For the next few days we’re reflecting on that singular show biz phenomenon of World War II — the “good war” — called the “Canteens.”
In strictly military parlance, canteens were post exchanges where soldiers could buy refreshments and provisions at sharply discounted prices. The show biz canteens were far outside military installations and provided refreshments and entertainment — for free.
How many old timers (we say that kindly!) out there remember the Hollywood Canteen or New York’s Stage Door Canteen? Not many, we’d bet. But luckily, both institutions have been immortalized on film.
It all started with The American Theatre Wing which had a relief organization back during World War I. At the start of the Second World War in Europe the Wing reactivated its charity relief division, and after Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the fray, that group opened The Stage Door Canteen on 44th Street on March 2, 1942.
Not to be outdone by their Broadway counterparts, the stars of Hollywood, led by Bette Davis and John Garfield, organized and opened The Hollywood Canteen on Cahuenga Boulevard in Los Angeles in November of ’42.
There were “Canteens” in all major cities in the United States to help entertain the troops (and keep them out of bars, brothels and pool halls) and provide them with wholesome fun and company. But of course, The Hollywood Canteen and The Stage Door Canteen were the most famous.
Just as the New York crowd had beaten the Hollywood bunch to the opening of a canteen, they beat them to making a movie about it.
In 1943 a musical comedy romance “Stage Door Canteen — A Soldier’s Story.” was distributed by United Artists,
Producer Sol Lesser pulled off an amazing feat of show biz organization, putting together a cast including scores of stage and movie personalities ranging from theater stalwarts Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, Tallulah Bankhead, Katherine Cornell and Helen Hayes to less lofty types such as George Raft, Georgie Jessel, Gracie Fields, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy and Gyspsy Rose Lee. Even Count Basie and Ethel Waters made appearances.
The thin plot of “Stage Door Canteen — A Soldier’s Story,” follows one soldier (Lon McAllister) over one night, and also manages to tell the story of a volunteer portrayed by Cheryl Walker, who has only joined the group in hopes of being discovered for stardom.
The plot is, of course, irrelevant. The point of the film is to capture all the entertainers who indeed did perform at the Canteen.
Big bands were incredibly poular during the 1940s and the film showcases in addition to Basie’s orchestra, the ensembles of Xavier Cugat, Freddy Martin, Benny Goodman, Guy Lombardo, and Kay Kyser. All tastes were represented.