It was Benita and my night to do our part at the Hollywood Canteen, but my sweet wife was fighting a nasty cold, and could barely speak. "Ronnie," she croaked, "Bette is depending on me!"
"Benita, darling," I replied, soothingly, "I'm sure Bette would be far happier if you rested, and didn't share whatever microbes you have with the armed forces!" She nodded, weakly, and I left for the Canteen.
It was a point of pride to volunteer your services at the Hollywood Canteen, and the experience was always unforgettable. So many boys, away from home for the first time, uncertain of what fate awaited them, getting the opportunity to meet the movie stars they loved! We were truly the lucky ones, though...We got to meet them!
Our 'report' time was an hour prior to the doors opening, so we could get our assignments, help set out food, and accomplish the myriad chores that the Canteen required. Bette Davis was, of course, our 'commander', with Johnny Garfield, her second-in-command.
"Good to see you, Ronnie," she called out, as I entered. "Tell Benita to drink lemon tea, with a touch of brandy...and stay in bed!"
"I will," I laughed. Bette knows everything that goes on, and always has a solution!
"You'll be working with George Sanders and Herbie Marshall, tonight, and Lynn Bari will be Benita's replacement. First shift on the food line."
The food line was the toughest spot to work, as everybody charged for the free dinner, as soon as they arrived! Still, it meant I'd be free, later on, which I was grateful for!
My co-workers quickly joined me. "Colman, old boy," Sanders said, "Do take care of Benita...I adore her, you know."
I smiled. "Yes, I do."
Lynn came up from behind me, and added, "If there's anything I can do..."
"Honestly, it's just a cold. She always gets one, this time of year."
"Why does Bette insist on calling me Herbie?" Herbert Marshall asked, annoyed. "She knows I hate it!"
"That's our dear Bette," Sanders replied, sarcastically. "Always the diva!"
"Listen up, everybody," Bette shouted to the now filled room. "Eddie Cantor is the M.C., tonight, with Harry James and his orchestra opening, and Bob Crosby's band, finishing. Lead Hostesses are Irene Dunne, Donna Reed, Claire Trevor, and Miriam Hopkins, first servers are Colman, Sanders, Lynn Bari, and Herbie Marshall..." I could feel Marshall wince! "...followed by Donald Meek, Guy Kibbee, Rags Ragland, and Marjorie Main."
"You tell them, honey!" Marjorie shouted out, and everybody laughed.
"Orson Welles will do his magic act, Dick Haymes and Virginia O'Brien will sing, and Ronnie, I'd like you to chat, onstage, with the boys."
"I'd be happy to," I agreed.
"Edgar Buchannan, Eugene Palette, Bill Demarest, you're busing tables..."
Demarest snorted, "Always the dirty jobs!"
"Would you prefer to sing?"
"Glad to do my part on the floor," he quickly answered.
"TEN MINUTES, everybody! Get to your stations!"
Words cannot describe the mass of humanity that enters the Hollywood Canteen, when the doors are opened! Boys from every branch of service, and many foreign soldiers, as well, pour into the barn-like room...with nearly everyone converging on the food line! I and my group were quickly overwhelmed, and Bette, herself, jumped in, to lend us a hand!
Meanwhile, Eddie Cantor opened the show, singing "Ma, She's Making Eyes at Me", while bouncing across the stage. The crowd went wild, and he sang the chorus a couple of extra times, as the boys and Canteen girls joined in.
He then began a hilarious monologue of how the studios had discovered he would make the perfect 'tough guy' hero, in film. "Why, I could whip John Garfield with one hand behind my back!" he declared...and suddenly Garfield appeared, to take him up on his challenge!
"Yeah," Garfield said, as the crowd roared, "and I can sing 'Whoopie' as good as you can, too!"
Garfield bugged his eyes out, and started a very off-key rendition, and Cantor quickly replied, "Maybe we better leave things as they are!"
Virginia O'Brien was next, onstage, singing "Wild, Wild West" with her famous deadpan expression. The soldiers ate it up, and she broke into a smile as they cheered!
Then Orson Welles took the stage, resplendent in his short cape, to "astound and amaze" the crowd with his feats of magic.
After a few demonstrations of his 'sleight-of-hand' dexterity, he asked for a volunteer from the audience. A sailor jumped onto the stage. "So, sailor, what is your name?"
"Clarence Burgraff, sir."
"You needn't call me sir! Where's your home?"
"Louisville, Kentucky, sir."
"Well, Clarence, I'm about to perform a feat of magic taught me by the fakirs in India..."
The sailor mumbled something, and Welles asked, "What were you saying?"
"Uh, India isn't the only place where there's fakers..." The crowd roared, and even Welles had to smile.
"Are there many comedians in the Navy?"
"No, sir, just us fenderheads..." The servicemen burst into laughter at the oft-used, less-than-flattering term to describe young seamen.
"Well, son, your task, here, is simple. See the heavy line on the floor? Examine it..." The sailor did, and Welles asked, "Can you verify that this is simply a heavy, multi-strand cord?"
"Ladies and gentlemen, let's give this young man a round of applause! Thank you for assisting me, you may leave."
After the applause died down, Welles concentrated deeply, muttering softly to himself...and the rope rose into the air! Becoming rigid, it stretched from the floor to the rafters, above.
Welles stared at the crowd. "Now, you know, this is only half of the 'illusion'...Do I have a volunteer to climb to the top?"
There was an uncomfortable silence...then, burting through the crowd, Johnny Weissmuller appeared, barechested!
"Tarzan climb!" he shouted. "Tarzan not afraid!" And he quickly pulled himself, hand-over-hand, to the top...then vanished!
There was a moment of stunned silence...then the crowd burst into wild applause!
"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen," Welles acknowledged. "That concludes my act..."
"Wait a minute!" somebody shouted. "You have to bring him back!"
"Oh, yes, I nearly forgot! Please, return to us, now..."
A figure appeared, and quickly climbed down the rope...but it wasn't Weissmuller, it was BETTY GRABLE!
The crowd went positively insane, as Betty and Welles bowed, and left the stage.
"Where do you suppose Johnny went?" Lynn asked me.
"Probably back to MGM," I replied, and we both laughed.
Next up, Dick Haymes joined Harry James, to sing "How Blue the Night"...
When he finished, Dick announced a couple of 'surprise guests' had arrived, wanting to do a number, together...and out walked Judy Garland and Al Jolson!
The room went completely mad, and it took nearly three minutes for the applause to subside! Then the pair sang "Pretty Baby", and there wasn't a dry eye in the house!
My shift was 'ending', as Judy and Jolie finished, and Eddie returned to the stage to thank the pair, and to introduce "what England provided us for lend lease, Ronald Colman!"
While the applause was warm, it was nothing like what had transpired, previously!
"Good evening, everyone!" I said, looking around the room. "I feel a bit overmatched, having to follow Garland and Jolson! I don't sing, I don't dance, I don't tell jokes...but if you'd like to hear me recite something, from one of my films..."
"How about the 'better thing' line?" one soldier asked, and the audience applauded, in agreement.
"Do you mean, 'It is a far, far better thing I do, than I've ever done, it is a far, far better rest to which I go, than I have ever known'...?"
The audience applauded, but I shook my head. "That is far too morbid!" I laughed. "Look, are there any soldiers here from England?"
A large bloc of soldiers applauded and cheered!
I grinned, bowed to them, then said, "This is for you, my fellow countrymen...
'This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,--
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm...this England!' "
The crowd rose to their feet, giving me a standing ovation! I was so moved that I nearly wept, but kept it in check, acknowledging their response with a bow.
As I started to leave the stage, a sailor called out, "Where's Clemmie?"
"Who?" I asked, startled.
"You know, Barrymore's monkey!"
"You know about Clemmie?"
A chorus of voices answered, "Yeah!", and the sailor said, "We keep up with the gossip columns, about how she's never far away from you!"
"Well, you can't always believe what you read," I answered, testily. "I have no idea where the simian is..."
At that moment, Clemmie appeared, from the back of the room, as Harry James played "You Made Me Love You"...I'd been set up!
Attired in a sundress, with a bonnet on her head, she waddled up to the stage, tipping her hat to the wildly cheering crowd! As I glared, she blew me a kiss...then snapped her fingers to bandleader James, who switched the music to a conga...within seconds, the entire room had formed into a giant conga line, headed by Clemmie!
"Oh...good...grief," I muttered, and sat down, heavily, at a table. For fifteen minutes this insanity went on, until Clemmie, and a large contingent of soldiers and sailors, danced out of the Canteen, and into the night!
What was left of the crowd returned to the stage, where Oscar Levant now sat, before his piano.
"It's the story of my life," he said, sarcastically. "Following a monkey!" He played a short Gershwin piece, then left, "to find a bar!"
The evening's entertainment concluded with Bob Crosby and his band playing dance music, and the remaining soldiers dancing with the pretty hostesses.
It was a most unique evening, at the Hollywood Canteen!
THE RONALD COLMAN SAGA
"The Dinner Party for Erich von Stroheim"
"The Misadventures of John Barrymore's Cheeky Monkey, Clementine"
"The All-Star Surprise Party for Laine"
"The Classic Hollywood Long Beach-Catalina Yacht Race"
"The Ronald Colman Seance"
"My "Lost Horizon" Surprise!"
"A Night at the Hollywood Canteen!"
"But I Thought You Were..."
"The People vs. Ronald Colman"
"The Epic Hearst Costume Party..."
"The Monkey on Ronald Colman's Back Saga" (A 9-Part Adventure):
"A MAN, A MONKEY, the MOB, and RONALD COLMAN!" (A 5-Part Adventure):
"Introduction: Broadway, 1920..."
"Chapter 1: A LONG Memory..."
"Chapter 2: Barrymore's Reply..."
"Chapter 3: Barrymore in Cement!"
"Chapter 4: A Desert Grave..."
"SURPRISE PARTY for RONALD COLMAN!"
"The RONALD COLMAN Banner Collection"
Finally, if you'd like to 'go to the source', with over 200 photos of Ronald Colman's life and career, please visit Myspace.com/Ronald Colman...the page that started it all!