EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA -- Without the leggy ladies to back him up, comedian Bob Hope spent Christmas entertaining the troops with a trunk full of jokes that took swipes at Saddam Hussein but not the Saudis.
"You know what Saddam is spelled backward?" cracked the 87-year-old veteran of vaudeville, who has been entertaining U.S. forces abroad since 1941.
After days of doubt, Mr. Hope arrived in the Middle East on Monday in time to give a Christmas Eve show, including a 20-minute monologue, for about 7,000 troops at a secret location in Saudi Arabia.
He originally had planned to bring along singer Marie Osmond, actress Ann Jillian and the Pointer Sisters, but he said he was told before he arrived that he had to exclude the women from the Saudi portion of the trip. Saudi Arabia prohibits female entertainers.
They will join his Operation Desert Shield tour later this week, when Mr. Hope cracks a few more jokes for U.S. forces deployed in the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain.
Accompanying him were former Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench and country-music singer Aaron Tippon. Mr. Hope's wife, Dolores, the only female entertainer, sang what was described as a teary-eyed "White Christmas."
"They lied to me," Mr. Hope said yesterday at a news conference. "They said, 'You can have all the girls you want in the world.' When I went to the plane they said, 'There will be no girls.' "
"There I was, packed and everything. What could I do?"
U.S. military commanders in Saudi Arabia have been walking a thin line between trying to give the troops a taste of home and not offending the kingdom's conservative traditions, including a ban on liquor.
Mr. Hope said he was briefed "about three times" on Saudi sensitivities and had gone over his material with a U.S. military public affairs officer who helped him cut jokes that might prove offensive.
The Pentagon said from Washington that it banned media coverage of the Hope show for security reasons and because reporting on it would "have a very great likelihood of being exploited by the Iraqis for propaganda purposes."
Iraq has broadcast television footage of American troops dancing and otherwise frolicking in the desert to portray Western forces as infidels defiling holy Moslem soil. Islam's two holiest sites, at Mecca and Medina, are in King Fahd's country.
Despite the decision, Mr. Hope was traveling with a team of photographers from a U.S. television network for his Christmas special, scheduled to be broadcast in the United States in mid-January.