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Hollywood Canteen History

HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN HISTORY

STARTING & BUILDING THE HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN

If the Hollywood Canteen was still open, it would be 59 years old, in October 2011.  Even though it only lasted for three years, the Canteen  had quite a history.

Founded by Bette Davis and John Garfield, and with the assistance of Dr. Jules Stein, the Hollywood Canteen opened its doors on October 3, 1942 with a grand opening ceremony that rivaled the best of Hollywood movie premieres. Hundreds of Hollywood Canteen photographs were take by scores of Hollywood’s best photographers

After weeks of searching for a usable building, Bette Davis and John Garfield a dilapidated place that once had been a barn in the heart of Hollywood. Located at 1451 N. Cahuenga Avenue, just south of Sunset Blvd., the structure had been a series of ill-fated nightclubs. The last was a cabaret-type theater called the Red Barn where drinks and dinner were served, followed by floor shows and stock melodramas. The Red Barn closed its doors in 1937 and remained vacant until August 25, 1942 when Bette and John leased it for $100 a month for the duration of the war. 

Under the supervision of Al Ybarra, all of Hollywoods motion picture guilds, unions and trades unanimously volunteered their services to remodel the building. From plumbers, electricians, painters, carpenters, laborers, prop men, set decorators, etc all pitched in to transform the old nightclub into a place where servicemen could visit when came to Hollywood. 

One of the most tireless volunteers was Jules Stein's wife, Doris who was responsible for making sure there was a sufficient number of hostesses each night to dance and chat with servicemen. By the time the Canteen opened its doors, almost every celebrity in Hollywood signed up as a volunteer.  The new Hollywood Canteen building was ready to be occupied.

It was unanimously agreed that the Hollywood Canteen would be for the exclusive use of enlisted servicemen no officers were allowed in. The servicemen's uniform was his ticket to admission. It was also decided that the only persons allowed to volunteer were those who work in some facet of the entertainment business (radio, stage or motion picture industry). It was figured that approximately three hundred volunteers would be needed nightly. These would include junior and senior hostesses, busboys, kitchen help, stage staff, band members, and celebrities who would hand out sandwiches, coffee as well provide entertainment. As the word spread about the Canteen, thousands of people signed up as volunteers celebrities, studio secretaries and receptionists, make-up artists, cartoonists, set decorators, part-time actors, and other employees of the motion picture studios. 

The Hollywood Canteen's operation was divided into three primary activities dancing with the servicemen, providing food and drinks (no alcoholic beverages allowed) and entertainment.  

HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN DANCING

Dancing with such movie stars as Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth or Deanna Durbin was the highlight of every serviceman’s visit to the Canteen.  In addition to the many celebrities who were available to dance each night, there were scores of junior hostesses who, after working all day at the motion picture studios, danced with the servicemen.  Because there were more soldiers than hostesses, it was not uncommon for a hostess to dance with two or three servicemen each dance. 

Of all the types of dances, the jitterbug was definitely the most popular. It was not uncommon for celebrity dancers like Faye McKenzie and Jane Withers to dance the jitterbug for hours each night.   The guys were so crazy about it, as one hostess remarked, “They just jitterbugged you to jelly.” 

The term, “Jitterbug,” had many variations, such as the Lindy Hop, Shag, New Yorker, Collegiate, Hurricane, Boogie Woogie, Suzy Q, and Bombing – and all were exploding at the Canteen.

One night, on a cleared dance floor, Jane Withers put on a Jitterbug exhibition with five eager young men – who were all totally exhausted by the time they had finished. Later, when bandleader Kay Kyser, called on Jane to repeat the entire routine up on the stage, she hopped right to it with the same crackling Withers gusto. 

Hostess and professional dancer Diane Meredith recalls that everyone would step back and make a circle around the really great jitterbuggers to applaud and cheer them on. “Sometimes I was one of them,” she says. “ I was not that agile to be flown into the air, but I did a lot of the movements pretty well because we’d been trained to do them.” 

HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN FOOD

Bette Davis solicited Chef Joseph Milani's help in securing all the food that would be needed to supply the Hollywood Canteen for the duration of the war.  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. The preparation of the food and beverages was left to the Kitchen and Snack crew which was supervised by Mary Ford, wife of film director, John Ford.  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 was at the Canteen early in the morning to be sure that her committee would be on top of things. And she was never above scrubbing tables herself.  All the food was free and was served by some of Hollywood’s most celebrated stars including Linda Darnell, Basil Rathbone and Buster Keaton.  

HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN ENTERTAINMENT

By far, the most anticipated event each night was the “on stage” entertainment.  Servicemen were treated to performances by Hollywood’s most popular stars.

Over the course of its three years, the Hollywood Canteen entertained millions of servicemen with the best singers, dancers, actors, actresses, comedians and radio personalities in show business.

Such singers as Ginny Simms, Jane Powell, Martha Tilton, Deanna Durbin, Jeanette MacDonald, Patricia Morrison, Frances Langford, Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra, Dennis Morgan,and Judy Garland wowed the boys whenever they appeared. Betty Hutton, Roy Rogers and the Andrew Sisters kept things lively. In her distinctive style, Lena Horne enthralled everyone with hits like “Stormy Weather.” When she wasn’t overseas herself, Marlene Dietrich was up on that Canteen stage as often as possible.

In addition, the footwork styles and distinctive personalities of dancers like Fay McKenzie, Ann Miller, Ted Lewis, Ray Bolger, Bill Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, Joan McCracken, Veloz and Yolanda dazled the visiting servicemen

The Hollywood Canteen’s eclectic roster of comedians included Bob Hope, Eddie Cantor, Joe E. Brown, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Danny Kaye, Red Skelton and Ken Murray and Marie Wilson. The Canteen had the perfect audience for Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First?” sketch.

HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN AUTOGRAPHS

Visiting servicemen were constantly asking for, and receiving, autographs from all of the volunteer celebrities. From Hedy Lamar to Spencer Tracy, all the movie stars were delighted to provide autographs to anyone who asked. 

Holidays, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and Easter were especially popular because the traditional meals were served and it was a place where servicemen could go and be in a 'homey' atmosphere. With the war over, in mid 1945, fewer and fewer servicemen visited the Canteen. When it was announced that the Hollywood Canteen would close on Thanksgiving night, in 1945, hundreds and hundreds of volunteers and servicemen showed up for the last time. Over the course of its three year existence, the Hollywood Canteen had over 3 million servicemen come through its doors. It was truly Hollywood's finest home-front contribution to the war.

HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN PHOTOGRAPHS

The largest collection of photographs of the Hollywood Canteen is on the web site hollywoodphotographs.com. There are over 275 historic images of servicemen dancing with celebrities, movie stars signing autographs, soldiers watching the best of Hollywood's entertainers and night to night activities. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To mark the Hollywood Canteen’s 60th birthday, authors Bruce Torrence and Lisa Mitchell hope to have their book, titled “The Hollywood Canteen” published.


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