The Bootleg Files: The Bob Hope Special – The Central Park Show

BOOTLEG FILES 827: “The Bob Hope Special – The Central Park Show” (1974 TV special).

On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: There seems to be a rights issue that has yet to be cleared.


If you’ve been paying attention to some politically motivative smart alecks on social media over the past few weeks, you may have seen the photograph at the top of this article. This photograph was presented as a pushback to recent legislation in certain states that have taken a dim view of public presentations of drag humor.

Yes, that is Jackie Gleason and Bob Hope dressed as women. And it has nothing to do with contemporary drag entertainment – that was a one-off skit from a 1974 Hope special. Actually, it is probably the only genuinely memorable moment from that TV special, thanks to both the absurdity of the costuming and the memorable clowning by the two legendary comics.

The production in question was presented under the title “The Bob Hope Special,” but most Hope fans informally recall it as the Central Park show – this was the only time the funnyman did an al fresco show in the heart of New York City. The show was the first in Hope’s 25th anniversary with NBC, but while the silver anniversary was briefly cited there was nothing in the production that highlighted the longevity of Hope’s affiliation with the network.

Not unlike Hope’s other specials, the program opened with a monologue where Hope made wisecracks over the current scene. His presence in New York City enabled him to reel off jokes about the tough nature of his surroundings.

“I love Central Park,” said Hope. “Where else can you lay down for a bath in the sun, get stepped on by a horse, get trampled, and get busted for blocking traffic all at the same time? … Our audience is seated here on the grass in the park. This is the first time I’ve played to an audience on grass.”

Hope taped the show on September 17, 1974, roughly one month after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. And while there were some passing jokes about Nixon’s successor Gerald Ford and the efforts to get former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller confirmed as vice president, Hope made no mention of Nixon. As he told a New York Times interview, “I feel very sad about these things and don’t like to talk about it. Nixon was a personal friend.”

In listening to the opening monologue, it is difficult not to notice how the audience laughter sounds canned. The Times’ coverage of the show’s taping said Hope had about 1,500 spectators – small for a Central Park show, although it was held in the afternoon during a weekday – and the audience gave a “polite and warm applause, with a few rousing cheers and whistles.”

Much of the audience appreciation was generated by a hometown favorite: Jackie Gleason, who trades jokes with Hope, and the Great One’s surplus of personality helps elevate the less-than-sterling humor to a level that another comic could not obtain. This is followed by a sketch with Gleason as a stockbroker who sought to jump from a building ledge – Hope was the priest trying to talk him down while sharing some politically incorrect humor about the concept of women priests. Said Father Hope: “Think of the confessional! What woman could hear all that gossip and not blab it around the neighborhood?”

From here, the show is mostly running on goodwill. Skits involving Hope as a con artist selling Grant’s Tomb to a rural visitor played by Glen Campbell and a disagreement between a Shakespeare in the Park acting couple played by Hope and Carol Channing are only vaguely amusing. Hope also engages in a conversation with the current Miss America that could have easily been dropped – according to the Times, a skit with Gleason as “a soul‐saver complete with tambourine [who] tries to stop Mr. Hope from gambling at an OffTrack Betting office” was performed, but is absent from the finished product.

Campbell offers some much-needed musical power with a jolting acoustic guitar rendition of “The William Tell Overture” backed by Les Brown and his Band of Renown. But two other musical numbers, one with Channing singing “The Inside Story of Cicely Cisson” and another solo turn by Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, were deleted from the video uploaded to YouTube because of music rights problems.

And as for that scene with Hope and Gleason in drag? Well, that was inspired by a then-current news story about male members of the New York Police Department’s vice squad dressing up as women and working in Central Park in order to nab mashers – at the time, women in the NYPD were few and far between, hence the presence of men in wigs and dresses. The skit can be seen starting at the 41:43 mark in the video below – I am not giving anything away, except to say that you have to see this for yourself to truly enjoy it.

This production, like the majority of Hope’s TV specials, is not available in its entirety on home entertainment formats. However, this unauthorized upload to YouTube (complete with the original Ford Motor commercials) helps fill that gap.

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.

Listen to Phil Hall’s award-winning podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud, with a new episode every Monday, and his radio show “Nutmeg Chatter” on WAPJ-FM in Torrington, Connecticut, with a new episode every Sunday. His new book “100 Years of Wall Street Crooks” is now in release through Bicep Books.