ASK PLAYBILL.COM: A Question About Broadway's Historic Stage Door Canteen
By Robert Simonson
Maybe you've heard the song "I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen"? A reader has a question about the venue's location, and we expand on it.
Ask Playbill.com answers your (and sometimes our own) theatre-related questions. To ask a question, email AskPlaybill@Playbill.com. Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live.
Question: What is the address of the Stage Door Canteen on West 44th Street? —Michael Manning, New York, NY
The Stage Door Canteen — the famous World War II-era Times Square haven for soldiers temporarily stationed in New York City — opened March 2, 1942, at 216 W. 44th Street. The location was a space underneath the Fourth-Fourth Street Theatre formerly occupied by the Little Club. The Little Club was opened in 1917 as a members-only after-theatre hangout and dance club. It was the scene of many raids and arrests during Prohibition, not all of them having to do with liquor violations.
In 1940 the New York Times bought the theatre, and leased it to producer and theatre owner Lee Shubert. When Shubert was approached by the American Theatre Wing with the idea of running a soldiers' canteen out of the basement space, he waived the rent and donated the property free of charge. Heather A. Hitchens, executive director of the Wing, told Playbill.com that "some people are surprised" that the American Theatre Wing was founded as the Stage Women's War Relief Fund. "We were founded at the advent of the First World War and the canteens were formed during World War II," she said. "It was a way to give back."
Actresses Selena Royle and Jane Cowl were co-chairs of the Canteen Committee. The idea was simple, but ingenious. The acting community would do everything. Certainly, they would perform; that would be the primary attraction of the Canteen — not just songs and comedy bits, but compressed versions of the plays and musicals then playing on Broadway. Actresses also did duty as hostesses and dancing partners. Actors worked as waiters, busboys, dishwashers and dancing partners. At the initial recruiting event for canteen volunteers, 700 actors and actresses showed up.
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.
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