ANNAPOLIS -- With a string of snappy jokes, comedian Bob Hope wooed a crowd of more than 6,000 at the U.S. Naval Academy yesterday until even the crustiest of admirals chuckled.
The 88-year-old entertainer, though still smarting from a spill he took Thursday night in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., quipped in trademark style about sailing, golf and aging.
"No, I'm not afraid of the sea. Actually, I'm a pretty good swimmer. The way I play golf, I have to be," he said.
He was in Annapolis to dedicate the academy's ultramodern performing arts center in its new $30 million Alumni Hall. Inside the auditorium, a spotlight was trained on a plaque that formally named the center after Mr. Hope.
The multipurpose center will be used for events as diverse as basketball and theatrical productions.
Naming it for Mr. Hope was in response to a request by United Service Organizations (USO), which donated $500,000 to the project.
Construction of the auditorium and Alumni Hall began in December 1987, when the U.S. Department of the Navy authorized $13 million for it. The remaining $17 million for the construction is being raised from private donations.
Saying he was moved by the gesture, Mr. Hope teased that the last dedication in his name was by the NBC television network -- "a speed bump."
A boisterous crowd of 4,200 midshipmen had entertained the faculty, alumni and invited guests by doing "the wave" and leading cheers until Mr. Hope arrived -- a half-hour later than scheduled.
The entertainer looked fragile and had a large bruise in the center of his forehead, an injury that required six stitches. Mr. Hope stumbled and fell during a rehearsal of a performance to benefit Air Force Enlisted Men's Widows and Dependents Home Foundation.
At the Naval Academy yesterday, his wife, Dolores Hope, sang "It Had to Be You" during the dedication ceremony.
Cradling a dozen red roses in her arms after the performance, Mrs. Hope recalled that her husband got hooked on entertaining soldiers at March Field, Calif., in 1941.
In the last half-century, Mr. Hope has entertained troops in Europe, North Africa, Alaska, Iceland, Vietnam, Beirut and last year, in Saudi Arabia.
And the veteran entertainer said he has no plans to stop entertaining troops soon.
"I finally realized what he felt when I went with him to Vietnam," Mrs. Hope said. "All you have to do is be there once and see all these wonderful young people, and your heart goes out to them."
Many in the audience said they were touched by his dedication to the U.S. troops around the world.
Joe Moreno, 24, a former Marine, now a midshipman, said he appreciated Mr. Hope's trip to the Persian Gulf last Christmas.
"I really felt he was there for the troops," he said.
His friend, Midshipman Casey Garwood, said he was a fan of Mr. Hope's humor, even though he didn't remember watching many of the entertainer's Christmas specials on television.
"He's really sarcastic," said the 21-year-old, who recently finished Mr. Hope's autobiography. "I like that kind of humor."
Mr. Hope has visited the Naval Academy twice before, the last time in 1982, when he taped the television special saluting him on his 79th birthday. The year before, he entertained the brigade during Commissioning Week.
"Annapolis and the Navy are part of what's made America a great nation," the British-born comedian said.
Mr. Hope entertained the sailors with maritime jokes such as: "My uncle was first officer on the Titanic; he also was the first officer off the Titanic."
A golfing enthusiast who said he considers the game his "regular business," Mr. Hope tied both themes together with this one:
"I have never been a seafaring man; I was looking for a ship with 18 holes."
Rear Admiral Thomas C. Lynch, the academy superintendent, introduced Mr. Hope and praised the alumni for raising enough money to build the auditorium. "They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams," he said.