We’re finally returning to a normal blogging schedule after a month of intense disruption. It’s been a crazy time. Between packing up my life in the UK, adjusting to life in the US, and putting together a wedding in 4 weeks, I’ve been incredibly distracted! It has been a classic case of taking on too much. For that reason, I also decided not to make my wedding dress. With everything else going on, I’ve had such little time to work on it, added to which I botched it in a way that will make continuing incredibly difficult and time-consuming. With only a week to go until the wedding, I’m all about minimising the stress at this point! I’ll be posting next week about the entire fiasco and closing my series of posts on making your own wedding dress with how to avoid ending up in the place that I did. Even without a me-made dress, I’ll be sure to post some pictures on here after the day for those of you who have been following my journey!
In an effort to pull myself out of wedding mode, I decided to get back into blogging mode with a new My Vintage Life post. These are always such a lot of fun for me to write – I love having the opportunity to research such fantastically interesting quirks of eras past and (hopefully) peak your interest through these posts. Of all the stories that I’ve come across in my vintage journey, one in particular sparked my fascination. The events surrounding the establishment and running of the Hollywood Canteen, a club that provided food and entertainment to US servicemen, are genuinely some of the most interesting tales in classic Hollywood’s lengthy list of incredible accounts.
So join me for this week’s My Vintage Life and the story of how Hollywood’s intersection with World War II produced a site where celebrity met fan, frivolity met fear, and political progress met conservative resistance.
The Hollywood Canteen was opened on 3rd October 1942 as the creation of Bette Davis and John Garfield. Looking to establish a base to which allied servicemen could flock for evenings of entertainment, Davis and Garfield approached the president of the Music Corporation of America, Jules Stein, for help creating and funding the operation. By all accounts, Stein was fundamental to the success of the project despite his position as a somewhat behind-the-scenes personality. As Bette Davis described it:
“Jules Stein, up to this time, was seldom ever seen. Few people even knew what he looked like. He preferred to live this way. It was a big decision when he said he would head the financial committee. He would have to alter his way of life. Without his hard work, advice, and investments of our funds the Hollywood Canteen could not have been successful, to say nothing of the work of his wife, Doris, who I asked to be the head of the committee for the hostesses necessary for dancing partners for the servicemen. When the canteen was no longer needed after V-J Day, $500,000 remained in the canteen account. These monies were the result of Jules’ ideas. A great source of revenue came from a film he urged Warner Bros. to make called Hollywood Canteen, a large percentage of which was allotted by Mr. Warner to the canteen itself. With the remaining monies a foundation was formed, and to this day contributions are made to worthy projects dealing with the armed forces.”
Despite the popular personalities that dominated ideas of how the Canteen was conceived and run, it was undoubtedly the work of multiple minds. The work to establish the Canteen came to fruition and, as desired by Davis and Garfield, successfully provided a place where servicemen could associate with Hollywood’s biggest stars, dance, eat, and try to forget impending assignments overseas.
Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth performing their magic act at the Canteen
It’s important to remember, however, how central Stein was to the operation of the Canteen. Responsible for the financing of the project, Stein not only had to fund its creation but also find money and donations to support the hefty expenses that came with day-to-day running. 50 percent of the Canteen’s food was donated, relying on a series of fundraisers in order to raise the money necessary to provide the rest. Since the servicemen went through 4,000 loaves of bread, 400 pounds of butter and 30,000 gallons of punch per month, finding the funds to provide such massive quantities was incredibly necessary. In order to navigate ration restrictions on meat, the Canteen’s head chef – Chef Milani – was forced to write to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt demanding action:
“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.”
Needless to say, the Hollywood Canteen received its permit.
The Hollywood Canteen did much for the way Hollywood’s activities in World War II were perceived. By having major stars – including Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, and Hedy Lamarr – work voluntarily at the Canteen – serving food, signing autographs, and dancing with patrons – the Canteen bridged the gap between these distant celebrities and the men giving their lives for the allied cause. It advanced the idea that, not only was Hollywood fully behind US engagement in WWII, but also that the celebrities themselves were prepared to give their time to boost morale and work in service of those men serving the country at large. To control any potential ‘personal’ mishaps, the Canteen came with strict rules about romantic assignations between the hostesses (both famous and not) and those visiting the Canteen. Although there are accounts suggesting that, in a number of cases, romances did develop, there is nothing to indicated that the Canteen became a site of sexual mayhem.
Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth working at the Hollywood Canteen
The Canteen was a revolutionary project in a number of ways. Not only did it provide a place for celebrity civilians and allied soldiers to mix on equal terms, it also served as a site of (relative) racial tolerance. Bette Davis immediately shut down the notion that the Hollywood Canteen would enforce a segregation policy. And, for the most part, the Canteen operated without racial incident. If such incidents did occur, the Canteen’s managers had instructed the band to play the national anthem, something that occurred only twice during the Canteen’s existence. It must be observed, however, that operating without segregation did not mean that the Canteen functioned as a site of racial equality. The managers made sure to recruit black hostesses to ensure that black servicemen were tended to by women of their own race and vice versa. Although, in 1940s America, Bette Davis’ decision on the side of tolerance was undoubtedly a forward-thinking move, it would be troubling to suggest that the Canteen totally avoided continuing a tradition of informal and customary segregation. That said, entertainers of all races were welcome to perform before the troops and renowned performers Lena Horne and Louis Armstrong were amongst the most celebrated.
The Hollywood Canteen was an incredibly successful initiative that undoubtedly boosted the morale of all who attended. It offered an opportunity for men, plagued by the thought of walking into the battle, to escape – however briefly. They could mix with celebrities as equals, eat, drink, and share in camaraderie. One of the most fascinating things about the Canteen is its true authenticity. There is little evidence to suggest the project boasted false successes or claimed an impact that it didn’t have. Instead, everything points to an initiative that delivered over and above what it set out to achieve. The 1944 Warner Bros. film Hollywood Canteen, although undeniably a staged and overly positivised account of the Canteen’s operation, is not so far from the mark in showing how fantastically the club boosted the morale of its soldiers and offered Hollywood stars an opportunity to demonstrate their gratitude. The fact that more than 3000 individuals – including celebrities, musicians, dancers, and publicists – had signed up to volunteer at the Canteen before it even opened its doors, shows just how keen people were to offer some form of service to those men ultimately giving their lives for the country. Here, the soldiers were treated like individuals. The millionth guest – Sgt. Carl Bell – attended the venue on 15th September 1943 and, as a prize, was offered both a kiss from Betty Grable and escort by Marlene Dietrich. Stories of stars going out of their way to make guests feel special and valued abound.
Bette Davis in the film ‘Hollywood Canteen’ (1944)
As war initiatives go, the Hollywood Canteen was undeniably one of the best conceived and most successful. Although it is undoubtedly the case that the Canteen offered at least some opportunity for Hollywood to massage its own ego, there is too much contradictory anecdotal evidence to believe that this was the only motive at play. From 3 October 1942 to 22 November 1945, the Hollywood Canteen operated as a place of hope, fun, and freedom. It provided an invaluable reprieve for those preparing to walk into some of the most horrifying events in history. While the Canteen did not stop a war or save the men who walked through its doors, it reminded its guests that a country stood behind them. And, for that alone, the Hollywood Canteen will be remembered as one of Hollywood’s most generous acts.
For more information on the Hollywood Canteen, I would recommend watching the 1944 film Hollywood Canteen. There are also numerous videos and documentary extracts on Youtube. Another fantastic resource is the book The Hollywood Canteen: Where the Greatest Generation Danced with the Most Beautiful Girls in the World by Lisa Mitchell and Bruce Torrence.