Much has been made of the Hollywood Canteen and its efforts to entertain the troops during the Second World War. They weren’t the first to the party, however, not that anyone’s counting, but Broadway got there way before them. In 1917, various Broadway stars, many of them women, founded the American Theatre Wing, which was originally called Stage Womens’ War Relief. They raised money for the soldiers, gave them free theater tickets, collected clothes to send to poor children in war zones, and other charitable projects.
In between the two wars the Wing went dormant, but after Pearl Harbor it was time for a new fight. The Wing’s major venture was the Stage Door Canteen, which opened in the former Little Club basement space at 216 W. 44th Street in New York City on March 2, 1942. The teeny forty-foot-by-eighty-foot club could hold five hundred people, was fully integrated, and every night from five PM until midnight it was packed.
Luminaries of the stage and screen could be seen doing various jobs around the club and entertaining the troops. Alfred Lunt insisted on bussing tables. Judith Anderson and Helen Hayes worked as senior hostesses. Selena Royle and Jane Cowl oversaw everything. And of course, there were droves of pretty girls around waiting to talk with and dance with the service men.
The Stage Door Canteen expanded into several locations all over the United States and around the world. It was also made into a film, released in 1943 with Sol Lesser as producer. While not filmed at the actual Canteen, the movie gives an on-the-nose portrayal of what it looked like, what went on there and why the work was important.
Stage Door Canteen has a minimal plot that only serves to pad the long parade of stars seen throughout the film. Four soldiers, nicknamed California (Lon McCallister), Dakota (William Terry), Tex (Sunset Carson), and Jersey (Frederick Brady) are on their way to a staging area in New York before their deployment overseas.
Jersey’s looking forward to seeing his fiancee, Mamie (Dorothea Kent), but the other guys want to take in the sights of New York, especially California, who’s hoping to meet a pretty girl. Their first stop is in a fancy restaurant, where they gawk at the prices. Much to their relief, the waiter tells them about the Stage Door Canteen, where they can have the same food for free.
While they’re standing in line, Destiny arrives. Jean (Marjorie Riordan) and Ella Sue (Margaret Early) are both Canteen veterans, and they’ve recruited their friend, Eileen (Cheryl Parker) to come work with them. Eileen thinks it’s a good way to mingle with different producers and advance her career, but Jean tells her to forget herself. Any producers she’ll see are in the Canteen to serve, not to talk shop.
Yeah, a girl named Eileen working at the Stage Door Canteen. It brings to mind a certain Irving Berlin song, which, ironically enough, isn’t heard once during the movie.
Our two groups pair off in nothing flat. Ella Sue with Tex and Jean with California are no-brainers. Eileen and Dakota are a different story. Dakota is a cocky fella who tells himself he’s off women for the duration, and Eileen is selfish and sometimes thoughtless. The two of them verbally bat each other around, with Eileen being the bigger dolt, but in a movie like this she can’t help but come around. Or does she?
The big obstacle is that Canteen hostesses were famously forbidden from making dates with soldiers they meet at Stage Door, so these relationships have natural limitations. Happily, the guys keep getting day passes, they keep meeting with their girls at the Canteen, and there’s a lingering hope that things can continue forever. Since there’s a war on, though, this just can’t be.
The parade of stars is where Stage Door Canteen really shines. There’s also a ton of music. Kenny Baker, for instance, usually brings the guy who played R2D2 to mind, but it’s also the name of a popular singer from the 1930s and 40s. In Canteen, he sings a recurring theme, “Goodnight, Sweetheart.” Gracie Fields sings a lighthearted little ditty called “The Machine Gun Song,” about a Yank shooting Japanese fighters out of the sky. On a closer-to-home note, Xavier Cugat and Lina Romay drop “The Bombshell From Brooklyn.” And Ray Bolger sings a rousing rendition of “The Girl I Love To Leave Behind.”
Oh, and Stage Door Canteen can boast something no other movie can: It’s the one and only film appearance of theater great Katherine Cornell, who recites some of Juliet’s lines from the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet.
It’s all a lot of fun, but my favorite part was when Benny Goodman plays a couple of songs, in one case accompanying a very young Peggy Lee singing, “Why Don’t You Do Right.” She was just starting in the early forties, and Goodman helps her stand out. It’s all over his face that he knows she’s going to be something special.
One of the things that sets Stage Door Canteen apart from Hollywood Canteen is its realism. It doesn’t look as slick and pretty. If a room is small, it’s small, complete with support posts in the middle of a scene. The dance floor is packed edge to edge. Plus, the hostesses look like regular people and not starlets.
Most of all, the film communicates the concern people had for the servicemen. In one scene, a hostess mentions that a nineteen-year old soldier told her he hadn’t seen a woman in six months.
“Some of them are awfully young,” Jean remarks.
The characters also reflect the longing Americans had for their sons, brothers, friends, and husbands to come back. There are wistful songs about sleeping in Jeeps and the desire to not say goodbye. Above all, the movie stresses the importance of working to make a better world, even if saying goodbye to loved ones hurts like crazy. Katharine Hepburn tells Eileen:
You bet it isn’t fair, but it’s happening…We’re in a war and we’ve got to win, and we’re going to win, and that’s why the boy you love is going overseas. He’s fighting for the kind of world where you and he can live in happiness and peace…Don’t ever think about quitting. Don’t ever stop for a minute the working, fighting, praying until we’ve got that kind of world. For you, for him, for your children, for the whole human race, days without end.
The movie started production in April of 1942, and with a few exceptions, was shot at RKO Studios in Culver City. It raised over $2.2M for the Canteen, which, as an actuality, barely outlasted the war. The Wing lost its lease on the New York location on June 30, 1945, because its landholder, the New York Times, wanted to install a print shop in the club site.
This meant the Canteen had to move to a new venue on 43rd Street. It was only a temporary measure, though, and the Stage Door Canteen closed on October 28, 1945. The original basement location on 44th Street was torn down, and a bronze plaque commemorates the Stage Door Canteen.
The actual Canteen might be long gone, but the movie is like a World War Two time machine. Most of the songs only have life in the film. Many of the personalities are known to history buffs but aren’t the icing on the cake. Honestly, though, this is one of the nicest things about the film because it really captures what people were feeling during the war. As it gets more and more into the distance, films like Stage Door Canteen will be there to call back the past. As one paper put it in 1945, “They have not left the usual war memory. They have left a happy one.”
A new Reading Rarity is coming out next week, plus plenty of other goodies, so watch this space. Thanks for reading, all, and see you next time…