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Last Updated: Monday, 28 July, 2003, 15:01 GMT 16:01 UK
Hope's hometown legacy
By Darryl Chamberlain
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Bob Hope
Hope as a boy. The family moved to the US when he was four
While Bob Hope fans in the US will be remembering the late entertainer's comic performances, a south London theatre remains grateful for his generosity.

Bob Hope was born in a terraced house in Craigton Road, Eltham, then a growing town on the fringes of London.

His family moved out of the area after a few months, and emigrated to the US when he was four.

Over the past century, Eltham has been completely absorbed into the capital. But Hope kept up his ties with his birthplace, and his legacy lives on in a small theatre just off the high street.

The Eltham Little Theatre faced closure in 1980 when Hope visited the area. It was operating under a monthly lease while its landlord hoped to sell the building.

Craigton Road, Eltham
The house in which Hope was born
Theatre secretary Jim Shepherd recalls: "He was in the UK to promote the Bob Hope Classic Golf Tournament when he heard about the theatre.

"Its plight had been publicised locally, and the news got to him through community groups and the local council."

Hope resolved to do what he could to help, and raised 58,000 through the golf tournaments which bear his name.

By 1982 the venue re-opened as the Bob Hope Theatre, the freehold purchased and its future secure.

The veteran performer became a regular visitor to the venue, which is run by volunteers. When he became too frail, his family kept up contact.

Craigton Road, Eltham
This plaque went up in the mid-1990s
"He last visited in 1991 - it was a very informal visit, as it usually has been," Mr Shepherd says.

The theatre's association with one of Hollywood's most well-known families means the 53-year-old local government worker has become firm friends with the Hopes, and was invited to Washington in 1998 when the performer was given an honorary knighthood.

"He'd been given a CBE in the 1970s and the news of the knighthood came as a genuine surprise to him. He was very moved by it," he says.

'Emerging talent'

Mr Shepherd says he found Hope "a very warm and down-to-earth person with no pretensions of stardom".

He adds the entertainer refused to have a fan club - inviting fans to contact his personal office for an autograph instead.

Hope is now honorary co-president of the theatre along with former US President Gerald Ford, an old golfing friend.

The Bob Hope Theatre
The venue was re-christened The Bob Hope Theatre in 1982
Bob Hope's association with Eltham keeps a measure of pride in the area, which gained an unwanted reputation after the 1993 murder of black student Stephen Lawrence, which took place a short walk from Craigton Road.

Mr Shepherd says the theatre is something the community can be proud of.

"The theatre gives an opportunity to everybody in the area - you can just walk in and get involved, and we're the only place in the area where you can do that," he says.

"We have a thriving youth group which has been going for 27 years, and we've seen a lot of emerging talent. Our membership knows no boundaries and the theatre's a real community asset."

Twenty years after Bob Hope stepped in, the theatre's future is secure. It is self-financing, and all its staff are volunteers.

Bob Hope Theatre
There are plans for a Hope museum
There are plans to refurbish the venue, and a Bob Hope museum is being considered.

Aside from the theatre, a small plaque on the house where he was born is the only other acknowledgement in the area of Eltham's most famous son.

But Mr Shepherd and his colleagues will always be grateful for the day he stepped in to save the theatre, which itself celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.

"If it hadn't been for Bob Hope, we wouldn't be here," he says.


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