The characters on stage included Bob Hope, Lucille Ball and Marilyn Monroe, but the real star at the Savannah Center on Thursday was Sgt. Pam Kelly.
“Bob Hope and Friends USO” featured Bill Johnson as Hope, with Holly Faris playing a variety of famous women. The Villagers for Veterans’ show was a benefit for Kelly, an Army medic who became a quadriplegic in 2002 while on active duty.
Johnson, as Hope, joked about sinkholes. “I know people here love golf, but I went down a street with 18 holes,” he cracked early on.
Faris took turns playing a cackling Phyllis Diller; a sultry, diamond-studded Marilyn Monroe and a tipsy Lucy Ricardo.
There were plenty of laughs, rousing songs and a patriotic dance by the local Aloha O’ Ka Hula group.
But it was Kelly who earned the most cheers. She received a loud – and long – standing ovation at the start of the show. Villagers for Veterans is raising money to build a smart home for her in The Villages’ Orange Blossoms area.
“It’s overwhelming. I’m so grateful for everyone in The Villages helping me,” an emotional Kelly said in an interview during intermission. “I love The Villages. Everywhere I go here, it’s like a new experience in my life.
“I went to Katie Belle’s and it was great. The other day I went to Johnny Rockets and everyone there was so nice to me. The same thing happens at the town squares. It’s that way everywhere I go.”
Kelly hopes to work with Villages swimming coach Bon Kyle-Blamphin to improve strength. She also wants to join a bicycling group here.
“There are so many clubs here and so much to do,” she said. “It has changed my life. But it’s not the houses or the activities that makes The Villages so special – it’s the people. I can’t wait to live here.”
Marie Bogdonoff of Villagers for Veterans is determined to make that dream a permanent reality. The group already has purchased the land for the home for about $80,000 and hopes to have a construction ground-breaking in late fall.
“This is a fun night and we love to reminisce and laugh about Bob Hope – but we’re all here for Pam,” Bogdonoff said. “She has given so much for her country and we’re glad to give something back to her.”
Hope, who died at 100 in 2003, spent much of his career entertaining American fighting men and women. Johnson told Hope’s story on stage and how he entertained troops in World War II and Vietnam.
“I like keeping his memory alive,” Johnson said before the show. “He brought the home front to the war front. The soldiers remembered listening to him on radio or watching him on TV in their living rooms. He made them laugh and remember what it was like at home.”
Johnson also has a personal reason for admiring Hope.
“My father (Bill) was a World War II veteran,” Johnson said. “He never talked about the war, but he loved Bob Hope. I remember sitting with my Dad watching TV and laughing with Bob Hope. That still means a lot to me.”
Hope was among the first comics to do topical humor in a standup routine. Johnson kept that up Thursday, joking about sinkholes, North Korea, flying, rainy weather and the construction boom in Central Florida.
“I noticed the surrounding area of Marion Country is having a condominium craze,” Johnson said as Hope. “In school the other day, a teacher said: ‘Now Johnny, what happened in 1492?’ He said: ‘How should I know. We live on the 12th floor.’”
Johnson doesn’t just tell Hope’s jokes. He also captures his physical mannerisms and vocal rhythms and cadences. All that’s missing is a ski nose.
Faris, meanwhile, was percolating throughout the show. It started when she came on as Phyllis Diller, dressed in a purple-and-green-feathered mini dress that looked like a cross between Audrey the Venus Fly Trap from “Little Shop of Horrors” and Big Bird.
Faris really hit her stride doing Lucille Ball’s “Vitameatavegamin” skit from “I Love Lucy.” Lucy does a TV commercial for the product and keeps drinking from the bottle until she gets tipsy. A soundtrack from the actual TV show was played, and Faris brought the old days and Lucy back to life.
Faris was appropriately sexy and slinky as Marilyn Monroe, singing “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.”
Put it all together and it was a night to celebrate Bob Hope, as well as Pam Kelly.
And, as Hope might say, “Thanks for the memories.”