I am ridiculously corny about WWII movies, probably because my dad was a WWII vet and I’m in that group of people who believe that generation truly was our greatest. So, as a salute to our veterans, here’s a story that’s not told often enough. Meet an improbable pin-up who fought and finagled the Hollywood system to bring smiles, laughter, and joy to thousands and thousands of war-weary G.I. Joes.
It all started with John Garfield’s bum ticker. Garfield’s heart kept him out of the army, but his zeal to do something for the soliders had him telling anyone who would listen about the Stage Door Canteen in NYC. He raved about this mecca for free entertainment for any service member, staffed by Broadway’s brightest—from stars to stagehands–and dreamed about creating a West Coast version.
One day, at the Warner Brothers’ commissary’s Green Room, he shared that dream with the right dame. He asked Bette Davis to take the job of chairman of the Hollywood Canteen. Bette put the full force of her personality behind the effort—and that’s some power, baby!
Bette colors outside of the lines…
Bette and Garfield’s handpicked team worked nonstop to create the Canteen, meeting after long workdays and on weekends to get it up and running.
To raise funds to build the Canteen, Columbia Pictures offered the proceeds from their 1942 July premier of “The Talk of the Town”…
Ticket holders for that special premiere also got a meal at famed night spot Ciro’s. When Ciro’s maitre d’ refused entrance to invited black actor Rex Ingram, Bette stormed up to the doorway and pointedly seated Rex herself.
Some patrons left upon seeing a Negro (sic) in the all-white upper crust eatery, but the majority stayed to hear Bette proclaim from the podium that this fund-raiser—and the Canteen—was for service members of all races.
As support and funds poured in, Bette and John talked local craft guilds—electricians, painters, carpenters—into donating their labor to transform a dilapidated building located just south of Sunset Blvd into a casual Western-themed nightclub with comic murals, a huge dance floor, wagon-wheel chandeliers and a barn-wood bandstand. It was completed in an astonishing 30 days.
Bette knew she needed to streamline the process of accessing the Hollywood talent that would function as both performers and worker bees. After Pearl Harbor, SAG formed a “Hollywood Victory Committee”—a sort of clearing house that permitted actors to make personal appearances to sell bonds and rouse support, setting aside the usual union rules about pay and regulations for the duration. Bette petitioned the committee to be allowed to call actors directly and not have to wait for the Victory Committee’s permission. The Committee agreed and Bette started rounding up available performers for the fledgling Canteen.
Not surprisingly, opening night, Oct 3, 1942, was a HUGE success. Clad in fur, Bette addressed the opening crowd: “Tonight, we see our dream come true. This campaign represents an all-out partnership and has exceeded our expectations. I hope all you boys will enjoy yourselves and know that all of Hollywood is your host.”
The overflow crowd of over 4,000 got the full treatment: Kay Kyser and Duke Ellington played, Eleanor Powell danced with an endless stream of eager G.I. Joes to the point of collapse, Dinah Shore crooned, and Abbott & Costello had ‘em rolling with their famous “Who’s On First?” routine. Servicemen rotated through the club in one-hour shifts to give everybody who’d stood in line for hours the chance to dunk a donut with a Hollywood star. (There’s Dinah Shore, a frequent volunteer..)
150,000 sammies a month
Every Canteen worker was a volunteer, many reporting for duty after 18-hour workdays behind or in front of the camera. (That’s the fetching Joan Leslie below..)
scribing letters home, scrubbing dishes (something Marlene Dietrich particularly enjoyed), or just sitting and listening…these were the duties cheerfully performed by luminaries like Hedy Lamarr, Joan Leslie, Mickey Rooney…
Spencer Tracy, Loretta Young, Judy Garland, Al Jolson (there he is, as Santa, below)…
Louis Armstrong, Rita Hayworth, and Red Skelton. And MORE!
And virtually every night, the indefatigable Bette was there, signing autographs…
handing over a cup of joe or cutting cake and always with a smile.
She performed in skits. (Here, one of the Westmore brothers, Hollywood’s make-up dynasty, makes Bette into Groucho Marx!)
She enforced rules with a sweetness that surprised some. She was everywhere at once.
Bette even drafted celebrity radio chef, Chef Milani, to supervise the kitchen. When rationed meats ran low, Milani telegrammed President Roosevelt to insist the Canteen be provided with special allotments to give the servicemen the food they deserved. FDR made it happen.
Bette is called on the carpet and cuts a rug
The Canteen had only been open a few months when Bette was informed by the Victory Committee she could no longer call entertainers directly. Bette respectfully reminded the Committee that they’d agreed to that proviso which made it possible for her to snag celebs at the last minute. She declared it’d be impossible to run the Canteen without that freedom. Check the meeting minutes, she suggested, it’s all in there. Committee chair James Cagney regretted that alas, those minutes had been lost, so the agreement was no longer binding.
Let’s just picture Bette’s face when she heard THAT one, shall we? La Davis pulled herself up to her full 5’ 3″ and intoned “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.” She then flounced out of the room, as only Bette could.
A 6am phone call the next morning relayed that an all-night meeting of the Committee had ruled in her favor. I can almost see Bette in her pajamas, savoring her victory ciggie.
All of Hollywood welcomes you
I’ve focused on Bette, but there are hundreds of other stars who worked as tirelessly and selflessly to entertain the troops who came in droves to the Canteen. Kay Francis made a 50-mile drive to bring wounded sailors to the Canteen. (Here’s Kay with her co-stars of FOUR JILLS AND A JEEP.)
Charles Laughton was bussing tables when band-leader Kay Kyser summoned him to the bandstand. Laughton protested that he wasn’t much good—couldn’t dance or sing. A solider called out “Give us the Gettysburg address!” (Laughton was famed for his recital in Ruggles of Red Gap.) When Laughton finished reciting it from memory, the normally rowdy crowd was silent, wiping away tears.
Deanna Durbin danced with a soldier who’d lost both legs in a terrible South Seas battle—he was so uncertain about his ability to navigate his artificial limbs that he balked at first. After two dances with the sunny songstress, he crowed, “Gosh, if I can dance with Deanna Durbin, I can dance with the world!”
There are dozens of wonderful stories like these–along with fascinating details about the Canteen–in a MARVELOUS, image-packed book titled: The Hollywood Canteen: Where the Greatest Generations Danced with the Most Beautiful Girls in the World, by Lisa Mitchell and Bruce Torrence.
(All quotes in my post are from this book, as are most of the images of the Canteen and its divine denizens.) Honestly, with the amount of material in that book, this blog post could have been 5 times longer. Just buy the book…it’s brand new and it’s simply terrific. And it would make a GREAT gift for the WWII vet or WWII buff in your life. Christmas is coming, after all…Click here to order it from the authors, and they will autograph it for you if you ask. Isn’t that awesome???
To see Bette and her Hollywood chums in action at the Canteen, rent (or buy!) Warner Bros. 1942 hit HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN, the filmed and marginally fictionalized story of the Canteen—it’s soooo charming and lovely. You’ll rarely see such a cavalcade of beloved classic stars, all doing their part for the war effort. Trust me, you’ll love it.
It’s no wonder soldiers like Pvt Bernard W. Schoor wrote thank-you notes to a woman who may not have been standard issue “pin up material,” but who had won the hearts of thousands of elisted men. “Dear Miss Davis,” he wrote, “You have incorporated in the Canteen the swell spirit of American friendship and democracy that make all this worth fighting for.”
Give your favorite veteran a big, red-lipsticked kiss today, won’t you, to thank them for serving our country. They deserve that and so much more. Thanks, fellas and gals of the armed forces. We love you.
Special thanks to Bruce Torrence, one of the authors of The Hollywood Canteen, who permitted use of these wonderful Hollywood Canteen images from his vast collection. All rights reserved: http://www.hollywoodphotographs.com/.