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The Stage Door Canteen at 216 West 44th Street

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At first glance, the horror-themed restaurant at 216 West 44th Street looks like everything wrong with Times Square. The Jekyll and Hyde Club is tacky, noisy, crowded, overpriced, and packed with tourists. And looking at the Yelp reviews, it looks like you could get better food literally anywhere else two blocks over in Hell’s Kitchen. (Readers, do New York a favor. When you see tourists near here, give them a hearty shove in the direction of 9th Avenue. They’ll be grateful in the end.)

But take a look at the plaque next to the entrance, and you’ll discover a link to the days when 216 West 44th played host to another kind of tourist: the Allied Armed Forces.

Stage Door Canteen Plaque, Times Square, New York

In 1912, the New York City theater scene was going through a tremendous migration uptown. For decades, the center of legitimate theater was Herald Square, but with so many theaters already crowding for attention, many owners were breaking ground ten blocks north on Broadway. This transition is immortalized in George M. Cohan’s “Give My Regards to Broadway.” ”Give my regards to Broadway/Remember me at Herald Square./Tell all the gang at 42nd Street/That I will soon be there!”

The first was theater impresario Oscar Hammerstein I (the father of the Oscar Hammerstein you’re thinking of), who built his Olympia on the corner of Broadway and 44th in 1895.  Other owners quickly followed suit. One such theater owner was Lee Shubert, who was desperate to reunite the most celebrated vaudevillians of the day: Weber and Fields.

Weber-and-Fields

Since the 1880s, Lew Fields (born Moses Schoenfield) and Joseph Weber had been the most popular vaudevillians in the burlesque musical scene. Though they were both second-generation Polish Jews, their signature act was a pair of German immigrants named “Mike and Meyer.” Fields played the tall, slick Meyer who would try to con fresh-off-the-boat Mike (played by the dimunitive Weber in a fat suit), with Mike typically getting the best of him. One act called “I’m a Gizzard” finds Meyer attempting to hypnotize Mike, convincing him he’s traveling through a dozen different cities. The plan falls apart when Meyer tells him he’s back in New York, and Mike responds that he’s only in Brooklyn. (Listen to a Vitrola recording here.) Their characters spoke in broad “Dutch” accents and broken English for comedic effect. For example:

MIKE: I receividid a letter for mein goil, but I don’t know how to writtenin her back.

MYER: Writtenin her back! Such an edumucation you got it? Writtenin her back! You mean rottenin her back. How can you answer her ven you don’t know how to write?

MIKE: Dot makes no never mind. She don’t know how to read.

By 1904, the duo had split up, but theater owner Lee Shubert lured them into a comeback with the Weber and Fields Music Hall at 216 West 44th Street in 1912. Shubert leased the land from Vincent Astor (Times Square’s biggest landowner) and hired William A. Swasey to build a 1,465-seat theater complete with a rooftop restaurant and basement rathskeller called Club Alabam. The old team reunited…for about 60 performances before splitting up again. With the title act gone, Shubert swiftly renamed the venue the 44th Street Theatre.

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The 44th Street Theatre had its fair share of flops and successes, including Mae West’s first stage appearance in 1919. The biggest hit was the Marx Brothers’ stage review Animal Crackers, featuring the song “Hooray for Captain Spaulding.” (Did someone call me schnorrer?)

For many, the real event was downstairs. Come prohibition, the downstairs bar was converted into a speakeasy called the Little Club. The club was strictly members only, perhaps a bit too strict. A drunken patron shot and wounded an elevator boy in 1929 for not letting him into the empty bar at 5 a.m. After Prohibition, the bar closed and remained vacant for years. It would take the American Theatre Wing and the dawn of World War II to open it back up.

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The American Theatre Wing, the organization that hosts the Tonys, was founded in 1940 by Rachel Crothers, Minnie Dupree, and Josephine Hull as the American Theatre Wing of Allied Relief, designed to rally theater workers to aid the British War effort. With the attack on Pearl Harbor, their attention turned to supporting the troops right here in New York City. The trio decided to create a free cabaret and supper club for soldiers on leave called the Stage Door Canteen, completely staffed by the Broadway community. It would be “the pool into which the entertainment world will pour its gifts for the men who are going to fight for us.”

Birthday-Party-in-1944

The entire operation was on a volunteer basis (the only paid employees were a janitor and a dishwaser.) Theater owner Lee Shubert gave the American Theater Wing use of the basement of the 44th Street Theater free of charge. Union carpenters and electricians fixed up the space pro bono. Grocery chains donated the food and drink. There was no alcohol (a sign above the entrance said “No liquor, but damned good anyway”), but there was always plenty of  fresh milk, juice, and coffee. The biggest draw would be the brightest stars of film and theater who came to volunteer as stage performers, wait staff, and hosts and hostesses.

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The Stage Door Canteen opened on March 2nd, 1942. It was open 7 nights a week, from 6 p.m. to midnight. The Canteen could fit 500 people at a time, but even that wasn’t enough to match its popularity. A ticket system had to be introduced so people could come in shifts, turning over 2,000 servicemen a night. “Probably nobody knows how many service men poured in to the free supper club that has opened under the auspices of the American Theatre Wing,” wrote the New York Times, “for at 10:30 more were coming in and only a few were going out.” Tallulah Bankhead performed on opening night, leading the entire house in a congo line. Later years would find Helen Hayes greeting men at the door, Katherine Hepburn fixing sandwiches, and Bettie Davis pouring coffee. To supplement the stars, 600 women acted as hostesses, doling out pie and dancing the jitterbug with servicemen. Their uniforms were red-white-and-blue aprons with a pair of sterling silver wings pinned on the strap; appropriately, American Theatre wings.

Marguerite-Cartwright

The Canteen may have been staffed by the toast of Broadway, but it was the soldiers who were to be treated like stars. “These men are going to the Philippines. They are going to the Burma Road,” said actress and Canteen director Jane Cowl. “Nothing is too good for them.” That philosophy applied to each and every visitor. Privates were given just as much attention as generals, the soldiers wounded in action, covered in scars and burns, greeted as warmly as the fresh-faced recruits. There was to be no discrimination against African-American or Latino soldiers. During the interview process, any hostess who expressed discomfort speaking to or dancing with black soldiers was immediately disqualified. It was harder to control the racism of white soldiers, but even then, the Canteen knew how to keep the peace. If any trouble started, the band was to strike up “The Star-Spangled Banner,” at which point every man in uniform would instinctively snap to attention. Here’s publicist Isadora Bennett describing the clientele’s mood:

Their morale could not be better. They are tough but not subdued. Even the wounded are gay and humorous. The best Jitterbugs will often be wearing Purple Hearts or even Presidential Citations. Best of all, they make the Canteen a first stop on their return.

The Stage Door Canteen quickly captured the public imagination. In an 8-page story on the club, Life Magazine wrote “The Stage Door Canteen has become as familiar a part of U.S. wartime panorama as ration books, dimouts and meatless days.” Members of the 8th Air Force, USAAF, named one of their B-17 bombers the “Stage Door Canteen,” and emblazoned the name on their leather bomber jackets. Irving Berlin wrote a hit song, “I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen,” and MGM made a 1943 musical based on it with over 60 celebrity cameos. (My two favorites are Peggy Lee performing “Why Don’t You Do Right?” with the Benny Goodman Orchestra and Harpo Marx being Harpo Marx.) Here’s a scene where a sergeant runs into Ray Bolger (the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz), who promptly launches into a song-and-dance routine.

Similar canteens opened up across the country, in Philadelphia, Boston, Newark, Cleveland, and Washington D.C. started by Eleanor Roosevelt. (Not surprisingly, the only canteen to rival New York’s was Los Angeles.) As the war in Europe drew to a close, Canteens even opened in London and Paris.

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According to the National WWII Museum, the Stage Door Canteen served a nightly average of “2000 sandwiches, 3000 slices of cake or doughnuts, 1000 half pints of milk, 80 gallons of fruit juice and cider, 25 lbs. of candy, 6 crates of fruit and a whopping 5,000 cigarettes.” The New York Times estimated that the sandwiches “if placed from end to end would stretch from here to Berlin and back if anyone wanted to feed the enemy.” That was nothing compared to the dancing. In 3 years, the hostesses danced 2,184,000 miles, enough to go around the entire world 87 times.

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When the war ended, so did the Stage Door Canteen, after having served over 3 million GIs. The 44th Street Theatre followed in late 1945 when the Astor estate sold the building to the New York Times, who razed the theater to make way for an expanded Annex. Appropriately, the final theatrical production was Leonard Bernstein’s tale of sailors on a 24-hour shore leave, On the Town.

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