By Paul X. Rutz

In the 1940s, the USO got a boost from the entertainment world. Stars of stage and screen united the East and West coasts under a shared goal—use their star power to boost GIs’ morale.

The first opened at 224 West 44th Street, in New York’s theatre district, when producer Lee Shubert partnered with the American Theatre Wing to start a free service men’s club. Co-chairs Selena Royle and Jane Cowl, both stage actresses, rechristened the Little Club as the Stage Door Canteen, opening the doors in early 1942 with help from an army of theatre guild and union members.

Katharine Cornell, the Lunts, John Carradine and countless others staged selections from the best of Broadway while their colleagues served sandwiches, milk, soft drinks and sweets or danced with the 2,000 to 3,000 guests per night. The Canteen became an entertainment hotspot with one critic hailing it as “probably the happiest hangout for service men on the loose in the big city,” and quoting one sailor: “No liquor—but damned good anyway.”

The press of the time described it like a speakeasy: not well marked but well-guarded. To get in, one had to be a theater professional ready to work or a uniformed service member of any race from any Allied country. Women in uniform were not admitted, nor were men who worked in nonmilitary roles, such as Merchant Marines. A few spots were available to civilians for $100 each at “sponsors tables.”

Even in 1944, the Hollywood Canteen was mistaken for a USO club. Here, Alleta Sullivan, left, mother of the five Sullivans lost in the sinking of USS Juneau, works alongside actress Marlene Dietrich as they serve service men on February 9, 1944. | Photo credit Navy photo

On March 24, 1943, the Canteen surprised its millionth service man. He turned down the offer of an evening with movie starlet Ruth Warrick and took off to meet his girlfriend at the New York Public Library. For its two-millionth guest less than a year later, advance publicity about the prizes—including tickets to “Oklahoma!” and VIP treatment at two other nightclubs—ensured a plethora of willing takers.

The Stage Door Canteen frequently made national news, and its success spawned other canteens in Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, Newark, Cleveland and its most legendary sibling, the Hollywood Canteen.

Bette Davis steered the operation at 1451 North Cahuenga Boulevard—a refurbished horse barn—with help from co-founder John Garfield. It opened October 3, 1942, and served 3 million service men before it closed Thanksgiving Day 1945.

The Hollywood Canteen followed the same model as the others, but with maximum glamour. Movie stars alternated between performing onstage and serving the troops while photographers snapped images of them against murals by famous cartoonists. A mix of stage lights and old-style lanterns hung from the wooden rafters above a sea of enlisted uniforms swing dancing with pretty partners in dresses.

Some of the dance partners included Hollywood starlets Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth and Davis. They were often joined by Mel Blanc, Fred Astaire, Cole Porter, Walt Disney and, of course, Bob Hope, who washed dishes with Vice President Henry Wallace one night in February 1944.

—Paul X. Rutz is an Oregon-based freelance writer and figurative painter. This story appears in the Spring 2016 issue of On Patrol, the magazine of the USO.

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