media.  Copyright (c) 2009 by Robert L. Mills.  All Rights Reserved.)

Blog content Copyright (c) 2012 by Robert L. Mills  All Rights Reserved

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