Tuesday, May 14

Hollywood Canteen

In its heyday during WWII, the Hollywood Canteen was quite the exciting place for servicemen... men and women, every branch, including those from allied nations visiting our shores.  It opened at 1451 Cahuenga Blvd. in Hollywood in October 1942 and closed in November 1945.  It was a place where servicemen could come and dance and chat with movie stars and singers and comedians and generally anyone famous.  The famous donated their time and provided the guys (and girls) with many a night to remember.

Imagine standing in the long line outside, waiting your turn to get in, and find yourself dancing with Peggy Lee or Jane Russell or Kathryn Grayson or sharing a sandwich with Eddie Cantor or Roy Rogers or listening to the Andrews Sisters sing Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.  Big bands, so popular at the time, would also volunteer their musical services.  It was heady stuff.  The famous men might make sandwiches or do dishes or MC the entertainment, serve as doormen, wait on tables, clean up or dance with the WACS or WAVES.  An actress, if she weren't particularly up for schmoozing that night, might also perform some of those same chores.  People in the industry who were not famous would also volunteer to help out in whatever way they could.  In addition to the up close and personal entertainment, the only admission needed was one's uniform and once inside everything was free.

The Canteen was the brain child of Warners contract stars Bette Davis and John Garfield.  They, in turn, roped in filthy rich Jules Stein, head of the Music Corporation of America, to provide most of the financing.  It was completely run by volunteers.

Being served by Bette Davis

Materials for repairs or construction or decorations were donated by the various guilds and unions in the industry.  Artists and cartoonists painted murals and such on the walls.  One Chef Milani was in charge of the food which was largely donated but still the Canteen itself paid for much of the food through donations.  It's been said the weekly food bill was around $3,000.

Mickey Rooney on the drums

In order to further hype the Canteen, it started some publicity on finding and honoring the millionth man to enter the facility.  On September 15, 1943, the lucky recipient was escorted inside by Marlene Dietrich and received a kiss from Betty Grable.

That millionth man idea became the thrust of the plot for a movie that was done in 1944 called, of all things, Hollywood Canteen.  It was made through Warner Brothers.  This way, I suppose, they could easily use Davis and Garfield to tell their story of the start of the Canteen since they were both under contract to Warners.  And of course for the film, they would only use Warners contractees or outsiders who were working on a film at Warners at the time.  Playing dance partners or making sandwiches or just chatting with the soldiers were such people as Jane Wyman, Alexis Smith, Eleanor Parker, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Jack Carson, Dennis Morgan, Ida Lupino, Joan Crawford and Dane Clark.

Robert Hutton being kissed by his dream girl, Joan Leslie

But there was a secondary story, a love story, to give the film some cohesion and it concerned Joan Leslie.  She was a popular young (18) Warners star at the time.  I have mentioned Leslie to you in my earliest postings because for a long while she was my favorite actress.  I didn't see Hollywood Canteen for eight or so years after it was made and Leslie was my favorite actress at that time.

What made the film more interesting to me (as if seeing all those stars in one film didn't already trip my light fantastic) was that Robert Hutton played Slim and he would become the millionth man.  Before that happened, we already knew he was crazy about Joan Leslie and looked for her among the Lupinos and Crawfords and Davises.  When he becomes the millionth man, he is asked which movie star he wants to go out on a date with and he of course picks Leslie.  Oh be still my heart.

It was lightweight fare for sure but it was fun.  It plays on the tube all the time should you want to have a gander.  It does provide a look into the Canteen itself and the wonderful work all the volunteers did for our soldiers.

Gene Tierney

There is one dark footnote.  It involves actress Gene Tierney, the beautiful 20th Century Fox star of 1940s favorites Laura, Leave Her to Heaven, The Razor's Edge and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.  Tierney's first child, a girl named Daria, was born severely retarded.  It was determined that in Tierney's first trimester of pregnancy she contracted German measles which, in turn, caused damage to the unborn baby's central nervous system.  Tierney had gotten the measles after spending a night at the Canteen.  She came into contact with a woman marine who had them.  In fact, it was learned that the soldier's entire camp was quarantined as a result of an outbreak and the woman broke quarantine to come spend an evening at the Canteen among the movie stars.  Sad indeed.

Side note:  The well-informed with good memories know that this theme was used as a reason for murder in the Agatha Christie opus, The Mirror Crack'd which starred Angela Lansbury, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Kim Novak and Tony Curtis in 1980.

The Hollywood Canteen will live in the Hollywood and military history books as showcasing Hollywood at its patriotic best.  By the time it closed its doors for good, it had play host to over three million servicemen.

The boys lining up on a Sunday

Review of Star Trek into Darkness

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