By John Skipper
Iowa native Hope Emerson was an actress who might not be recognized immediately by her name, but those who see pictures of her are likely to say, “Oh, yeah, I remember her.”
By her own admission, she was not glamorous or a “leading lady,” but for 50 years she was a star of stage, screen and television. And she was a big star — as in 6 feet 3 inches, 230 pounds — big enough to pick up Spencer Tracy and toss him about in one of her film roles.
In 1950, she was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her performance as an overbearing prison guard in the movie “Caged.”
Two character traits help historians tell her story. She had an amazing sense of humor, including the ability to laugh at herself and she made herself accessible to the press. Reporters were always on the prowl for a good story and Hope obliged them many times.
Hope was born Oct. 29, 1897, in the tiny Iowa town of Hawarden in Sioux County. Her father, John Alvin Emerson, known to everyone as Jack, worked in the boot and shoe business with his brother, Bert, and was later a town marshal and a city assessor.
Her mother, Josephine “Josie” Washburn Emerson, was an early resident of Hawarden, was active in her church and in social work activities, but she had a love of show business that her daughter inherited. At one time, Josie Emerson had been a vaudeville performer and at home she loved to put on home talent plays. The Emersons had three children, but two of them, a son and a daughter, died shortly after birth.
Hope liked to tell the story of her show business debut, at the age of three, as part of her mother’s vaudeville act.
“I was to do a cakewalk burlesque (imitation) of the one done by the leading lady and man. I rehearsed a couple or three weeks. Everything was in readiness for my debut,” she said. “But little prima donna — that’s me — refused to go on. No sir. Not unless I was paid for it. The poor stage manager had to send out for a doll.”