ASK PLAYBILL.COM: A Question About Broadway's Historic Stage Door Canteen

By Robert Simonson
22 Jun 2012

An admission ticket to the Stage Door Canteen.

The New York Canteen was immediately popular. The space was 40-by-80 feet and could accommodate 500 people, but it was filled to capacity from the start. Helen Hayes served sandwiches. Alfred Lunt insisted on clearing plates. A young Lauren Bacall jitterbugged with GIs. In 1944, at a cost of $25,000, the New York Canteen was renovated to accommodate more people, and the kitchen was expanded to include a walk-in freezer. Eventually, there were Canteens in other American cities. "There were Stage Door Canteens all over the nation, and in London and Paris," said Hitchens. But none were as popular as the New York location.

In 1943, the Canteen became the subject of a Hollywood film. It was produced by Sol Lesser, who paid the Wing $50,000 for the use of the canteen name. Since the real canteen was ever busy, the club was meticulously recreated at the RKO Radio Pictures studio in Culver City. The film was released in 1943 and was a huge success. The Canteen received 90 percent of the profits.

As WWII drew to a close, there was a drive to keep the popular canteens open. But Lee Shubert's lease of the space, which was owned by the New York Times Company, expired June 30, and the Times made its intention to build a printing plant there clear. The Fourty-Fourth Street Theatre was torn down in 1945, and the Canteen space along with it. The Wing failed to find a suitable new location. The Times has since abandoned its printing plant, though the building still remains (with a metal plaque reminding passersby of the Canteen site).

However, Hitchens said that the Wing has in recent years begun to collect together remnants and relics of the Canteens, including photographs, aprons, pens — even a pinball machine. "We try to buy back our own items. We want to build up our collection."

The New-York Historical Society will next year present an exhibit called "WWII & NYC."  The show will examine how New York City opened its doors to troops during the war years. Actual Canteen artifacts from the ATW Archive will be on display. The show will run October 5, 2012-May 27, 2013. Read more about the American Theatre Wing's history during World War II at the Wing's website.