Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Wartime Wednesday: The Stage Door Canteen

Wartime Wednesday: The Stage Door Canteen

Two and a half decades before the attack at Pearl Harbor, the Stage Women’s War Relief organization was formed to coordinate charitable contributions during The Great War, as WWII was then known. Activities included creating workrooms for sewing uniforms and other garments (with a reported output of nearly two million items), setting up clothing and food collection centers, selling Liberty Bonds, and presenting benefit performances to raise funds. The organization also opened a canteen on Broadway for servicemen. In 1919, the SWWR turned its attention to helping veterans and civilians recover from the war, eventually ceasing operations.

Fast forward to 1939. By request of the U.S. government, Playwright and director Rachel Crothers reestablished the organization as a branch of the British War Relief Society but called it the American Theatre Wing. Founding members were a “who’s who” in the industry including Josephine Hull, Gertrude Lawrence, Theresa Helburn, and Mary Antoinette “Toni” Perry, who would eventually be the inspiration for the Tony Award.

The group initially conducted fundraising events and clothing drives to send overseas to the British
Photo: Library
of Congress
people. However, after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the focus shifted to the American war effort. On March 3, 1942, the first canteen opened at the former Little Club, located under the “44th Street Theatre” in Manhattan, and was donated free of charge by its owner Lee Shubert. Newspapers reported that more than 1,250 servicemen attended opening night with two hundred “actresses of varying importance as hostesses and seventy-five name actors as busboys.”

Two days prior, the public was invited to view the establishment for the price of donations to the kitchen. More than one thousand pounds of sugar was collected! Recruiting was serious business, and applicants were told they would be expected to work through the entire war and required to provide a substitute if they had to miss a shift.

Author Photo
Despite the lack of alcohol served, the canteen was an instant success. Operating seven nights a week, the building was filled to the gills with servicemen and young women dancing to the music of famous bands and rubbing shoulders with Hollywood and Broadway stars. Food was free to the troops, and the public was generous in its donations of canned goods and other items. Songwriter Irving Berlin contributed all profits from his hit “I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen.” Soon other canteens opened in Boston, Newark, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Washington, DC. Los Angeles’s canteen nearly surpassed the popularity of Broadway’s original facility thanks to its cadre of movie stars. Near the end of the war, London and Paris would each boast a canteen.

Unusual for the times, the canteens were open to servicemen of all Allied nations from every branch of service, mingling men of all nationalities and colors, creating “one of the few democratic institutions in existence anywhere.” (Theatre Arts Magazine, 1943).


Murder of Convenience

Betrayal, blackmail, and a barrage of unanswered questions.

May 1942: Geneva Alexander flees Philadelphia and joins the USO to escape the engagement her parents have arranged for her, only to wind up as the number one suspect in her betrothed’s murder investigation. Diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease, she must find the real killer before she loses her sight…or is convicted for a crime she didn’t commit.

Set in the early days of America’s entry into WWII and featuring cameo appearances from Hollywood stars, Murder of Convenience is a tribute to individuals who served on the home front, especially those who did so in spite of personal difficulties, reminding us that service always comes as a result of sacrifice.

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