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Hollywood Canteen History & Photos - Part 6

Hollywood Canteen History & Photos

The Hollywood Canteen was turning out to be even more successful than its founders had hoped. It was reassuring to see that all the necessary elements could click in and everyone really could work together and make thousands of G.I.s  very happy. There would always be challenges, of course, and each day they would be met.  Two examples occurred early on: one was  particularly vexing; the other became a crisis. Many Hollywood Canteen photos are on the website. 

Eddie Cantor at the Hollywood Canteen photo

Board of Directors Elected

The Hollywood Canteen had no sooner been formed than the powers that ran New York’s Stage Door Canteen got their noses out of joint and called the Hollywood people “copycats.”  After the exchange of several telegrams and phone calls, the New York contingent suggested that the Hollywood Canteen be regarded as a branch of the Stage Door Canteen. A special meeting of the Hollywood Canteen’s officers and Board of Directors was called in mid-August, 1942. While the Hollywood people always acknowledged that cofounder, John Garfield, had drawn his initial  inspiration from the Stage Door, everyone at the meeting agreed that their Canteen would be “Hollywood’s own.”  The Hollywood Canteen would not, in any way, be connected to or with the Stage Door Canteen. This decision was conveyed to the Stage Door officials and things seemed to settle down.

Historic photo of Christmas at the Hollywood Canteen

Stage Door Canteen

But all did not stay quiet on the eastern front. After the Hollywood Canteen opened, other issues arose. One had the Stage Door people complaining that the exciting radio shows being broadcast from Hollywood were overshadowing those from New York. They felt that Hollywood – having unlimited big-name stars in its own back yard so handy to go on the air – was stealing its thunder. Three weeks after the Hollywood Canteen’s opening, stage actress Helen Menken was sent to California by the Stage Door Canteen in an attempt to resolve all their concerns. There are no official records or newspaper articles detailing the points discussed or their resolutions. Things must have been settled amicably, as no further references to any problems were found.There was, however, a matter far more serious than New York rivalries, and its head was rearing right in Hollywood.

Before the Canteen opened, Bette Davis had appeared before the Screen Actors Guild’s Hollywood Victory Committee, which arranged personal appearances of its members for such war efforts as bond drives and entertaining the troops. Davis needed to streamline the Canteen’s ability to get SAG members as entertainers for the nightly floor shows. And she had been given the go-ahead to be able to call actors and actresses directly instead of having to put each request through the Committee. Then, a few months after the Canteen opened, Bette was summoned to a meeting of the Victory Committee where she was told that the Canteen could no longer call celebrities directly.

Rudy Vallee at the Hollywood Canteen

Celebrity Volunteers

Bette explained that what the Committee was asking would make it impossible to continue running the Canteen. They had to be able to call a Spencer Tracy or a Marlene Dietrich at the last minute and ask them to appear that evening. She reminded the members that they had already agreed, before the Canteen opened, to let them make direct calls and suggested they refer to the minutes of that meeting.

The Chairman of the Committee, James Cagney, responded by saying, “regrettably, the minutes of that meeting had been lost,” so they were no longer bound by whatever commitment they had made.  Davis rose and said, “Mister Cagney, ladies and gentlemen, I will give you until tomorrow to give me back your original permission. If not, I will have no choice but to close the Canteen. I will so advise the forty-two guilds and unions who were part of founding the Canteen. I will send a statement to the press if you do not change your minds by tomorrow morning.”

Photo of the Main room at the Hollywood Canteen

As only Bette Davis could, she turned and left the room. Everyone on the Committee knew that the mighty Miss Davis meant business – especially Cagney, who had made two pictures with her. (Imagining Bette’s frustration with Cagney at the Committee meeting, it’s easy to think of the scene from Jimmy The Gent, 1934, where Davis slaps a rude Cagney across the face during an argument in an office, or the one from The Bride Came C.O.D.,1941, when an exasperated Bette pounds on Jimmy’s shoulders – or throws a bucket of water at him.)

At six o’clock the next morning, Davis received a call telling her that the Committee, which had met all night, agreed to let the Canteen continue calling stars directly. Bette could breathe again.

The website has the largest number of Hollywood Canteen photos. All the photographs are available for purchase.


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