Spencer Tracy Thanksgiving turkey Hollywood Canteen 11.26.42 C13HPW Picture Everett Collection Inc Alamy Stock Photo
Actor Spencer Tracy carves the Thanksgiving turkey for soldiers at the Hollywood Canteen in November 1942 (Picture: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo).
Black History Month

The Stage Door Canteen and its fight for racial equality during WW2

Spencer Tracy Thanksgiving turkey Hollywood Canteen 11.26.42 C13HPW Picture Everett Collection Inc Alamy Stock Photo
Actor Spencer Tracy carves the Thanksgiving turkey for soldiers at the Hollywood Canteen in November 1942 (Picture: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo).

During the Second World War, there was a place dedicated to frivolity and equality, where American and Allied service personnel of all races, genders and ethnic backgrounds could let off steam as equals.

Before heading off to war, they could spend time there dancing with Hollywood stars such as Marlene Dietrich and eating food served to them by actors like Spencer Tracy.

The 'Stage Door Canteen' was founded in 1942 by the American Theatre Wing and was located in the basement of the 44th Street Theater in New York City.

Image ID HD2F17 Marlene Dietrich Hollywood Canteen, 1942 HD2F17 Picture Everett Collection Inc Alamy Stock Photo
Actor Marlene Dietrich serving up 'chow' at the Hollywood Canteen, circa 1942 (Picture: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo).

People would volunteer their time and local merchants would donate food and non-alcoholic drinks.

And, thanks to a hard and fast non-discrimination policy established by the American Theatre Wing Board, segregation was not allowed, creating an environment in which people saw a glimpse of a democratic future and equality for all.

It was something Allied service personnel were fighting for in Europe.

American author and photographer Carl Van Vechten, famous for taking portraits of well-known creative types like actor James Stewart, actress Eartha Kitt, film-maker Orson Welles, singer Billie Holiday, actor Laurence Olivier, actor Lena Horne, actor Marlon Brando and surrealist artist Salvador Dalí to name just a few, took several photos while at the Stage Door Canteen.

Dr Edward M Burns, Successor Trustee of the Carl Van Vechten Trust, told Forces News of the decision to make the Stage Door Canteen free of segregation, saying: "Many of the individuals who founded the canteen were part of the Theater Guild and from the outset, like their motion picture colleagues in California who founded the Hollywood Canteen, they made a conscious decision that racism/segregation would not be allowed."

For some of these men and women, visiting the venue was their first experience of integration.

The US military was segregated until President Harry Truman signed an Executive Order on 26 July 1948 ordering racial integration.

Thousands of men and women of all races and ethnic backgrounds visited the Stage Door Canteen in New York and its sister venues in Hollywood, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, Cleveland and Newark, plus two in Europe – in London and Paris.

However, not all canteens were as welcoming to black guests. Many of the "integrated" canteens still insisted that men and women danced with people of their own race.

In Katherine M Fluker's 2011 thesis 'Creating a Canteen Worth Fighting For: Morale Service and the Stage Door Canteen in World War', she concluded that "the canteen was an imperfect expression of racial, ethnic, and class equality", saying: "...however, canteen policies gave individuals the chance to challenge social inequities in meaningful ways".

"Racial inequities were tackled the most consciously, and occasionally the canteen changed volunteers' and servicemen's thinking about African Americans' role in society.

"The most radical aspect of the canteen's non-discrimination policy was its implicit message that racial tensions were best addressed by changing white thought and behavior, rather than by altering black behavior and circumstances," it added.

London Stage Door Canteen Picture National Archives and Records Administration
Service personnel and hostesses at the London Stage Door Canteen (Picture: National Archives and Records Administration).

In the New York canteen, white and black hostesses were instructed to dance with whoever approached them, regardless of their race.

Many hostesses who held racist views believed that working at the canteen and putting their views to one side was a way to contribute to the war effort. They approached the task as though they were dancing with the uniform and not the man.

Despite its policy of integration and encouraging young women to dance with strangers, the Stage Door Canteen was received favourably by the general public.

This was due to its charitable nature, patriotic cause, strict no-dating policy and because the women were doing their bit for the personnel who were risking their lives fighting in Europe.

The men would arrive at 5pm and leave at midnight after an evening of watching performances, drinking tea, eating cake, letter writing and dancing. They were not allowed to meet the hostesses once their shift had ended.

Augustus Taiwo 'Tai' Solarin, a Nigerian-born Royal Air Force navigator who, in 1956, founded the trailblazing Mayflower Private School in Nigeria, wrote that the canteen represented Christianity "made practical".

He said: "It is unfortunate that it took so much as a war to make mankind, with all its races and creeds, turn its life together."

Margaret Halsey's game-changing memorandum

Margaret Halsey, author of 'Some of My Best Friends Are Soldiers' and 'Color Blind: A White Woman Looks at the Negro' was the captain of a group of Stage Door Canteen hostesses.

Concerned by some of the white hostesses' attitude toward black service personnel, Halsey wrote a memo to them all which was described by Walter White, executive secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as "the clearest, most unequivocal statement of human decency and democracy".

To remove any uncertainty, Halsey wrote: "You unconsciously, but very arrogantly, assume that no male Negro can so much as glance at you without wanting to get you with child.

"The truth is, that while you are an extremely attractive group of young women, there isn't a single one of you who's that good."  

London Stage Door Canteen Bing Crosby Picture National Archives and Records Administration
Bing Crosby sings at the London Stage Door Canteen (Picture: National Archives and Records Administration).

She also wanted to dampen the fears of hostesses from the South, a part of America with a history of slavery and racial tension, who feared a rebellion of black people, saying: "[T]here's one way to make absolutely certain that neither the Negroes nor any other section of our population feel impelled to rebel.

"That is to see that they have nothing to rebel about."

Halsey also felt it important to remind her hostesses that the service personnel they were dancing with were fighting a war in Europe with the aim to stop Hitler, a man who believed that one race was better than the other.

She said: "If we have any secret yearning to think of ourselves as a Master Race, we have only to pick up a newspaper to see that nobody is giving odds on Master Races these days."

Katherine M Fluker wrote in her Stage Door Canteen thesis of an occasion when a soldier from the South was horrified to see a black woman in a position of authority.

Dorothy Williams was a hostess captain who remained calm and composed while the soldier was outraged by her status at the venue.

After the white soldier had calmed down, he asked Williams to write to him while he was in Europe and she agreed.

About the letter he sent, Fluker said: "In it, he apologized for being foolish and told her he had since made friends with black servicemen.

"The letter ended: 'I will join your army any day in bringing better democracy back home'." 

Image ID 2GP5EH3 Bette Davis serving cake to US servicemen at the Stage Door Canteen during World War II early 1940s2GP5HX4 Picture Everett Collection Inc Alamy Stock Photo
Actress Bette Davis serving cake to US servicemen at the Stage Door Canteen during World War II (Picture: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo).

Celebrity volunteers at the Stage Door Canteen

Some very famous people volunteered at the Stage Door Canteen, bringing glamour and excitement to the troops. Hundreds of well-known performers of the 1940s performed and volunteered their time.

The list includes:

  • Legendary singer and actor Frank Sinatra
  • American singer and actor Perry Como
  • 'King Of The Swing' Benny Goodman
  • Black composer and performer Margaret Allison Bonds
  • American actress and Academy Award winner for the 1947 film 'Gentleman's Agreement', Celeste Holm
  • Black American jazz singer, pianist, and songwriter Una Mae Carlisle.
  • American dancer, choreographer and social activist Katherine Mary Dunham, once described by Joyce Aschenbrenner in her book 'Katherine Dunham: DANCING A LIFE' as the "matriarch and queen mother of Black dance".
  • 'White Christmas' star, actor and comedian Danny Kaye
  • The voice of Disney's 'Cinderella', Ilene Woods
  • Iconic actress and big screen star Bette Davis volunteered at the Hollywood Canteen and encouraged her fellow stars to help
  • The Duke and Duchess of Windsor visited the Washington Stage Door Canteen in 1943.

Stage Door Canteen on the big screen

The Stage Door Canteens were so well received by the public that a radio series and two films were eventually made about the idea.

'Stage Door Canteen', the film, was released in 1943 and starred iconic American actress Katharine Hepburn ('The Philadelphia Story' and 'Bringing Up Baby'); Ed Wynn, the voice of the Mad Hatter in Disney's 'Alice In Wonderland'; Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow from 'The Wizard Of Oz' and many more.

There are scenes in the film that focus on celebrating Chinese and Russian service personnel and show white personnel clapping and cheering for them.

One scene, which lasts for 25 seconds and contains no close-ups, shows black soldier Johnny Jones, portrayed by actor Caleb Peterson ('Till the Clouds Roll By' and 'Scene of the Crime'), speaking about the action he saw in Australia.

He is described to the male romantic lead 'Dakota' as "a real fighting man fresh and hot from Australia" and it is pointed out that he was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, the United States Army's second highest recognition for valour.

The scene ends with a hostess pulling him away for a dance.

 

There is also another occasion which lasts for a couple of seconds where black service personnel are seen with black hostesses alongside a white soldier and his white hostess.

The canteens in New York and Hollywood actively encouraged racial integration at a time when segregation and inequality were the norms.

Its existence gave the service personnel who attended plus the young women who hosted and celebrities who volunteered, a glimpse of what the world could look like if everyone treated people of different ethnicities, religions and races as equals.

At a time when men and women were fighting for democracy in Europe, some were experiencing it firsthand in New York and Hollywood while sipping tea and dancing the night away.