It can’t be denied that Hollywood, and for that matter, Broadway, were in an unique position to help the troops during the war. Support for the war effort was overwhelming in these industries, especially once the last holdouts stopped tiptoeing around the Nazis and the other Axis powers. Not to mention, seventy-nine percent of Americans were opposed to entering a new war anyway until Pearl Harbor happened, after which everything changed.
The idea of celebrities entertaining troops is nothing new. In 1917 the Stage Women’s War Relief was founded by playwright and philanthropist Ruth Crothers and five other theater women. Members involved themselves in a variety of projects, such as sewing and knitting garments to be sent overseas (see the former site of their Workshop here), learning first aid, growing vegetables when food became short (Billie Burke, for instance, grew strawberries), and running a bed and breakfast for servicemen. No matter the task, members were asked to keep a low profile and focus on their jobs.
That’s not to say, however, that there wasn’t entertainment happening, too. War Relief staged several productions to raise money, as well as set up Liberty Theaters in parks and on sidewalks to sell bonds. They even opened a canteen at 47th and Broadway in Manhattan which entertained troops on Saturday afternoons. Much to the chagrin of some Broadway performers, showing movies brought in major amounts of cash as well.
After the war was over, War Relief turned to helping soldiers readjust to civilian life before disbanding in 1920. Well, it didn’t disband so much as go dormant. When the United States entered World War Two, the organization was renamed the American Theatre Wing and taken over by actresses Jane Cowl and Selena Royle.
Meanwhile in Hollywood, Bette Davis and John Garfield hit on the idea of opening a canteen. They rented out a former livery stable and nightclub and had it refitted with a large event space, a stage, a kitchen and serving counter, as well as offices and a coatroom. Various industry professionals pitched in for free, making the place look very home-y and special.
Why did Hollywood and Broadway want to help with the war effort? According to a research paper by Dale M. Cendali of Yale University, there were three main reasons:
- Relaxation and entertainment for the servicepeople;
- Raise money for war-related causes;
- Spread healthy propaganda.
Both Hollywood and Broadway hit the ground running. The Stage Door Canteen opened on March 2, 1942 in the basement of the 44th Street Theatre at 216 West 44th Street in Manhattan, and the Hollywood Canteen on October 3, 1942 at 1451 Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood. Night after night, seven days a week, servicepeople were given free food and free entertainment, with Hollywood and Broadway celebrities serving and performing.
The rules in these venues were fairly strict. The food was for the servicepeople. Everyone had to mind their manners, and since the clubs were integrated, there were ways of diffusing conflicts, usually involving the night’s band playing the “Star Spangled Banner.”
Above all, hostesses weren’t allowed to make dates with the servicepeople. The reasons for the latter were obvious; the Canteens weren’t meant to be meet markets or stumbling blocks for anyone. People were there to have fun, dance, eat, and converse, and that was all.
Which stars showed up? The short answer is, pretty much everyone, with the exception of those who went into uniform (see the long and impressive lists of the biggest names here and here). There was a lot of crossover between Hollywood and the Stage Door as well, since many performers worked in both Hollywood and Broadway.
To say that these places were successful is an understatement. The Stage Door Canteen was a diminutive three-hundred twenty square feet with a capacity of five hundred people at a time, making it necessary to host servicepeople in shifts. On average, the Canteen would host about 2,000 servicepeople per night and in all, the American Theater Wing opened up a chain of canteens in Newark, Washington, D.C., Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. There was even a British version in London hosted by NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes) that featured such performers as a very young Julie Andrews.
As for feisty standalone Hollywood Canteen, in less than a year they hosted their millionth visitor, Sergeant Carl Bell, who not only got a kiss from Marlene Dietrich, but was escorted by Betty Grable. By the time they closed in November of 1945, the Canteen hosted over three million servicemen. Things got so wild there on occasion that one junior hostess, Florida Edwards sued after suffering a back injury while jitterbugging with a Marine. However, this was likely the exception rather than the rule.
Where there are Hollywood stars, there are movies, of course, and the two made about the Canteens are, obviously, 1943’s Stage Door Canteen and 1944’s Hollywood Canteen.
The former was an independent film by Sol Lesser and directed by Frank Borzage and has an incidental plot about a group of four servicemen and friends who get to stop in at the Canteen before they ship out and end up befriending three hostesses. While a wee bit dated, the film is immensely fun; it’s hard to explain how crammed full of stars, music and schtick it is.
One of its most remarkable points is that it’s the only screen appearance of stage actors such as Katherine Cornell, Helen Menken and Peter Lawford’s cousin, Betty. It’s also cool that except for a certain Benny Goodman number with Peggy Lee, a lot of the songs didn’t have much of a life outside of the film, which makes it time travel gold.
Hollywood Canteen seems to be the glitzier of the two films. Originally meant to feature stars from multiple studios, Warner Bros. decided to go the simpler route and stick with its own players. Like Stage Door Canteen, the film follows an audience character, which in this case is Slim, a serviceman who stumbles into the Canteen on the recommendation of a waiter in a diner and realizes his dream of meeting Joan Leslie.
From there a sweet but improbable plot weaves around music and schtick from numerous performers such as the Andrews Sisters, Eddie Cantor, Joe E. Brown, Kitty Carlisle, Joan McCracken, Jack Benny, and Jane Wyman. The film nails the look of the Canteen right down to the checkered tables and keeps things moving at a rapid clip. It was so successful Warner Bros. donated almost half of the film’s earnings to the real place.
Both Canteens closed soon after the war ended and the buildings in which they were housed no longer exist, although the American Theatre Wing continues in another form. Most of the Canteens’ stories survive in films, newsreels, artifacts and photos, not to mention the fond memories of servicemen, their families, and everyone involved. Bette Davis later said, “There are few accomplishments in my life that I am sincerely proud of. The Hollywood Canteen is one of them.”
The “Take Two” Blogathon is on the way Saturday. Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you then…
Stage Door Canteen (DVD and streaming) and Hollywood Canteen (DVD) are available to own from Amazon.
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Cendali, Dale W. “V Was For Variety: The American Theatre Wing, Broadway, and World War II.” Yale University, 1981.
Yellin, Emily. Our Mothers’ War. New York: Free Press, 2004.