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USO brought touch of home to troops: servicemen danced with celebrities at canteen.

After years of entertaining American troops around the world, Bob Hope, now 98, stays home these days. There are plans to expand a small United Service Organizations center for members of the armed forces at Los Angeles International Airport and name the new 4,000-square-foot club the Bob Hope Hollywood USO.

The club will contain a museum, which will include videotapes of Hope and other entertainers appearing before troops. Military personnel will be able to eat, read, send e-mail or just relax at the club.

If anyone deserves this honor, it's Hope. He traveled more than a million miles with the USO to entertain close to 11 million soldiers. He made more than 40 Christmas trips, beginning in 1942 and ending in 1993 with a show in Beirut.

USO beginnings

The USO, the non-profit organization that sent Hope to the war zones to entertain troops, is still going strong. There are 120 USO centers around the United States and the world. The centers help raise troop morale by bringing lonely servicemen and servicewomen a little closer to home.

Hollywood help

During World War II, the Hollywood Canteen was the most popular show in town. Every celebrity showed up for duty at the canteen--doing dishes, cooking, serving food and drinks to the soldiers, even scrubbing floors--and, to entertain. The canteen offered a break from the war, a chance for military personnel to relax, even to forget for awhile.

The fantasy capital offered something very real--a nightclub where the movie industry's major actors rolled up their sleeves and pitched in for the sake of deserving servicemen and women.

"I was thrilled for them," Bette Davis once said. "All the people gave so much of their time to entertain, make them laugh and forget. All the stars were very aware, very concerned."

Memories

The opening of the expanded Hollywood USO brings back memories for me. I was a 22-year-old, wide-eyed airman stationed in nearby Santa Monica, and I visited the USO canteen every chance I could.

I wrote in my dusty diary: "What a thrill to stand up close to my idols--real, live, in-the-flesh movie stars! I talked to them, laughed with them. Gary Cooper, so modest and shy; Basil Rathbone, so debonair; beautiful June Lang (she kissed me!); Marlene Dietrich, who danced with me, and when I was cut-in by other soldiers, I cut right back. 'You again,' she laughed."

The day Basil Rathbone was there, he signed autographs for hours. When I asked for his autograph, I said, "Don't you wish you had a shorter name?"

He laughed and said, "Yes, like an X."

Charley McCarthy, Edgar Bergen, Patricia Morrison, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Ginny Simms, Marsha Hunt, Eddie Canter and Red Skelton, just to name a few, were among the celebrities I saw at the canteen.

Among the unforgettable performances were Skelton's comedy routines, the Andrews Sisters singing "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B" and the famous Abbott and Costello baseball routine, "Who's on First?"

We were greeted at the door by Lana Turner, Deanna Durbin or Dinah Shore. Kay Kaiser was the emcee for the Saturday night bingo game.

Servicemen could have a hamburger with John Garfield, be served dinner by Linda Darnel, or dance to the music of famous orchestras led by Rudy Valley, Tommy Dorsey and Xavier Gugot.

George Raft washed dishes, and Vice President Henry Wallace once joined the second shift in the kitchen.

Inspiration

The place inspired the movie "I Left My Heart at the Hollywood Canteen." And the Department of Defense reported that more than a million servicemen and women were entertained by movie-colony figures each year.

Those men and women of the Hollywood Canteen entertained us, inspired us, built our morale and brought us a touch of home. Thanks for the memory.
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Title Annotation:Hollywood Canteen
Author:Curreri, Joe
Publication:Grit
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Oct 27, 2002
Words:631
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