Little Known Facts About The Stage Door Canteen

Jane Cowl

Jane Cowl

In the second half of my novel,  JULIANA, World War 2 breaks out.  Alice’s theatrical career isn’t going so hot so in a burst of patriotic fervor she  volunteers at the Stage Door Canteen. Volunteering also had a little something to do with being so close to Gertrude Lawrence, Broadway star that Alice thought she’d perish.

Little known facts about the Stage Door Canteen.

When most people think of the Stage Door Canteen they think of “stars” entertaining the troops,  but that was a movie, made mostly in Hollywood.  The real Canteen was run by hardworking mostly unknown actors, mostly female, who volunteered many hours of their time.

They were trained in first aid and for awhile there was a small hospital connected to the Canteen where soldiers could come and get care for their wounds.  These young women were trained in how to talk to soldiers coming back from the war who may now be confined to wheelchairs.  They were taught not to use the word “cripple” and not to help too much (Thomforde, 2006)

Other Fascinating Facts

At a time when the Armed Services was segregated, the Stage Door Canteen was integrated.  All men of any race, ethnicity or national origin could come into the Canteen to relax, dance, and talk to the girls.

Volunteer hostesses, both white and black, were required to dance with men who were not of their race.  If they could not do this they were not permitted to be Canteen hostesses (Thomforde, 2006)

Integration did not go so far as to include both genders.  No women soldiers were allowed in the Canteen (Goldstein 2010).

Jane Cowl, who was considered a fine Broadway actress in her day, was the co-chair of the Canteen and put her career mostly on hold while running the Canteen.  She thought it would not be right for her to appear in the Hollywood film about the Stage Door Canteen  and call attention to herself.   Her work was only about the soldiers. Just before taking her position at the Canteen she starred in the hit play,  Old Acquaintance (remember Bette Davis in the film?) Ms. Cowl can be seen with Bette Davis in the film,  Payment on Demand. Selena Royale, the other co-chair, also a fine actress in her own right, did appear in Stage Door Canteen, the film. Around that time she was starring in the radio program,  Dr. Hilda Hope. You can see her in The Fighting Sullivans, the film about the five brothers who are all killed in the war.  Selena Royale plays their mother.

These two women with the support of the American Theater Wing established the integration policy.

__________________________

Stars who helped out at the Canteen regularly were Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontaine, Gertrude Lawrence and Katherine Hepburn.

References:  Goldstein, R. (2010). Helluva Town: The Story of New York City During World War 2, New York: Free Press;

Thomforde, K. W.(2006). The Stage Door Canteen:”Nothing is too good for the boys!” University of Tennessee Honors Thesis Projects. http://trace.tennessee.edu/utk_chanhonoproj/1020 

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