The United States did not enter the WWII until after the Japanese bombed the American fleet in Pearl Harbor, on December 7th, 1941.
When the country finally went to war, Hollywood went to war too, meaning that between 1941 and 1944, over 6000 people who worked in Hollywood joined the service, including 1500 actors. Those who were unable to fight at the battlefield joined the war figuratively or supported causes such as the Hollywood Cantine.
“Through these portals pass the most beautiful uniforms in the world” read a sign over the entrance to the Hollywood Canteen. Located at 1451 Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood, this canteen operated between October 3rd, 1942, and November 22nd, 1935, as a club offering food, dancing, and entertainment for WWII recruits. The place was not solely reserved for US recruits but was opened to servicemen who belonged to the Allies as well. The ticket for admission was the uniform, and inside the canteen, everything was free of charge. Reportedly, it was the iconic actress Bette Davis who devoted a tremendous amount of time and energy to run this initiative and served as its president.
“The Canteen was the brainchild of actor John Garfield, a “flag-waving socialist” unable to enlist because of his heart condition, and Bette Davis, the so-called “Fourth Warner Brother” and reigning queen of the studio.
They wanted a place where the troops would have fun before embarking on tour—and for the stars to facilitate that fun. Garfield suggested the idea, but Davis ran it, finding an abandoned nightclub in a block of Sunset Boulevard and calling upon her agent, Jules Stein, to head the financial committee,” writes Lapham’s Quarterly.
The venue was operated and staffed entirely by volunteers from Hollywood. By the time it was opened, over 3,000 actors, actresses, directors, producers, dancers, musicians, writers, etc., had registered for service. They waited on tables, cooked in the kitchen or cleaned.
Each night of the week, except on Sundays, the Canteen was visited by troops who were often just hours away from being deployed on the battlefields. They were offered some coffee or some tea and other refreshments, except alcohol. One of the highlights of the Canteen experience was that these servicemen were able to dance with some of the stars. Many of those stars were B-listed, meaning they had little credits to their names or were often considered starlets, but there were also stars of the caliber of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford or Marlene Dietrich.
Maria Riva, daughter of the German actress and singer Marlene Dietrich, recalled an anecdote when Marlene decided to wash dishes and was joined by the Austrian-born Hedy Lamarr. Bette Davis who observed the situation made a witty remark by saying: “get those two krauts out of the kitchen!”
On September 15th, 1943, when the one millionth guest walked through the entrance door of the Hollywood Canteen, he received a kiss from Betty Grable and was escorted in by Dietrich. The lucky soldier was Sgt. Carl Bell. Herman Harney, another lucky soldier, had a chance to dance with Rosemary Lane of the singing Lane sisters.
A Hall of Honor also stood at the Hollywood Canteen, and it depicted photos which honored the film actors who served in the military. By 1944, the Hollywood Canteen was so popular that Warner Bros. produced a film which was named after it. Directed and written by Delmer Daves, “Hollywood Canteen” starred with Joan Leslie and Robert Hutton, and many of the stars acted themselves in the film.
The men and women running the canteen were maybe not witnessing first-hand the horrors of the war, and their job seemed pretty easy. At the same time, the Canteen nurtured an ideological public service, too. That service nearly had the effects similar to propaganda, possibly to encourage new recruits, and it was done completely free.
Nevertheless, it is estimated that during its service, the Hollywood Canteen hosted nearly three million servicemen.