On this Memorial Day, I would like to pay tribute to an integral part of Hollywood history that relates to the holiday. On October 3, 1942, the Hollywood Canteen opened its doors at 1451 Cahuenga blvd. in Hollywood, with a purpose to provide music, entertainment and food to active service members, completely free of charge. Staffed by volunteer Hollywood celebrities and open to all serving members of the Allied forces–men and women, black and white, from all the allied countries–it was a venture to preserve Allied morale and a method for members of the entertainment industry to contribute to the war effort in a meaningful way.
The idea for the canteen came from actor John Garfield, who was inspired to recreate the successful Stage Door Canteen in New York for service members on the West Coast. Unable to serve in the army himself because of a heart problem, he wanted to do something to aid the efforts overseas and sought partnership with fellow actor Bette Davis, who helped set the wheels in motion. Working long hours to get the canteen up and running, Garfield and Davis managed to get the canteen built in less than 1 month, complete with elaborate chandeliers and a giant dance floor.
Per the rules of the “Hollywood Victory Committee,” established after Pearl Harbor in order to allow actors to volunteer for the war effort without having trouble with the Screen Actors Guild, Davis and Garfield were able to procure volunteers who not only would keep the canteen running smoothly, but would also provide unmatched amusement and entertainment for the patrons of the canteen. Among the frequent volunteers were Rita Hayworth, Deanna Durbin, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Jeanette MacDonald, and countless other Hollywood luminaries. Upon the visit of the millionth service member in 1943, the lucky sergeant Carl Bell was brought into the canteen by Marlene Dietrich where he received a kiss from Betty Grable. It was unlike anything most of these servicemen and women had ever seen.
Though the Hollywood Canteen seemed to be a fantasy land in which soldiers could escape from the harsh realities of wartime, its walls were not immune to the difficult social problems of the time. Upon seeing that tables were not segregated at the canteen, many white soldiers opted to leave in lieu of sitting and chatting with fellow service members of African-American descent. Bette Davis, known for her refusal to entertain for segregated audiences, took to the microphone when this happened to explain the policy of the Hollywood Canteen. “The blacks got the same bullets as the whites did, and should have the same treatment,” she said.
In addition, it was at the Hollywood Canteen that a pregnant Gene Tierney was signing autographs when she was approached by a fan who had recently been quarantined for German measles. Tierney contracted the disease, and her daughter was born with severe problems including blindness, deafness, and intellectual disability. Tierney suffered from serious mental anguish and guilt for the rest of her life because of her decision to go to the Hollywood Canteen that night.
In 1944, the canteen was such a famous institution that Warner Bros. decided to make a movie about it. Based loosely on the experiences of Sgt. Bell, it tells the story of two servicemen on leave who spend several nights at the Hollywood Canteen–one of whom becomes the millionth G.I. served and wins a date with Joan Leslie. The movie features so many stars that, according to Variety, “There isn’t a marquee big enough to hold all the names in this one, so how can it miss?” The movie was a smash success, and received 3 Academy Award nominations. 40% of ticket sales went to the real Hollywood Canteen.
The Andrews Sisters in Hollywood Canteen (1944)
The canteen continued even after the war was over, finally closing for good on Thanksgiving Day, 1945. Today, in keeping with corporate lack of appreciation for history, the building has become a parking garage for the building next door. But the legend of the Hollywood Canteen lives on, a true testament to the power of Hollywood to maintain morale and keep spirits up in the most difficult times.
Many of these photos were found over on Karen Noske’s wonderful blog Movie Star Makeover. Go visit it if you have the chance, K is a friend of mine and does a magnificent job with her site.