Bob Hope: Lifelong bond with his birthplace in Eltham

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The Independent Online

If anybody claims to remember Bob Hope from the time he lived in Eltham, then they are almost certainly lying.

The entertainer left aged four with his family for the United States but the bond of affection he felt until his death for this often maligned corner of south-east London is still keenly felt. A plaque is attached to the wall of the three-bedroom terrace house where he was born in Craigton Road in 1903. It now lies empty after its recent sale for £195,000. "Buy yourself a piece of history," the estate agent's blurb about the house had urged.

It is less than a mile away in a small drab playhouse where he is most fondly remembered. In response to a call for help, he rescued the Eltham Little Theatre from closure. When its church landlords raised the rent, he raised £58,000 through a series of charity golf games.

It was renamed the Bob Hope Theatre in 1982 and he has made several trips to Eltham. Two certificates hang in the bar of the theatre bearing his name and that of the former US president Gerald Ford, proclaiming them honorary co-presidents of the place.

A bust of Bob Hope created by a blind sculptor has pride of place alongside many other pieces of memorabilia. Such are his good works here that he even eclipses Frankie Howerd as Eltham's most famous son.

The first bouquet - from the local newspaper - appeared yesterday on the doorsteps of the theatre. "Thanks for the memories," it said.

David Smith, chairman of the theatre during the 1980s when it was saved by the comic, said that Eltham had a lot to thank him for. "He was the salvation of the theatre. We have a permanent home for live entertainment in Eltham, which we wouldn't have had had it not been for his generosity.

"He has always taken a keen interest particularly in the youth group here. He was an exceptional personality and is the best thing that has ever happened in this theatre's history."

Jim Shepherd, honorary secretary, last saw him in 2000 when he was frail, but Hope still had his sense of humour. "He was a very warm person, very down to earth and not Hollywood at all. If fans wanted an autograph all they had to do was approach him in the street, or just write to him and he would always oblige."