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Hollywood Canteen History & Photos - Part 5

Hollywood Canteen History & Photos – Part 5

The old saying, “After ecstasy, the laundry!” certainly applied to the Hollywood Canteen as the glamour of opening night gave way to the reality of daily preparations.

Efforts to get everything ready for the nightly onslaughts of over 2500 servicemen had to be as well coordinated as military maneuvers.

The website has the largest number of Hollywood Canteen photos in the world. 

Historical Hollywood Canteen Photo

Hollywood Canteen Food

Each month the soldiers consumed an estimated 4000 loaves of bread, 400 pounds of butter, 1500 pounds of coffee, 50,000 half-pints of milk, 30,000 gallons of punch, 1000 pounds of three varieties of cheeses, 2500 pounds of assorted meats, 20,000 oranges, 100,000 pieces of cake, more than 150,000 sandwiches and hot dogs, 800 pounds of potato chips, 300 dozen doughnuts, 300 gallons of ice cream (for Sundays only), thousands of boxes of raisins, plus cases of jellies, relishes, pickles, mustard, ketchup and mayonnaise.

Preparing and serving the food and beverages was left to the Kitchen and Snack Bar crews.  Supervised by committee head, Mary Ford, the first shift of volunteers arrived at noon. In addition to such routine work as making thousands of sandwiches and cutting cakes into hundreds of small pieces, they had to finish washing the previous night’s dishes. Later in the afternoon, more volunteers showed up to make the coffee and stock the snack bar with candy, raisins, cigarettes (smoking was permitted outside), and similar items. While all of this was going on, others were sweeping the floors, washing tables, and setting the stage for that night’s activities. Mary Ford, wife of Academy Award-winning director, John Ford, was at the Canteen every day early in the morning to be sure that her committee would be on top of things. And she was never above scrubbing tables herself.

Historical photo of the Hollywood Canteen

Chef Milani

Given the number of servicemen expected every night, securing a continuing supply of food and drinks was no easy task. It fell to Italian immigrant, Chef Joseph Leopold Milani, who had established himself in Hollywood as a “celebrity chef.” It was on his popular radio show, “Chef Milani” (where he gave cooking instructions to housewives), that Bette Davis had appeared as a guest in August, 1942. When she told Milani of her plans for the Canteen and asked him to direct its food program, he heartily agreed, feeling that it was the least he could do to support the war effort.

The many Southern California food distributors that Milani contacted were extremely generous with their donations. But because of rationing, which the Office of Price Administrations (OPA) instituted after the start of the war, certain food products were in

short supply. As meat was a rationed item, and Chef Milani knew he had “to have that stuff” to feed the boys, he went to the OPA and begged for their help. When nothing came of his pleading, the energetic chef shot a telegram to President Roosevelt: “…the Hollywood Canteen will not be able to provide the necessary amount of meat for the servicemen unless we are able to secure an allotment exception permit immediately. Will you please help us secure this permit by directing this wire to the proper authorities with your O.K.? God bless you.” He signed it simply, “Chef Milani.” Almost immediately, the Hollywood Canteen had all the meat it needed.

Photo of Rita Hayward at Hollywood Canteen

Hollywood Canteen Food Donations

Over fifty percent of the Canteen’s food and supplies was donated by thirty-five benevolent companies in Southern California. The remaining fifty percent was purchased outright or acquired with ration points. According to Bette Davis’ commentary in Mother Goddam, the Canteen had a $3,000 weekly food bill.

It would not be Hollywood hyperbole to say that angels helped pay that bill.  Since civilians not affiliated with the entertainment industry were barred from the Canteen, a lot of people were left wishing that they, too, could witness the heady mixture of celebrities and servicemen. Wasn’t there a way to match their wishes to the Canteen’s needs in one fell swoop?

Old photo of Hollywood Canteen

Angel’s Table

And so was born the Angels’ Table, at which four people each paid $25 for the privilege to sit and watch the goings on inside the Canteen. Located on a raised dais in the southeast corner in the back of the main room, and covered with a gold-fringed cloth, the table was sold out every night for weeks in advance. Ouida Rathbone, wife of Basil Rathbone – the “American screen’s finest villain and most memorable Sherlock Holmes”  – was a tireless volunteer who sold more seats for the Angels’ Table than anyone else.

The idea was so popular that a second table was added, which allowed another four people to enjoy the evening’s activities – and brought in an extra $100 a night. On average, the Angels’ Table (s) generated about $6,000 a month, and was one of the best sources of revenue for meeting the Canteen’s operating expenses. (The only other accomodation for special guests – but was not income–producing -- was a small room on the second floor where officers and their female companions could look through a window to watch the night’s entertainment. Because the Canteen was for the exclusive use of enlisted men, and no officers were permitted on the first floor, the second floor arrangement was a comfortable solution all around.)

Besides having to cover 50 % of the food budget, reliable income was also needed to maintain a full-time staff of nine people – the Canteen’s only paid employees. Occupying an office on the first floor, this group of committed workers, headed by the Canteen’s Executive Secretary, Jean Lewin, took care of all the office details, from writing checks to various vendorsto putting together and printing “Chatter,” the Canteen’s weekly publication.

Hollywood Canteen’s Chatter

Created soon after the Canteen opened, “Chatter” was a single-page, legal sized mimeographed sheet that was handed out to servicemen as they walked through the doors. It  covered entertainment highlights, the following week’s schedule of bands, and tid-bits of information about Hollywood. On the bottom of the sheet it advised: “Use reverse side for autographs of your favorite stars, or a letter to your favorite girl – and don’t forget the home folks.”

The largest collection of Hollywood history and photos is on the website. All the photos are available for purchase.


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