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Hollywood Canteen

During World War II, servicemen on liberty passes in Los Angeles could stop by the Hollywood Canteen on Cahuenga Boulevard for a night of revelry—and plenty of star sightings.

Hollywood Canteen, 1451 Cahuenga Boulevard (California State Library)

Cofounded by Bette Davis and John Garfield, the Canteen was staffed entirely by volunteers from the entertainment industry (actors, directors, producers, writers, grips, secretaries). Everyone from Davis herself to Rita Hayworth, Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr, and Linda Darnell could be found behind the counter slinging drinks, waiting on tables, even doing the dishes.

The likes of Bob Hope, Carmen Miranda, Desi Arnaz, and Cary Grant also provided entertainment onstage.

Every night, 2,000 servicemen—whether on leave or about to ship out to the Pacific Theater—packed into the Canteen, a former livery stable hence the western-themed decor.

From 1942 to 1945, the exclusive club entertained the country’s bravest, all free of charge. Military personnel only needed their uniform to gain entry, and once inside, food and drink were complimentary. Each month, the estimated 100,000 servicemen consumed: 50,000 half-pints of milk, 400 pounds of butter, 20,000 oranges, 30,000 gallons of punch, 75,000 packs of cigarettes, 100,000 pieces of cake, and 150,000 sandwiches.

Studio typists were also on duty to help soldiers write letters to loved ones back home.

On Sept. 15, 1943, the one millionth guest, Sgt. Carl E.W. Bell, was celebrated with a kiss from WWII pinup Betty Grable.

The Hollywood Canteen became so popular, it inspired a 1944 Warner Bros. musical starring Davis and dozens of cameos from the likes of Joan Crawford, Ida Lupino, Roy Rogers (and his horse Trigger), Jack Benny, and the Andrews Sisters. Forty percent of the film’s proceeds went back to operating the club.

When WWII concluded, so did the Hollywood Canteen, after hosting an estimated 4 million U.S. servicemen, Allied soldiers, and women working in all branches of the military. The club’s $500,000 surplus was donated to veteran relief funds.

In 1946, Davis received the U.S. War Department’s Award for Meritorious Service for her outstanding efforts on behalf of the Canteen. “There are few accomplishments in my life that I am sincerely proud of,” she said in 1987. “The Hollywood Canteen is one of them.”

(California State Library)


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