Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Night I Danced at the Hollywood Canteen

The Classic Movie History Project Blogathon is an event in which participants examine a given year in movies from the Golden Age, hosted by Movies Silently, Silver Screenings and Once Upon a Screen. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the links at these sites.


Matthew got drafted for the war in April of 1942. Momma told me in a letter. By that time I was well into my Hollywood "career," and he and I had fallen out of touch with each other long ago. We had believed our little high school romance could still work, separated as we were by the miles and by my shifting priorities, but then again, my aunt Shirley warned me about long-distance relationships.

Truth is, though, I knew things were turning sour when I first told him I was leaving for Hollywood after graduation. He knew I had dreams that were bigger than our hometown of Aberdeen, Washington - dreams that he didn't quite share, no matter how supportive he tried to be. Did we love each other? Maybe. I've certainly thought about it now and again, over the years... but whatever it was we had, it wasn't enough. The promises we made to each other to write, to visit, to call, were built on a foundation of sand... and in my heart, I knew it. Maybe I did love Matthew.

But I loved showbiz a little bit more.

Henry Fonda
I came out to Hollywood in 1939. Eight years of dance lessons and leading roles in high school plays had led to starry-eyed visions of making it in the movies as a Goldwyn Girl. It was, after all, what everyone back home had expected - "You're talented enough to be a movie star, Nan," "Hollywood will adore you, Nan," "You could be the next Ginger Rogers, Nan" - and although I knew I couldn't act worth a damn, I could carry a tune and I had a pair of gams that would shame Betty Grable. Or so all the boys told me. I figured that would be enough - and for awhile, it was. I appeared as part of the chorus in a few Metro pics here and there, and sang a few jingles for radio, and though I wasn't making nearly as much money as I had hoped, I got by somehow.

But then came Pearl. On the morning of the attack, I was lying in bed with the flu. This really teed me off, too, because I had an audition to go to the next day. I forget what it was for; some silly little comedy needed a background song-and-dance girl for a couple of numbers, so you can imagine how lucky I was to have come across the opportunity and how hard I prepared for it. Obviously it was no longer a priority come Monday morning.

Bob Hope
I was aware that there was fighting of some sort going on in Europe. Lots of people talked about it, and when they did, there was always the question of whether or not we'd get involved. I was never what you'd call political - at least, not back then. I knew President Roosevelt tried to keep us out of the fighting, and fellas like Charles Lindbergh were going around saying we shouldn't get involved, but after Pearl, that all changed. Suddenly, almost everybody was ready to go off and fight the Nazis - especially Hollywood. I remember that first full year in particular, 1942, and how much changed around town as a result of the war.

Seeing film stars join the armed forces boosted morale tremendously; Jimmy Stewart had already signed up in 1941, for example. In 1942, I read about actors such as Henry Fonda, Tyrone Power, Gene Autry, Glenn Ford and Richard Barthelmess, among many, many others, enlisting that year. The USO had formed the year before, and in '42 its camp shows, featuring many entertainment stars such as Bob Hope, expanded all over the world. After Momma told me about Matthew's enlistment, I thought of him, and wondered if he'd get to see one of those shows. Maybe he'd see an acquaintance of mine? He wouldn't have seen me; at the time, I was too scared of flying to even consider traveling overseas.

America didn't know who Audie Murphy was in June of '42, when he successfully re-enlisted after being initially turned down for being underweight and underage, but of course, he went on to become one of the greatest heroes of the war and a Hollywood star afterwards. I met him only once, briefly and much later on in my life, when I was doing television. This was during the period when the effects of the war were taking a heavy toll on him. I tried to imagine all that he had seen and done to earn the many honors he received, including, of course, the Medal of Honor... and I shuddered.

Clark Gable
And then there was Clark Gable. It was no secret how despondent he was after his wife Carole Lombard died back in January. She had just finished making that wonderfully funny film, To Be or Not to Be, that made fun of the Nazis. It came out about a couple of months after her death, as I recall. Anyway, Gable, who was as huge a star as you could get back then, sank into a deep depression for months before joining the Army Air Corps in August. He would also go on to be a great war hero.

Recent films such as Confessions of a Nazi Spy and The Great Dictator had addressed the situation in Europe directly for America, and filmmakers like Frank Capra, John Ford and Walt Disney had made films to help military recruitment and to educate the public. It took a smash hit film like Mrs. Miniver, which came out in July, to really crystallize the situation in Europe for Americans and make the war real. (Of course, this was also the year of Casablanca, though it only played in New York at first, in November, before expanding the next year.)

The war effort I remember best, though, was the Hollywood Canteen. This was a very special place that opened in October of '42 on Cahuenga Boulevard, where servicemen - and servicewomen, too! - could come and relax and have a good time, for free. All they had to do was come in uniform. It was started up by Bette Davis and John Garfield, and backed by Jules Stein of MCA and the entertainment unions and guilds. But you wanna know what the real kicker was? 

Movie stars volunteered at the place.

Well, not just movie stars. Writers, directors, and many, many other Hollywood workers gave of their time to volunteer at the Canteen during the war years. They did everything: they cooked, they cleaned up, they waited tables - yes! They did! I know how peculiar that must sound, but you've got to understand, there was a war on. Americans of all stripes were encouraged to do what they could to support our troops, and that included us entertainers, too! Oh, we also performed for them at the Canteen, of course, but one of the biggest attractions was letting them dance with us.

This is where I come in.

I had snagged a tiny part in an early Laura Lamont movie called Kissing Cousins - nothing more than a couple of lines, uncredited - but I bragged about it for months afterward. It came out in the spring of '42 and did fairly well. The film boosted my profile about a tenth of a percent at most, but that was still more than it was a year ago! It was at the premiere of the movie that I first heard talk about the Canteen.

In October, after the Canteen opened up, I was on an audition for something or other, and I had heard that the Canteen was looking for hostesses - girls who would dance with the troops throughout the night. I thought this would be a good way for me to help the war effort without sacrificing my career. (Yes, I admit it, the two were equal in my mind at the time; in my defense, I was young and more than a little full of myself after getting my first speaking part - but I genuinely did want to do something to support the war effort.) I went to the Canteen building the next day at around ten in the morning. I didn't know their phone number, so it wasn't as if I could set up an appointment. After explaining myself to the guy who met me at the door, I was led inside and they set me up.

Marsha Hunt
Now, you young folks probably don't remember an actress by the name of Marsha Hunt. She was never a huge movie star, but she did a lot of work in film and television for a long, long time and was quite a civil rights activist as well. Still with us. Anyway, she was a "captain" of a team of hostesses for the Canteen. She needed ten girls, and at this point she already had eight. I knew she was also at Metro at the time, and I told her about the films I had been in. I did a little song and dance for her, too, which she appreciated, her also being a singer. I made the cut.

The Canteen itself was a renovated livery stable. The name was written out atop the entrance in script, adorned all around by stars. I remember there were painted murals on the walls inside and a fairly large but cluttered stage in the back. It was always busy, especially on Saturday nights. That was when Marsha and her team worked, and on a cool, early November night, I joined them for the first time.

It wasn't like dancing at a social back home. The troops - enlisted men all, no officers - knew I was a Hollywood actress, even if they hadn't necessarily recognized me in anything, and because of that, there was this heightened sense of awe. I initially imagined soldiers to be kind of... coarse, I suppose, to use a polite word, but they were more respectful than that, and Marsha told me in advance that they would be this way at the Canteen. Exuberant, yes; direct, definitely, but rude? Almost never. Granted, they were much more excited about dancing with someone like Marsha than with me. She was no Davis or Crawford, but she was still a much bigger star than I was, and as a result, she got more "cut-ins" from soldiers clamoring to spend a minute in the arms of a celebrity. This was the original Dancing With the Stars!

Once I got over my initial trepidation, I did alright for myself that night. I got up on stage at one point to sing with two other girls from our team. We did a swing number, and then I soloed on "The Last Time I Saw Paris," which had just won the Oscar back in February (though I didn't do it quite as well as Ann Sothern). After that, I had a lot more boys who wanted to dance with me!

A part of me hoped I'd see Matthew that night. Momma told me that he had been shipped to Fort Irwin for basic training, so I knew he wasn't that far. Part of me felt like we had never fully resolved our relationship, that we had simply drifted apart somehow without our even realizing it. What would I have said to him? I don't know. He was my first love, and everyone around us assumed that we would always stay together, come what may. We certainly believed it. 

I'm not sure he ever fully understood how much my dreams meant to me. He couldn't see why I couldn't be happy with being a big fish in a small pond, so to speak, and I admit, I knew I was taking a huge risk by coming to Hollywood. No, I never became as big a star as Bette Davis, or even Marsha Hunt, but I knew I wanted to try to be, even if that meant giving up the comfortable life I had at home. I think Matthew did understand eventually... but I'll never know for sure, and if I have any regrets, that would be the one.

Still, that night at the Hollywood Canteen has stood out in my mind ever since. I danced there several more times throughout the war, and the memory of all those delightful boys, either on their way to the fighting or back from it, will remain with me until I die - which won't be long now. They kept us safe, and some of them paid the ultimate price to do so. Taking their minds off their troubles for a few hours was the least I could've done, and if I had to do it all again... I wouldn't change a thing.


  1. A story to treasure. You are fast becoming a favourite writer.

  2. I've always had a particular fascination with Hollywood and its contribution to the war effort during the early 1940s. I love reading about the Hollywood Canteen, the bond drives and USO tours. Oh, and the radio programs that were shipped as V-Discs to the troops overseas, especially "Command Performance" and "Mail Call". :-)

    I thouroughly enjoyed your entertaining post about the Hollywood Canteen! :-) What a very special time in Hollywood!

  3. I learned about the Canteen while doing research on 1942, and once I read about it, I knew it had to be the focus for my post. There's also a book on the Canteen that I'd like to read at some point.

  4. What a wonderfully evocative post! I had no idea that something like the Hollywood Canteen existed...but now I do I want to learn more. I'll have to look out for the book you mention. Thank you for sharing

  5. That would be this book:

  6. Wow - I really enjoyed your post. What a wonderful story (about a topic I am really fond of). Great stuff. And glad to discover your blog through this event.

  7. Thanks a lot. Feel free to stick around and make yourself comfortable.

  8. What a great way to approach 1942. I think you win the prize for novelty in this blogathon.

  9. Novelty is usually what I strive for in blogathons. Glad you like.

  10. Well done, Rich. A fun read. Had you thought about stretching it into a novel?

  11. No, although there were a few details that I ended up leaving out. For instance, Nan's last name is Barber, but I never had a good moment to reveal that. Plus, I was gonna have a scene between Nan and Matthew, but I ended up deciding that he belonged firmly in the past. A tearful reunion seemed too cliche to me.

    This one was really difficult to pull off, and while I'm still not 100% satisfied with it, I'm glad people like it.

  12. I'm so glad you focussed on the Hollywood Canteen. (The whole time, while I was reading your post, the Andrews Sisters song kept running through my head...) I think the Canteen is a fascinating bit of Hollywood history, and I admire Bette Davis and John Garfield for their dedication and involvement. So many stars dedicated their time to this cause, and it was a worthy one.

    Thanks for shining a light on this really interesting bit of history.

  13. The Andrews Sisters. I knew I was missing something!

    Thanks for having me.

  14. Man, you should publish a book, you're a great writer! Congratulations on this post!
    By the way, tell me: did Matthew survive the war?
    Thanks again for your support with my post.

  15. Did he survive the war? Good question. Maybe I'll write a sequel so we can find out...

  16. What a fascinating approach! Thanks for the enjoyable contribution and the excellent writing!

  17. You're welcome. Glad you liked it.

  18. Ed Sikov's Dark Victory, his bio of Bette Davis, really captures the feel of the Hollywood Canteen as well as Davis' incredible involvement in its creation and the related War Bonds effort. She truly was amazing, on and off the screen.

  19. Good to know. I thought about including her as a character in this story, too, but that would've made it longer than I wanted it to be.


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