The Hollywood Canteen

by Ben Hartford

For, Hollywood Chapters Magazine

December 20th, 1942

Hollywood, California

You name them, they were there last weekend at The Hollywood Canteen. From the hostess herself, Bette Davis, to co-founder and vice-president to Davis's president, John Garfield, the canteen was alive with activity so close to Christmas Day.

I got a rousing smile from Davis when asking her how things were shaping up that night.

"To be sure, we formed a line for the congo half an hour ago and I got tripped up by Ronald Colman and Bonita Granville. But no one notices." She laughs just like you are supposed to, Bette, with plenty of energy. "Later I'm supposed to give a speech and it's still being written. I'd wing it, only the last time I did that I didn't get any laughs. If you're standing in front of a few thousand soldiers, the least you can do is make them laugh." She was dressed in a blue cotten outfit with a white scarf dangling around her neck. Very simple, but attractive. Her hair, swept up, allowed me the chance to see she was wearing a small diamond stud in each ear lobe. They call her the little brown wren for her trends away from the glamourous styles of Hollywood. She had said she was the first actress to come in out of a rain, in the moving pictures, and actually look wet.

Suddenly Bette is whisked away by a man in a white hat, the cook, I suppose, so your reporter, feeling dejected momentarily settles on talking to this boy named Joe at the bar. Joe, with no last name, is but eighteen and enjoying his night at the canteen.

"So, you are from...?" I asked the lad.

"Ohio, actually. I haven't been anywhere else but out here. Not overseas or anything. San Diego, then here. I can't believe this. I mean, it's a little hard to imagine myself here. You know?" Joe is blond and wears a white sailors suit and grins most of the time. His shoes are muddy. I do not remember it raining and ask him about this. Super Sleuth, I. He looks down and grins. He can't tell me or won't.

"My mother would die. She loves this place. She goes to the picture show to see Gary Cooper in every movie he's in. I like Bing Crosby, personally. He come here ever?" Dare, I say this boy is what you read about in the daily circular or in those tabloids, I thumb through and fail to buy. Fresh off the farm. I smiled and looked for a waitress. None come and so, I tell the lad that it wouldn't be hard to imagine Bing walking through those doors, but it was a free world up to a point and his time is money, and...I start to lose young Joe's concentration to a comraid of his, so I find that my cue to move to the stage area.

Virtually a sea of servicemen on the floor of an establishment that was once called, 'The Old Barn,' back in the days when it was a livery stable and then a nightclub before it's remake into the world famous establishment it is today.

On my merry way, I am patted on the head, chest and told to "watch it," more than once. Three times, to be exact. But I am made of sterner stuff and push on. I see a singer on stage when I get to the other side of things. He has slick black hair and white, white teeth and the girls up front, below his knees, are jumping up and down. Behind him a small seven piece ensemble band plays a tune I can't quite recognize. I begin to wonder if Bette Davis ever made it back to the floor. Just as I turn to see if she might have, a very familiar face smiles back at me.

"Why you rascal!" He says.

Clark Gable never looked more sly, more unique there among a crowd of rowdy sailors, marines and enlisted men whooping it up. Wearing a dark cream colored sweater, loose fitting casual slacks, he appeared out of breath. His hair gleamed in the lights overhead. His questioning eyes were fixed on me dead center. I had appeared before those eyes a few times at late night spots over the last few years. He called me Benji, because he liked to. I shook his hand without a second thought. Old friends were nice to see.

"Benji? You alone? How's that puppy?"

I had acquired a cocker spaniel two years ago from my aunt, the last time I saw Clark. I never forgave her. My sofa was a wreck and my puppy was now a dog in someone else's backyard. I told Clark the dog was fine. He smiled, but not at me. A pretty girl was making eyes at the world's most famous man.

I laughed. "You never change Clark. Are you alone? Hey, I'm doing a story here. Can I get some marvelous quotes or something?"

Clark shook his head. "Not on your life boy. Hey, I'm off duty. There's a war you know. I'm a boy of leisure tonight. Wanna root beer? I have connections."

More laughs follow, but it was just then that I saw Davis make her re-entry. A piece of white paper firmly in her grip, possibly the speech she referred to earlier, flapped at her waist. She was not smiling this time; seemed to be mumbling, maybe her speech. A host of three others, one of which seemed to be Garfield, followed close behind. I called them the baby ducklings to Clark. He laughed again.

Somehow Bette made it to the stage. Small wonder too she could, wading through auto-graph hunting, dancing, young and not so young admirers, but it happened.

She looked out over the crowd. There was no sound coming from the microphone when she first spoke. She stepped back, stared in the general direction of the piano player for a minute or two and then tried again. While tapping on the microphone for sound some man yelled out from the crowd, "you're beautiful!" It was just the right thing to say. Immediately the smile I had seen half an hour earlier returned. She may of even blushed, but I know it was rather hot in there.

"Well, you haven't seen me first thing in the morning either." She shot back in her best New England Yankee drawl. The crowd roared. Her own joke, I presume.

Seconds later, she raised both hands for silence. Only Bette Davis could control a room full of soldiers and merry makers. In a minute's time, the room grew very still. A lady next to me, I was fighting not to crush in that jam packed room, remarked softly to no one in particular, "she looked just like that in, 'The Petrified Forest'. My gosh!"

I failed to make the connection, however, but it didn't matter. We were all spellbound.

"I want to thank each and everyone of you that came out tonight to make our time in the canteen so special." She turned to someone behind her. The piano player again. "In an uncertain world like we live in, it's nice to believe in something worth while. You fellows out there inspire us all. I'm not in the army, navy, marines or air corps, and I do better under Mr. Wyler's direction than under Mr. Roosevelt's (pausing for laughter), but in every other way I can, I'm with you whether it be here in your company or inside here (she points to her heart) or here (then to her head). And it's easy to say thank you, although that's really not enough, but for the moment I do hope you'll take that simple gesture of gratitude. And merry, merry Christmas boys! We love ya!"

After the clapping died down, Bette introduced the Andrew Sisters who performed their hit, Rum and Coca-cola. As the room started to swing again, I fought for territory near the bar and waved to Clark, who was trying to leave but for a flock of girls trying to get him to dance. Clark hated dancing. He'd just smile and pat them on the shoulders. He came for the music. So did I, as a matter of fact, except for this article I was writing, I really love the stuff, and the canteen has the ability to calm this savage beast. Let's hope the world at large calms it's beasts as well and some peace prevails in the coming year. Till, then, keep your chins up and adieu from the Hollywood Canteen.

(This has been a fictional depiction of the serviceman club known as, The Hollywood Canteen, by Jeff May. In no way, shape or form did any of the above happen as stated in the article on that night or any other. The Club did exist and similar situations may have occurred during it's run at the time of World War II.)

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