LOS ANGELES – Bob Hope turned 99 on Wednesday with an outpouring of birthday wishes and a new honor from the nation.
The partying started early for the Hope family, with the comic's wife, Dolores, celebrating her 93rd birthday on Monday. Balloons, flowers and gifts arrived at their Toluca Lake home throughout the week, and the couple had a low-key cake and ice cream party Tuesday night.
Ward Grant, Hope's longtime publicist, said the comedian is in a sort of longevity derby with his late grandfather.
"His grandfather lived to be 99 and 11 months and he's always joked about wanting to top him," Grant said. "So 99 is a good milestone, but we're busy planning his 100th birthday."
On the occasion of Hope's birthday but without White House fanfare, President Bush signed into law a bill designating the chapel located in the national cemetery in Los Angeles as the Bob Hope Veterans Chapel to salute his decades of service entertaining U.S. troops overseas.
Meantime, in a tongue-in-cheek tribute, the 99 Cents Only Stores sold 99-cent copies of a Bob Hope tribute book and promised to donate at least $9,999.99 of the proceeds to the Bob Hope Hollywood USO charity.
Hope, who is frail and was hospitalized briefly last year with pneumonia, did not make any public appearances. His wife attended the chapel dedication in Los Angeles along with celebrities Connie Stevens, Red Buttons and Debbie Reynolds.
"Speaking with Bob today ... I whispered in his ear that we were coming out for this, and although he can't respond very much vocally, he had just the most beautiful smile," Dolores Hope said. "He knew what was going on and wishes he could be here."
The ceremony included the reading of a statement from Bush lauding Hope's work with U.S. troops and a flyover by the vintage Condor Squadron propellor fighter planes.
Born Leslie Townes Hope on May 29, 1903, in Eltham, England, his family immigrated to the United States in 1907 and settled in Cleveland.
Hope began as a vaudeville joke-teller, dancer and singer, but radio shows and dozens of TV specials and films, most notably his "road movies" with Bing Crosby, brought him international acclaim.
Over 60 years, he was a favorite guest of every president from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.
"We wish we had some extraordinary gift to give him because he's given all of us so many smiles and so much laughter for so many years," former first lady Nancy Reagan said in a statement released on behalf of Ronald Reagan, who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
Hope made his last overseas visit to entertain U.S. troops at age 87, stopping in Saudi Arabia in 1990 during Operation Desert Storm, but since has fully retired from show business.