With a Cultural Center Named for Bob Hope, Palm Desert Says 'Thanks for the Memories'

updated 01/18/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/18/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

It's not often that the residents of Palm Desert, Calif., pray for cold weather. In fact the temperate, sundrenched winter climate is one of the main attractions of the hyperexclusive desert retreat on the outskirts of Palm Springs—where old movie stars and financial wizards have created a congenial, Republican culture based on tight security, great golf and good works. But a recent January day was different. The Bob Hope Cultural Center, a new $20 million theater complex named for a local octogenarian who made good, was having its grand opening, and the local ladies of fashion prayed for that snap in the air that would permit them, in all good conscience, to trot out their best furs. Sure enough, the mercury dipped to 30°F, and the well-heeled 1,150 who paid up to $5,000 a plate to honor Old Ski Nose got to show off their lynxes and sables as well as the family Rolls-Royces. Never mind that, as the King of Comedy himself remarked, "Naming a cultural center after me is like naming a monastery after Gary Hart." Good food was at hand, as well as the chance to rub elbows with President and Mrs. Reagan. And, of course, it was all tax deductible.

The five-course, sit-down dinner featured such lavish concoctions as a smoked breast of quail appetizer garnished with a nest of hash browns holding a marinated quail egg. The entertainment that followed (to be aired Feb. 6 on NBC as America's Tribute to Bob Hope) was a curious hybrid of the concert hall and the Broadway stage, with the whole shmeer threatening to devolve into that Hollywood staple, the roast. Van Cliburn played "The Star-Spangled Banner," Andrew Lloyd Weber previewed two scenes from Phantom of the Opera, and a 10-year-old prodigy named Leila Josefowicz brought the house to its feet with her dazzling perfomance on the violin.

Interspersed were tributes, both playful and heartfelt, to the nation's favorite funny man. Lucille Ball, who first worked with Hope in radio back in the '30s, advised the audience that Bob would not be performing. "When he heard that people were paying up to $5,000 apiece," she reported, "he said, 'If I had known I could command that kind of money for not appearing, I would have retired years ago.' "

Actually, Hope did, toward the end of the evening, treat the crowd to a string of his trademark one-liners. "I see Chief of Staff Howard Baker is here," he said. "He's wearing a button that says, 'Not related to Jim and Tammy.' Tammy, by the way, is building a new church. Our Lady of Avon.... I see Gerry Ford is here too. I was talking to him this afternoon, and I said, 'Pardon me.' He said, 'I don't do that anymore....' "

John Forsythe, a transplanted Easterner who emceed part of the show, was impressed by the grand designs of Palm Desert philanthropists, who plan to add a celebrity museum, an amphitheater and a 600-seat concert hall to the center's luxurious principal theater. Their little community may be high and dry, Forsythe conceded, but no, "it's not a cultural desert."

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