Hollwood Canteen

Vera Jean Foutz

Six years older, my sister, Vera Jean Foutz, was a hostess at the Hollywood Canteen while I only delivered their newspaper

If you are “getting your kicks on Route 66” then traveling eastward you will find the route remarkably well preserved in the Los Angeles area. About 11 miles from the terminus at the Pacific Ocean you will enter Hollywood on Santa Monica Blvd and then intersect Cahuenga Blvd. Turning north and just before you reach Sunset Blvd you will see the high-rise CNN Building on the southwest corner and a multilevel parking structure adjacent to the south. This is the location of two past landmarks, one famous and one less famous.

The less famous landmark  is the livery stable that kept the horses needed for the silent-era and then later, the “talking” western movies filmed by the myriad of small film studios around Sunset Blvd and Gower Street, six blocks to the east. This intersection is known as “Gower’s Gulch”.  At Gower’s Gulch, cowboy extras gathered dressed in their Stetson hats, cowboy boots, and cowboy chaps hoping to earn $5 a day hired as extras in a saloon scene or riding horses from the livery stable. The livery stable then became a nightclub for a time, the Old Barn.

That livery-stable/Old-Barn was later converted to a more famous landmark, the Hollywood Canteen.

At the start of WWII, service men would flock to see that famous place called Hollywood. But there was not much to see or do.

Actor John Garfield felt the need for a club for servicemen who came to see Hollywood. He interested Bette Davis, a famous actress at the time, in the idea. She in turn enlisted Jules Stein, President of Music Corporation of America, to head up the finance committee. Mr. Stein’s wife, Doris, headed the committee that recruited the hostesses necessary for dancing partners for the service men, when they weren’t lucky enough to be in the arms of one of the stars that they saw on the movie screen.

The old livery-stable/Old-Barn at 1451 Cahuenga Boulevard, just south of Sunset Blvd, was selected for the site of the club.

Fourteen guilds and unions associated with the film industry donated material and labor to renovate the Old Barn for its new purpose with artist and cartoonist decorating the interior walls.

The Hollywood Canteen’s mission was to be a club in Hollywood, California, offering free food, dancing, and entertainment for servicemen during World War II. Your ticket for admission was your uniform. The staff were all volunteers and included a who’s-who of the movie industry. These celebrity volunteers waited tables, danced, and entertained the visiting servicemen and women.

The opening on October 3, 1942 was a solid success, with several hundred servicemen entering the canteen through bleachers set up for spectators to see the galaxy of Hollywood stars arrayed to greet the servicemen on opening night.

By September 15, 1943, the one millionth serviceman walked through the door escorted in by Marlene Dietrich to receive a kiss by Betty Grable, the most popular pinup girl of WWII.

In 1944, the movie Hollywood Canteen was made by Warner Brothers. Besides its main stars,  it contained a long list of cameo appearances by celebrities and stars (I counted 102 if you include Roy Roger’s horse Trigger and the main stars) and was nominated for three Academy Awards in 1945.

Before its close after VJ day on Thanksgiving, November 27, 1945, over three million serviceman had entered its doors, about 18% of the sixteen million servicemen who served during WWII.

So why am I telling you some of the history of the Hollywood Canteen?

Because it was on my Los Angeles Examiner paper route and my sister was occasionally a volunteer hostess there.

Being a newspaper boy on a daily morning paper is somewhat of a character building job. You delivered your papers before dawn 7 days a week, 365 weeks a year, including during  the 3-day downpours during the Los Angeles monsoon season and the freezing rains that came down from the north at other times.

The papers for my route were delivered between 3 and 4 am to a small office on Santa Monica Blvd just east of Fairfax Ave. My alarm went off at 3:30 am and I peddled  my bicycle to the office, grabbed my stack of papers, folded them for throwing, and stuffed them in a box that was nestled on my handle bars by a U-shaped bracket. All papers had to be delivered before 6am, and shortly after 4am I was on my way towards Cahuenga Blvd to deliver the Los Angeles Examiner to the Hollywood Canteen and other customers. Then back to the office to cover any complaints coming in on my route (seldom) and making a little more money by delivering missed papers on other routes. Finally, a quick trip home to shower and change clothes and on to school for my 8am class at Bancroft Junior High School.

There was no glamour in delivering papers to the Hollywood Canteen because it was closed that early in the morning, but collecting payment every month was a different story. I would plan to collect on nights when the club was in full swing. Entering the club, I would wait by the office of the Navy Shore Patrol at the entrance to the main room while someone went to find a person with a key to the Canteen office petty cash box.

From this vantage point I could see all the activity in the club, hear the music, watch the servicemen jitterbug with the hostesses, see any entertainment on the stage, etc. I often had to wait a half hour or more for the person with the key to petty cash to be found. During this time I usually would be offered some food coming out of the kitchen, a cupcake, cookie, piece of pie, etc.The Hollywood Canteen was definitely the highlight of my monthly collections.

Standing outside the small office of the Navy Shore Patrol, I learned most servicemen preferred the Military Police to the Shore Patrol. Also, over-hearing their conversations, I also developed a mild dislike for them although I can recall no specific instance of why.

Which gets me to my sister.

Vera Jean worked as a salesperson for the Broadway-Hollywood Department Store located on the south-west corner of Hollywood and Vine, not far from the Hollywood Canteen.  Both she and her sister Kallie (the former Ugly Duckling) (http://www.morningtalks.com/my-sister-the-ugly-ducklingwere) were movie extras during the 1940’s and I loved to hear them relate their experiences when they were lucky enough to be called for a gig. Vera Jean was also an occasional hostess at the Hollywood Canteen. I know very little about the details of this part of her life because I was away from home in the morning when she got up and she was away at work when I got home. We often had pie for dessert, and she would always save hers to eat as her breakfast the next morning. One night I ate the piece of pie she was saving for breakfast and got chewed out severely by her and my mother. I never did that again.

Researching the Hollywood Canteen for this blog was interesting. The article in Wikipedia provided some of the facts as well as other websites found by a Google search, but the most interesting, probably because as a published writer he writes well, is the Hollywood Canteen blog entry of Martin Turnbull, (http://martinturnbull.wordpress.com/2012/01/28/hollywood-canteen-where-the-soldiers-met-the-stars/) who is the author of the Garden of Allah series of books using Hollywood as a backdrop for his characters. He also has a Facebook page and a Twitter linked from the blog, worth following if you are interested in Hollywood during its Golden Era. You may also want to browse through the 247 photographs of the Hollywood Canteen and its celebrities, http://www.hollywoodphotographs.com/category/15-1/hollywood-canteen/

So ends another story told over coffee and biscotti during our morning talks.


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