STAGE CANTEEN (HOUSTON, 1942–1945)
STAGE CANTEEN (HOUSTON, 1942–1945). During World War II, the basement of Houston’s Auditorium Hotel was transformed into the Stage Canteen, a circus-themed cabaret for enlisted service men and women in uniform. The Stage Canteen was inspired by the American Theatre Wing’s Stage Door Canteen, which began offering enlisted servicemen the opportunity to dance, eat, and enjoy entertainment for free in the basement of New York City’s 44th Street Theatre on March 2, 1942.
In the summer of 1942, using information obtained from the Stage Door Canteen, Dewey Harris Roussel, wife of Houston Post arts critic Hubert Roussel and president of Houston’s Little Theatre, enlisted the assistance of the heads of Houston’s art, theater, and music organizations in opening Houston’s Stage Canteen, which functioned as an independent enterprise supported by public donations and staffed by volunteers from December 30, 1942, through December 31, 1945. Anxious to assist the war effort, seventy-five people enthusiastically attended the first meeting.
Mrs. Roussel visited Tanny Charles Guseman, who managed the Michele DeGeorge estate for his wife, Lena DeGeorge Guseman, and his sister-in-law, Rosalie DeGeorge. The sisters’ father, Michele DeGeorge, built the Auditorium Hotel on Texas Avenue in 1926. Guseman and the hotel’s owners volunteered to donate not only the use of the basement for the Stage Canteen, but also utilities, air-conditioning, heating, and the services of its engineers.
Attorney Percy Selden Straus, Jr., wrote the charter. Stage Canteen board members included President Dewey Roussel, Hermon Lloyd, Mr. and Mrs. Paul Benedum, Mrs. A. S. (Mary Porter) Vandervourt, Jr., Francis Deering, Miss Kay Ware, and others. Hermon Lloyd served as the Stage Canteen’s architect, while Pvt. Eddie Perrault, who was stationed at Ellington Field south of Houston, provided the circus theme (which he had used before the war when dressing the windows at The Fashion, a department store on Houston’s Main Street). Pvt. Lorin Vallee of Ellington Air Field designed and built the Canteen and created the original paintings with assistance from other men stationed at Ellington and students from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
A red, white, and blue “WELCOME” sign with the face of a smiling clown greeted guests as they walked into a huge tent with blue draperies covering the ceiling. Red-and-white-striped awnings delineated the seating areas. Wall seats were upholstered in white leather. Three rings circled the bandstand, the dance floor, and guest seating. Murals painted on the basement’s concrete walls depicted colorful animals and circus performers. Balloons in relief protruded from support piers. The serving table, which resembled a circus concession tent, was (located in the rear of the main room) near the kitchen.
The red, white, and blue color scheme was repeated on furniture and equipment as well as on the aprons for the Junior Hostesses. Modeled after uniforms of all branches of women’s service, the light blue aprons had white shoulder straps that formed a “V” at the front and back waistline. On the right side (of the apron) was a “V”-shaped red, white and blue ribbon. Hair ornaments matched.
Local women’s clubs formed a Small Equipment Committee. Members in the Houston Garden Club, the Soroptimist Club, the Heights Rotary Club, the Delphian Assembly, the Houston Women’s Club, the City Federation of Women’s Clubs, Beta Sigma Phi businesswomen’s service organizations, the Houston Little Theatre, and the American Women’s Voluntary Service supplied serving trays, chinaware, glassware, cups and saucers, salt and pepper sets, napkins, linens, and ashtrays.
The Stage Canteen opened with “Civilian Night,” on December 30, 1942. This fundraiser gala, held to defray future operating expenses, was attended by 200 members of Houston’s society and prominent members of the military and naval forces. Touted, as the “only” opportunity civilians would have of visiting the Canteen unless they volunteered, the evening was so successful that “Civilian Night” was repeated on December 30, 1943.
The grand opening for servicemen took place on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1942. The Stage Canteen was open on Fridays, 6:30 p.m.–11:00 p.m.; Saturdays, 5:30 p.m.–1:00 a.m.; and Sundays, 2:30 p.m.–5:30 p.m. It also opened on an as-needed basis when troops traveling by train were held over in Houston. Travelers Aid personnel notified the Canteen when trains were expected, so the service men and women could make themselves at home during the stopovers. The Canteen was closed only once, the weekend after the death of President Franklin Roosevelt on April 12, 1945.
With a capacity of 200 people, all enlisted men and women “in uniform” were admitted free. Fifty “charming” hostesses chosen by an interviewing board served free sandwiches, soft drinks, and coffee, and chatted and danced with the servicemen each night. Male volunteers served as table hops, bus boys, and KP (“kitchen police”) duty.
Two orchestras composed of musicians from Ellington Air Field played regularly. The Rice Hotel's Empire Room, the Southern Dinner Club, and the Plantation Dinner Club sent bands and floorshow talent. Professional acts, orchestras, and stars of radio, stage, and screen donated entertainment. To raise spirits, nightly drawings to win free long-distance phone calls plus Jitterbug contests were held. Visiting celebrities included Fay Bainter, an actress and G. I. mother who attended the first anniversary of “Civilian Night” in 1943. A frequent performer at Houston’s annual Fat Stock Show and Rodeo (and an enlisted serviceman himself) singing cowboy Gene Autry rode his horse Champion through the entrance of the Auditorium Hotel and down the stairs to entertain the troops.
The cost of operating the Stage Canteen was about $1,000 a month. Members raised funds through monthly contributions, by canvassing for donations, from the proceeds from a soft drink bar at the Little Theatre, from a golf match and a baseball game sponsored by local sportswriters, from donations from the servicemen, and from the proceeds from an auction of records donated by Bing Crosby.
After serving and feeding more than 200,000 sailors and soldiers during its three years in operation, Houston’s Stage Canteen held its last event on New Year's Eve, December 31, 1945. It closed at 1:00 a.m. on New Year's Day, 1946.
DeGeorge–Guseman Archives, Houston, Texas. Houston Chronicle, December 27, 30, 31, 1942; December 12, 29, 30, 1943; December 6, 1984. Houston Post, December 31, 1942; January 1, 1943; December 19, 30, 1943. Houston Press, December 30, 1942; December 29, 31, 1943; January 2, 1946. Miscellaneous Interviews by Michaelene "Miki" Lusk Norton: Lenora Guseman Smith; Ursula Guseman Lusk; Michelene Guseman Toomey; Dewey Roussel; Hermon Lloyd; Eddie Perrault. Dewey Roussel, Interview by Chris Kelly Andrews, Channel 26 KRIV-TV, Houston, November 1984.
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Handbook of Texas Online, Michaelene “Miki” Lusk Norton, "STAGE CANTEEN (HOUSTON, 1942–1945)," accessed November 17, 2019, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/xds25.
Uploaded on December 17, 2017. Modified on March 11, 2018. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.