In a continuing series looking at Hollywood hotspots where some of the scenes in my ‘Garden of Allah’ novels take place:
You are Joe Normal, from Regularville, Kansas, and you were drafted into the military because your country’s been at war since those Japanese kamikaze pilots blitzed Pearl Harbor. Your buddy from next door joined the Navy, so you did too. It was exciting to be out of Kansas for once, and the Navy’s training for the new recruits wasn’t so bad…most of the time. But now it’s nearly Thanksgiving, 1943, and you’ve been sailing back and forth across the Pacific for nearly two endless, monotonous years. Letters from home, some of them doused in perfume, sure do help, and so do Mom’s cookies and chocolates—they’re like currency on board. But it’s been months—months!—since you had any shore leave longer than a couple of hours. But at last your number came up and oh boy! Did it ever! You hit the ever-lovin’ jackpot because your two-day pass coincided with your ship being docked at Los Angeles, California! That means Hollywood, baby, or more specifically the Hollywood Canteen: the best place a serviceman can go where his chance of meeting a cute girl, or maybe even a Hollywood star is almost guaranteed. But you better get there fast, Joe, the line to get in is L-O-N-G!
During the war years, Los Angeles was especially busy with military personnel heading off to, or returning from, the Pacific theater of war. Suddenly L.A. was crowded with streams of servicemen with no place to go. They’d all heard of Hollywood so that’s where most of them headed. But once they got there, the options were limited to largely walking around or getting drunk in a bar someplace and hoping the Military Police didn’t find you. All those footloose servicemen badly needed a place to go.
It was actor John Garfield (best known for his lead role in 1946’s The Postman Always Rings Twice) who first thought of creating a place for servicemen to go. He mentioned it to Bette Davis who thought it was a terrific, and much-needed, idea. So they enlisted the help of Jules Stein, the president of Music Corporation of America, who headed up the finance committee. He, in turn, got generous funding from the owner of Ciro’s nightclub and Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures. They also got the various guilds and unions of the entertainment industry to donate labor and money for the building renovations.
An old nightclub at 1451 Cahuenga Boulevard, just off Sunset, was located, and with a whole lot of help, the “Old Barn” as it had been called, became the Hollywood Canteen, which opened its doors on October 3, 1942. Immediately, word got out that servicemen could get a free meal, some entertainment, dance with a pretty girl, and perhaps even meet a movie star, and the opening night saw hundreds and hundreds of people crowding to get in. Even though the majority of visitors were U.S servicemen, the Canteen was open to servicemen of allied countries as well as women in all branches of service. The ticket for admission was your uniform and everything at the Canteen was free of charge.
The Canteen was operated and staffed completely by volunteers from the entertainment industry. Over 3000 players, directors, producers, grips, dancers, musicians, singers, writers, technicians, wardrobe attendants, hair stylists, agents, stand-ins, publicists, secretaries, and allied craftsmen of radio and screen had registered as volunteers. But, being Hollywood, these weren’t just any volunteers coming forward to do their bit for the war.
The Joe Normals stepping through the Canteen’s front door could regularly spot glamorous stars who’d volunteered to wait on tables, cook in the kitchen, or clean up. If he was lucky, he might get served coffee and donuts by Bette Davis herself, or Paulette Goddard, or Mary Pickford. And if he was really lucky, he might have a chance at taking a spin on the dance floor with Vivien Leigh, Rita Hayworth, Hedy LaMarr, Dorothy Lamour, Jane Russell, Sonja Henie, or Gene Tierney. Those guys must have been speechless at the sight of holding the likes of Lamarr or Tierney in their arms. And they got to share their good fortune with the folks back home. Postcards of the Hollywood Canteen were given out at the reception desk and could be mailed with free postage for servicemen by writing “Free” in place of a stamp, and giving their military association, name and rank.
The other highlight was the entertainment provided by some of Hollywood’s most popular stars. Bob Hope, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, Carmen Miranda, Dick Powell, Frances Langford, Count Basie, the Andrews Sisters, Bill Robinson, Lena Horne, Red Skelton, Abbott & Costello were just a few of the hundreds of celebrities who entertained the servicemen every night. On September 15, 1943 the one millionth guest walked through the door of the Hollywood Canteen. The lucky soldier, Sgt. Carl Bell, received a kiss from the ultimate WWII pinup girl—Betty Grable—and was escorted in by Marlene Dietrich.
In fact, the arrival of the millionth guest became the plot of a movie version put out by Warner Brothers. Creatively entitled “Hollywood Canteen,” the plot revolved around two soldiers who spend their three nights leave at the Hollywood Canteen before going back to active duty. One of them, Slim (played by Robert Hutton) is the lucky one millionth soldier to enter the canteen. His prize is a date with his dream girl, Joan Leslie. Slim’s buddy Sergeant (Dane Clark) dances with Joan Crawford and Canteen President Bette Davis praises the canteen for its part in the war effort. It featured 62 stars—probably the most stars ever to appear in one movie.
The movie was a huge success, and according to Bette Davis, when the canteen was no longer needed after V-J Day, $500,000 remained in the canteen account, a great deal of which came from the film—Jack Warner had donated some of the profits to the Canteen’s bankroll (undoubtedly with not a small amount of prodding from Bette Davis.) With this leftover money, a foundation was formed, and to this day contributions are made to worthy projects dealing with the armed forces.
But the end of the war saw the end of the need of the Hollywood Canteen, and on and November 22, 1945 (Thanksgiving Day), it closed its doors having been host to almost three million servicemen who, it’s fairly safe to assume, could barely believe their luck.