As Desert Storm rages, some remember the bit of glamour in World War II that was Washington's Stage Door Canteen.
Deena Clark, Washington television producer and interviewer, remembers it all -- she was there "every single day."
Not long after the United States entered the war in December 1941, the American Theater Wing War Services decided to do something for the lonesome, displaced enlisted men, who then had far fewer places to pass their off-duty time. Actress Armina Langner came here to organize a Stage Door Canteen.
Awaiting her was the historic Belasco Theater, 17 Madison Pl. on Lafayette Square, then being used as a Treasury Department records warehouse. The Belasco had a great history -- Lillian Russell had starred at its 1895 opening. Sarah Bernhardt and Ethel Barrymore had played the house. Helen Hayes had been discovered there at age 5. Langner, with her husband, Lawrence, a patent attorney, started organizing. And the Belasco reopened as the Stage Door Canteen on Oct. 4, 1942.
At the opening, Helen Hayes, by now a famous star, and Lee Shubert, the Broadway producer, served cake and coffee from behind the counter. Connie Boswell, the hot radio singer of the day, gave her autograph to the men crowded around her. And that was just the beginning.
Soon, Clark, a Powers model, arrived from New York. "I got myself all gussied up in my gloves and my hat with flowers and went to volunteer," she recalled. Langner put her to work as her secretary before Clark could take off her hat. And for the rest of the war, Clark worked at the canteen while she started her career in television.
"It was the place to go in Washington. Everybody helped out," she said.
Movie stars vied with political officials who competed with society hostesses to entertain "the boys," as the servicemen were popularly called.
Every night, the canteen celebrated birthdays. Rita Hayworth kissed the day's birthday boys. Actress Lily Damita (she later married Errol Flynn) once cut the birthday cake for a Marine. Gossip columnist and actress Hedda Hopper, promising to kiss anybody, claimed, "if I was good enough for your fathers, I'm good enough for you."
Vice President Henry Wallace offered to Indian wrestle all comers. Often photographed washing dishes in the kitchen were important war officials, including: Donald Nelson, the War Powers Board chief; Paul McNutt, chairman of the War Manpower Commission; Leon Henderson, the price administrator; House Speaker Sam Rayburn; and Adm. Emory S. Land, Maritime Commission chairman. At a costume show, Sen. Claude Pepper and his wife, Mildred Irene Pepper, rode a bicycle built for two.
Society took up the cause right away -- it was a way of being patriotic while having a glamorous time. Baltimorean Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, made an appearance. Socialite and jewel collector Evalyn Walsh McLean vowed to come incognito, Clark remembered. At the door, McLean changed her mind and said, "I want to meet the boys. Get me a chair and introduce me." So she sat on a small chair on the stage, and invited the servicemen to come up and hold the Hope Diamond. By that time McLean -- in her mind -- had converted the fabled cursed jewel into a lucky charm.
Not everyone could come to the canteen. Only workers, service people and "angels" who were officially fingerprinted at the door were admitted. The junior hostesses, who wore red, white and blue aprons, were rigidly forbidden to see the young men outside the canteen. The sharp-eyed senior hostesses acted as chaperons.
Clark said the cost for entertaining 2,000 servicemen a night was about $600. To pick up the tab, international industrialists and Washington's wealthy were invited to pay $1,000 to bring nine guests to observe the evening from the Angels' Table. Perle Mesta was one of the most constant angels. She was very popular, too, because she'd bring the heads of large corporations, who would, in turn, carry on the heavenly work.
Several other canteens were opened during the war years, including in New York, Philadelphia, Clevelandand San Francisco.
The Washington canteen was the last to close. James Goode in his book "Capital Losses" writes that 6,000 volunteers entertained more than 2 million servicemen in its four years. Adm. Chester Nimitz and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie, were the honored guests at the final party on Jan. 23, 1946. The Belasco opened again for Korean War servicemen as the USO Lafayette Square Club. The Belasco Theater was razed in 1964 to make way for the U.S. Court of Claims Building.
In recent years, the National Theatre has on occasion given away tickets to various service members and families. The Kennedy Center sells enlisted personnel half-price tickets. Gail Moore of the USO said last week that "so far we haven't had a demand for that sort of thing," referring to the canteens. "Washington has many more facilities for servicemen now than it did then. We're into a different sort of social services -- emergency housing, job fairs, family services."
Now that the ball is over, where will the hearts go that once were left at the Stage Door Canteen?