A History of The Hollywood Canteen
Book Review by Martin Grams, Jr.
The Hollywood Canteen was the jewel in the crown of World War II Hollywood. From 1942 to 1945, over three million servicemen came through its doors on their way to fight in the Pacific — some never to return. There, in a converted barn in the heart of Hollywood, soldiers were fed, entertained by and danced with some of the biggest stars in the world. The Canteen was free to all servicemen or women, regardless of race, inviting them to jive to the music of Kay Kyser and Harry James, laugh at Bob Hope’s jokes, be handed sandwiches by Rita Hayworth, or dance with Hedy Lamarr. Knowing they were so appreciated, the soldiers were armed with the kinds of hope and encouragement that would help them win a war.
Lisa Mitchell and Bruce Torrence co-wrote a book about this tremendous morale booster, titled appropriately, The Hollywood Canteen: Where the Greatest Generation Danced with the Most Beautiful Girls in the World. When Bear Manor Media sent me a box of books, with the request of doing a book review, this one caught my eye and I quickly took it with me to the beach as recreational reading. I devoured every page in two days (a feat easily accomplished with any book this size when you have 14 hours each day to read and relax). Here, Mitchell and Torrence did not disappoint my expectations and they cover every aspect you could conceive about the Hollywood play land.
Bette Davis and John Garfield co-created The Hollywood Canteen, inspired by Garfield’s visit to the Stage Door Canteen in New York City. Two-time Academy Award winner Bette Davis agreed to become the Canteen’s chairman after hearing of Garfield’s concept to be run solely by members of Hollywood’s show business community. Davis contacted the studio moguls, celebrities throughout the Sunshine State, and quickly established a fundraiser to raise the money needed to operate the Canteen.
The book documents all business meetings of order, the policies every volunteer had to adhere to (including the avoidance of meeting the soldiers off hours), and a major struggle with the Hollywood Victory Committee whose purpose was to provide a way for actors and actresses to contribute to the war effort through bond drives and various venues to boost the morale of the troops, waiving established union rules regarding usual compensations and procedures. Bette Davis was granted permission to call actors and actresses directly instead of having to put each request through the Committee. Months after the Canteen was established, Davis was summoned to a meeting of the Victory Committee where she was told that the Canteen could no longer call celebrities directly. She explained the minutes of the meeting that granted her permission and the necessary reason why last-minute phone calls were often necessary to fill a void in the Canteen, but the Committee lost the minutes of that meeting. With no other option than to shut the Canteen down, Davis boldly threatened to shut down the Canteen, advise the 42 guilds and unions who were part of the founding of the Canteen, and send a statement to the press if their minds were not made up “by tomorrow morning.” As only Bette Davis could, she turned and left the room. Everyone on the Committee knew that the mighty Bette Davis meant business. At six o’clock the next morning, Davis received a call telling her that the Committee, which had met all night, agreed to let the Canteen continue calling stars directly.
The day-to-day inner workings of The Hollywood Canteen is also documented. Fifty percent of the Canteen’s food and supplies were donated by 35 benevolent companies in Southern California. The rest was paid courtesy of fundraisers. Each month the soldiers consumed an estimated 4,000 loaves of bread, 400 pounds of butter, 1,500 pounds of coffee, 25,000 pints of milk, 30,000 gallons of punch… and the list goes on and on. Chef Milani, who gave cooking instructions to housewives on his weekly radio program, was in charge of the kitchen. But because of rationing, which the Office of Price Administrations (OPA) instituted after the start of the war, certain food products were in short supply. As meat was a rationed item and Chef Milani knew he had to have enough to serve the soldiers, he went to the OPA and begged for their help. When nothing came of his pleading, the energetic chef shot a telegram to President Roosevelt. “…The Hollywood Canteen will not be able to provide the necessary amount of meat for the servicemen unless we are able to secure an allotment exception permit immediately. Will you please help us secure this permit by directing this wire to the proper authorities with your O.K.? God bless you.” He signed it simply, “Chef Milani.” Almost immediately, the Hollywood Canteen had all the meat it needed.
Every volunteer had to be fingerprinted (courtesy of the FBI) and a membership card issued to each volunteer. A photo of such a card is included in the book. The book also delves into the legal issues such as one woman who sued the Canteen because of a spinal injury during a jitterbug dance. When the Stage Door Canteen in New York City believed the Hollywood Canteen stole their idea, and believed it was unfair to lure Hollywood stars because of the location, their jealousy resulted in a minor potential lawsuit that was quickly resolved. Such behind-the-scenes stories are always fascinating to read.
The race issue was shelved out the door when Bette Davis quickly took a stand against racial intolerance. When a few soldiers were going out the door because Negros were not segregated to their own tables, she took the mike and diplomatically explained the policy of the Hollywood Canteen. “The blacks got the same bullets as the whites did and therefore should have the same treatment,” Davis explained. Yet the Canteen was mindful of social relationships between Negroes and whites that had long been held through custom and habit. For the most part, blacks danced with blacks, whites danced with whites. If an incident occurred, the band was instructed to play “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This practice was done only twice in all the years the Canteen operated. It was agreed that everyone, white or black, enjoyed the entertainment of Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
What the celebrities did for the soldiers, including performances and autographs, is beyond description within a minor review such as this. But chapter after chapter there are stories of Marlene Dietrich kissing all the soldiers on V-J Day, Paulette Goddard dancing on the floor, Eddie Cantor dressing up as Santa Claus on Christmas… even the radio broadcasts are covered (including photos of Bob Hope and Orson Welles before the radio microphone).
Some Hollywood celebrities suffered as a result of their volunteer work. Actress Gene Tierney showed up at the Canteen one night during the first month of a pregnancy. A few days later she discovered her face covered with red spots. The doctor diagnosed the problem as German measles. Little was known then about the connections between German measles in early pregnancy and the damage to an unborn child’s nervous system. Tierney’s daughter, Daria, was born deaf and suffered visual impairment. About a year after Daria’s birth, Tierney was at a tennis party when a young woman came up and introduced herself. She was in the women’s branch of the Marines, and had met Tierney, she said, at the Canteen. She inquired whether or not Tierney contracted German measles while working at the Canteen. It seems the woman had left her camp where there was an outbreak of German measles. “I broke quarantine to come to the Canteen to meet the stars. Everyone told me I shouldn’t, but I just had to go. And you were my favorite.” Tierney did not say anything of the tragedy that had occurred. But, she wrote, after that, she did not care if she “was ever again anyone’s favorite actress. I have long since stopped blaming the lady Marine for what happened to us. But Daria was, of course, a war baby, born in 1943… Daria was my war effort.”
The 1944 Warner Bros. movie, Hollywood Canteen, was also documented. A percentage of the profits of ticket sales was donated to the Canteen, plus a flat fee for the use of the name. Yet, as a result of a minor dispute with the Screen Actors Guild, production was shut down after three weeks. From Warners’ standpoint, prorating actors’ salaries to make such a star-studded picture (there were dozens and dozens of celebrities) seemed the only way to afford it. The Guild felt otherwise. The issue was eventually resolved six months later and the film went back before the cameras (some scenes re-shot as a result of revised casting). The chapter about the movie helps establish the difference between the fictional screen portrayal and the real version.
The best part of the book comes from the photo collection of Bruce Torrence. Letters and Certificates of Appreciation from Bette Davis are reprinted. Construction of the Canteen, photos of soldiers lining up outside, celebrities having fun entertaining the troops, celebrities in the kitchen… so many photos they take up half the book. Kate Smith, Frank Sinatra, Paulette Goddard, Hedy Lamarr, Linda Darnell, Mickey Rooney, Danny Kaye, Irene Dunne, Olivia de Havilland, S.Z. Sakall, Sydney Greenstreet, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable, Deanna Durbin, Jane Wyman, Ronald Reagan, Bob Hope, Kay Kyser, Leopold Stokowski, Spencer Tracy, Ann Miller, Ronald Colman, Herbert Marshall, Basil Rathbone, Roddy McDowell, Jane Russell, Faye Emerson, Red Skelton, The Quiz Kids, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, Tommy Dorsey, Merle Oberson, Dinah Shore, Claudette Colbert, Bing Crosby, Joan Crawford, The Andrews Sisters, Rudy Vallee, Bob Hope… it is virtually a who’s who among Hollywood in candid photos (no publicity shots here). It’s fascinating to learn that Basil Rathbone’s wife was a volunteer for almost every day the Canteen was in operation. A Hall of Fame wall with Clark Gable’s picture in military uniform recognized his service overseas. Even Bob Hope’s monologue promoting the Hollywood Canteen, from his October 13, 1942, radio broadcast, just ten days before the Canteen opened, is reprinted.
“…Here I am doing the first broadcast from the Hollywood Canteen. This really is a marvelous place. Any enlisted man can come here. Be entertained by the top Hollywood talent. Get free food served by Hollywood beauties. Dance with girls like Hedy Lamarr or Lana Turner. And then go back to camp and be used to heat the barracks.”
If you love old Hollywood movies, the history of WWII, or find the subject matter interesting, this is a book I highly recommend. You will not be disappointed. Thanks to authors Lisa Mitchell and Bruce Torrence, a missing gap in both the history of Hollywood and WWII has been filled. I only wish a lot more books were published like this.
Among the many celebrities who donated their services at the Hollywood Canteen were: