Saturday, May 23, 2020

Memorial Day Weekend: The Hollywood Canteen

When World War II broke out, Hollywood was eager to help in any way it could. One of the most eager actresses was Bette Davis. Despite having a reputation for being difficult, Ms. Davis had a heart of gold when it came to honoring servicemen and women. She joined forces with character actor John Garfield to open up a unique venue- the Hollywood Canteen.


The Hollywood Canteen was a night club that offered free entry, free food, free drinks and free entertainment to any and all servicemen. Any and all soldiers, passing through Los Angeles on the way to fighting the war, could enjoy a marvelous evening that many of them would never forget. The club was fully staffed by volunteers from throughout Hollywood. Disney animators decorated the walls, Hollywood starlets danced with servicemen, world famous singers entertained. Soldiers could rub elbows with the likes of Donna Reed, Doris Day, Peggy Lee and Lena Horne.


It may sound too good to be true, but it was genuine. Actors and actresses gave their time, talent and cash to send America's heroes off to fight the war in style. The best part of it all was how progressive things were at the canteen- all at Bette Davis' request. The Hollywood Canteen would be fully integrated. Bette didn't care what race a soldier was; that he was fighting for his country is all that mattered. She decreed that there would be no segregation in her club, no 'colored' entrance, no separation. She encouraged the Hollywood starlets who volunteered to dance with the troops to entertain all races equally. This was revolutionary thinking at the time, even in Hollywood. Bette Davis was a trailblazer.


The openness and inviting atmosphere attracted a who's who of Hollywood legends including Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Bob Hope, Carmen Miranda, Gene Kelly, Dorothy Dandridge and so many more. Oddly enough, future President Ronald Reagan, though active in Hollywood at the time, was not recorded as having helped out at the canteen. Noted progressive Gregory Peck, on the other hand, was a huge supporter of the Hollywood Canteen.


Millions of servicemen passed through the canteen during the war, getting memories that would last them a lifetime. Sadly, some of them didn't return alive, but Bette Davis and a cavalcade of Hollywood legends made sure that their last days in the country they fought for were amazing. This unique club was immortalized in the Warner Brothers film Hollywood Canteen, though the amazing enterprise is seemingly a forgotten part of Hollywood history.