The Stage Door Canteen was started and directed by The American Theatre Wing, War Service Inc. at the beginning of WWII. The canteen offered servicemen nights of dancing, entertainment, food and nonalcoholic drinks, and even opportunities to rub shoulders with celebrities. And all this was for free.
Where it all began
The first Stage Door Canteen opened in New York on 2 March 1942, in the basement of the 44th Street Theater; it measured 40 by 80 feet and could accommodate 500 people at a time. On its opening night entertainers included a comedian, a ballet dancer, and actors Gertrude Lawrence, Tallulah Bankhead, and Walter Pidgeon. A reporter from the New York Times wrote of “a conga line, which trailed all over the place.”
It was a success and seven nights a week the building pulsed with hordes of servicemen and young women dancing to the sounds of the most famous bands in the country. Stars abounded. Actress Helen Hayes served sandwiches while actors Alfred Lunt and Sam Jaffe cleared away the plates.
Left: entrance to the Stage Door Canteen, New York. Above: the memorial plaque on W.44 Street.
The 1943 Hollywood film "Stage Door Canteen"
The success of the New York Canteen prompted Sol Lesser in 1943 to produce a film named after the popular service men's center and featured 48 stars of the big screen and 6 name Big Bands. This star-studded musical drama was largely financed by Theatre Guild, with all proceeds going to various wartime fundraising concerns. Most of the story takes place at the Stage Door Canteen, a Manhattan-based home away from home for soldiers, sailors and marines (the real-life Canteen on 44th street was too busy to lend itself to filming, thus the interiors were recreated in Hollywood). Within the walls of this non-profit establishment, servicemen are entertained by top musical, comedy and dramatic acts, and waited on by such Broadway luminaries as Lunt and Fontanne, Katharine Hepburn, Jane Cowl, Katherine Cornell, Tallulah Bankhead, Helen Hayes, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Sam Jaffe and Paul Muni.
Though the plotline-one of the Canteen servers, a girl named Eileen (Cheryl Walker) falls in love with one of the visiting soldiers (William Terry), despite the establishment's strict "no dating" rules-is merely an excuse to link together a series of specialty acts, it is superbly and touchingly directed by Frank Borzage. Not all of the film has weathered the years too well: particularly hard to take is Gracie Fields' cheery ditty about "killing Japs!" For the most part, however, the film works, and the guest performers-including comedians Ray Bolger, Harpo Marx, George Jessel and Ed Wynn, and singers Ethel Waters and Kenny Baker-are in fine fettle. If nothing else, Stage Door Canteen offers the only appearance on film of the great Katherine Cornell, who offers a vignette of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Incidentally, the actor playing "Texas", Michael Harrison, later gained fame as cowboy star Sunset Carson. Originally released at 132 minutes, Stage Door Canteen is now generally available in the 93-minute TV version. The six big bands that appear and perform in the film are those of Kay Kyser, Count Basie, Xavier Cugat, Guy Lombardo, Benny Goodman and Freddie Martin.
Canteens were later located in Boston, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Cleveland, San Francisco and Newark. Towards the end of the war there were Canteens in London and Paris.
The Canteens were closed at the war's end. All of the records for all of the Canteens were stored in an individual's garage after the war and were later destroyed in a fire. For more detailed history of the American Theatre Wing and the Stage Door Canteen, please visit their website: www.americantheatrewing.org
Young women were recruited to work as hostesses. Their uniform was normally a red, white and blue apron to be worn over an appropriate dress. The 2 ½” wide wing pins (please see our memorabilia page, wing A) would be pinned to their apron or their dress. Most of these sterling pins are very high quality jeweler made. In addition to the hostess wings were a number of smaller pins (B) worn by entertainers or volunteers, male and female, who donated their services to the canteen.
The B-17 bomber "Stage Door Canteen"
In April 1944, B-17G bomber 42-31990 of 535th Bomb Squadron, 381st Bomb Group, 8th Air Force, USAAF, was christened “Stage Door Canteen” by Mary Churchill (daughter of the British Prime Minister), Vivien Leigh and Lawrence Olivier. The bomber had 76 consecutive non-abortive missions and had completed 105 missions by the end of World War 2. In addition, it was the first ship in ETO to use parachutes for brakes after its hydraulic system had been shot out on a mission.
On Friday 13th October 1944, the crew of B-17 “Stage Door Canteen” and officers of Ridgewell Airbase, Essex, were formal guests of the Stage Door Canteen on Picadilly Circus in London, for a dinner and stage show.
Left: 1943 souvenir film programme, right: Midtown Theatre, Toronto Canada, 1943.
Stage Door Canteen in London
London's Stage Door Canteen in Piccadilly was run by the NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes) and passing showbiz stars 'dropped in' to perform, supported by young performers, often themselves in uniform. On one famous night in September 1944, the cast included Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Jack Buchanan, Beatrice Lillie and opera star Joan Hammond. In London, the Canteen continued for a few years after the war and in 1946 an 11 year old Julie Andrews sang the 'Polonaise' from Mignon before the Queen (later Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother) and Princess Margaret.
Christening of the B-17 "Stage Door Canteen".
For detailed information on 381st Bomb Group, visit www.381st.org
A-2 flight jacket worn by S/Sgt Leon A. DeLisle, tail gunner on B-17 "Stage Door Canteen" during WW2. Courtesy of Leon J. Delisle, www.anairmansstory.com
Left: souvenir programme. Right: Bing Crosby performing at the London Stage Door Canteen, 1944.
Entrance to the London Stage Door Canteen, 201 Piccadilly, London. This building unfortunately no longer exists.