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Hollywood Canteen History & Photos - Part 3

Hollywood Canteen History & Photos – Part 3 

After weeks of searching for a usable Hollywood Canteen building, Bette Davis and John Garfield found a dilapidated place that had once been a barn right in the heart of Hollywood. Located at 1451 North Cahuenga Boulevard, just south of Sunset Boulevard, the structure had been a series of ill-fated nightclubs. The last was a cabaret-type theater called The Red Barn, where drinks and dinners were served, followed by floor shows and stock melodramas such as Murder In the Red Barn and The Drunkard.

Rare Hollywood Canteen Photograph

Hollywood Canteen Finds a Home

The Red Barn closed its doors in late 1937. The building remained vacant for five years, until August 25, 1942 – four days before the Canteen’s fundraiser – when Bette and John leased it for one hundred dollars a month for the duration of the war, plus six months. As soon as the ink was dry on the lease, the officers set the Canteen’s opening for October third, 1942.

Bette Davis described the building that would become the Canteen’s own as “one step below an eyesore.” (1) We can almost hear Davis delivering what would become her perennially parodied line from Beyond the Forest (1946): “What…a…dump!”

On the evening of September 3, 1942, Davis headed a gathering of interested people who met by candlelight in the decrepit wooden club. Amidst broken crockery and lipstick-stained cigarette butts from some long-ago night life, the group, which included John Garfield and Al Ybarra, outlined their plans to convert the property into something suitable for servicemen. Their goal was to have the building completed in one month.

More Hollywood Canteen photographs

Volunteer Workers

It fell to Ybarra, representing the Screen Set Designers Guild, to draw up plans, make sketches, and supervise the construction so that the project could be done – almost without cost – in thirty days. To start things off, Bette and John persuaded fourteen guilds and unions to donate both labor and materials.

All of Hollywood’s motion picture craftsmen unanimously volunteered their services and immediate cooperation. From plumbers, electricians, carpenters, painters, laborers, prop men and teamsters to art directors, decorators and cartoonists, everyone pitched in. In addition, thousands of feet of lumber, multiple barrels of nails, gallons of paint, miles of electrical wire, hundreds of yards of concrete, and scores of plumbing fixtures were freely given.

Vintage photo of Hollywood Canteen Entrance

Remodelling The Hollywood Canteen      

The old Red Barn was thoroughly ripped apart. Truckloads of new lumber were rolled into place as carpenters tore out and rebuilt floors and walls. Looking like something in a sped-up movie, grips, prop-makers and laborers worked at a breakneck pace to construct a new bandstand/stage, a large service counter, a kitchen facility, a lighting control room, a lobby, and offices.

Everything took shape as planned, and in just a week, the made-over structure was ready for the electricians. New light fixtures, in the form of antique wagon wheels with lanterns, were hung above the Canteen’s main room. Thirty-five painters carrying cans of paint showed up on a Sunday, and finished the job in one day.

Some of the most amusing features of the Canteen’s new look were the hand-painted murals in the main room. A large one on the north wall, just above the service counter, was a contribution of the Screen Cartoonists Guild. In keeping with the Canteen’s Western theme, it was called “Cowboy Heaven,” and had lively pictures of “things cowboys dream about.” Five big mural panels on the opposite wall were done by the Motion Picture Illustrators and depicted such popular legends as “Frankie and Johnny” and “The Shooting of Jesse James.” Even the bathroom walls got special treatment and were painted with delicate springtime blossoms by actor/director Richard Whorf.

When the remodeling was done, various studios and many private companies offered whatever furnishings, equipment, and supplies that were needed.  Finishing touches – from upholstering seats to hanging stage backing – would continue till just days before the Canteen’s opening.

Vintage photo of Ted Lewis at the Hollywood Canteen

Red Barn Becames The Hollywood Canteen     

The old Red Barn had been transformed into a welcoming wood-front building, with an entrance sign crafted out of a large hemp rope that spelled out “HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN FOR SERVICEMEN.” Inside, the plain, casual Old West décor was inviting – and able to take a beating from heavy service shoes and good-natured crowds ready for fun.

Hollywood Canteen Photos on Website




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