"Stage Door Canteen" in Classic Cool Context

This Saturday at 9:00 p.m., KCET brings you the 1943 film "Stage Door Canteen," a musical drama that gave American audiences a front-row seat at the New York City nightclub that was home to droves of American and Allied servicemen and the biggest stars of the screen and stage during World War II. It's the latest entry in KCET's "Classic Cool Theater" series, which aims to give you not only a great film but also a vintage cartoon, two newsreels and an of-the-era musical number. All those extras add up to what makes "Classic, Cool Theater" so special: context. In the spirit of this unique package, we're offering you a peek at the America -- and the Los Angeles -- that received the original "Stage Door Canteen" back on Jun. 24, 1943.

This wartime morale booster served to celebrate the entertainment industry's efforts on the home front -- specifically the Stage Door Canteen, a nightclub that offered free food and entertainment to war-bound GIs. Nearly 90 percent of the film's box office earnings went to the support the organization that ran the New York City nightspot. The real Stage Door Canteen (in the basement of a Broadway theater) was busy serving a stream of servicemen in 1943, so the atmosphere was recreated at RKO's Culver City studios, with the help of many famous faces that graced the canteen's stage. The string of stars in "Canteen" reads like a who's-who of the 1940's entertainment industry, with performances by "king of swing" Benny Goodman, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, comedienne Gracie Fields, entertainer Ray Bolger (the Scarecrow from the 1939 productio nof "Wizard of Oz") and others.

Countless cameos (of varying lengths) from actors including Paul Muni ("Scarface"), Tallulah Bankhead, Johnny Weissmuller ("Tarzan") Harpo Marx, Dame Judith Anderson and Katharine Hepburn are held together by a basic boy-meets-girl tale of a serviceman and an aspiring actress who volunteers at the canteen.

Take a look at Ray Bolger's "Canteen" performance.

Here's Harpo Marx's brief cameo:

And watch burlesque beauty Gypsy Rose Lee's toned-down striptease routine on the "Canteen" stage.

No alcohol was served at the canteen, and the only requirement for admission was a military uniform. Below are some photographs of the real-life Stage Door Canteen taken a year before the film was released.

Broadway entertainment for the armed forces of all nations at the Stage Door canteen, run by the American Theater wing. Actors wait on soldiers and sailors who eat and are entertained free, New York. Photo: Marjory Collins via Library of Congress.
Audience at the Stage Door Canteen, New York. Photo: Marjory Collins via Library of Congress.
Two Canadian fliers talking with an Australian entertainer at the Stage Door Canteen, New York. Photo: Marjory Collins via Library of Congress.
This NYC hospitality center was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to showbiz's role in World War II. The United Services Organization, or U.S.O., was founded in 1941 to entertain military service members, and presented almost 300,000 performances before the end of the war. Some of America's biggest stars -- from Lucille Ball to Bob Hope -- performed for sailors and soldiers at home and abroad.

In 1942, CBS radio began broadcasting live radio performances from the Stage Door Canteen. The film "Canteen" in 1943 was followed by Warner Brothers' "Hollywood Canteen," a similar look at the West Coast version of the Stage Door Canteen located in Los Angeles.

The romance in "Canteen," between a soldier and a volunteer named Eileen, was inspired by the song "I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen," written by Irving Berlin. Click here to have a listen to that song performed by an all-soldier chorus.

Take a Closer Look Back

While the Stage Door Canteen catered to troops shipping out from the East Coast, the Hollywood Canteen located on Hollywood's Cahuenga Boulevard offered hospitality to the many who pushed off from California. The canteen -- which occupied the space now home to Amoeba Records -- served millions of servicemen between 1942 and 1945. Hollywood stars Bette Davis and John Garfield opened the club after learning of the success of New York's canteen.

Acme Newspictures, Inc., photographer. "Bette Davis Pointing Out Pictures of Movie Servicemen to Marlene Dietrich and Bob Hope in the Hollywood Canteen." 1943. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Here's a scene from 1944's "Hollywood Canteen," a cameo-filled musical much like "Stage Door Canteen."

Everyone who worked at the Hollywood Canteen was fingerprinted and issued a photo I.D. Check out this post by Larry Harnisch at The Daily Mirror to see some photos of that process.

By 1943, when "Stage Door Canteen" was released, Hollywood was already a major part of the war effort. One year prior, the U.S. had created the Office of War Information, an agency that, among other things, aimed to enhance the war effort with every Hollywood-produced film. O.W.I. Director Elmer Davis said, "The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into most people's minds is to let it go through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize that they are being propagandized." Hollywood was happy to oblige. By 1943, every studio other than Paramount allowed the agency to read its scripts.

This O.W.I. photo shows 20th Century Fox employees donating typewriters to the armed services.

Hollywood studios have answered the nation's call for typewriters for the armed services. Picture shows a load of machines released by 20th Century Fox studies to two Uncle Sam's Waves. Via Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

On the day "Canteen" was released, Los Angeles Times readers could have used a morale boost. That day's paper included news that six Southern California men had been killed and 30 wounded near the Aleutian Islands. Also in the news was a report that governors at a conference were speaking out against war industry strikes.

In Los Angeles that June, servicemen stationed around the city were clashing with Latino youths on the streets--in what were known as the "zoot suit riots."

One month before the release of "Canteen", A "March of Time" newsreel detailed the progress of Hollywood's war effort. Check it out: