Sherrie Tucker is Professor of American Studies at the University of Kansas. Her new book is Dance Floor Democracy: The Social Geography of Memory at the Hollywood Canteen. By drawing from oral histories with civilian volunteers and military guests who danced at the wartime nightclub, Tucker complicates the history of the Hollywood Canteen.
What was the Hollywood Canteen? What was special about it?
The Hollywood Canteen was an actual physical place, but it’s also a recurring image and story in World War II home-front nostalgia in the United States. So it’s a place, it’s nostalgia, and, like all nostalgia, it is full of contradictions.
Let’s begin with the place. It was a military recreation center, very much like typical USO clubs of that era, where civilians entertained soldiers. Only at the Hollywood Canteen, most of the people who did the hosting and hostessing worked in the motion picture industry. It was organized by the workers in the guilds and unions, from make-up artists to electricians, secretaries, etc. Most of the volunteers were not movie stars, but among the dishwashers, sandwich makers, doormen, and potential jitterbug partners were some very familiar faces: Deanna Durbin, Lana Turner, and Rita Hayworth, for instance Bette Davis was the president. It was housed in an old wooden barn-like building on Sunset and Cahuenga, where the CNN Building parking garage is. It was in the heart of Hollywood, near lots of other famous places, nightclubs (segregated ones) like the Hollywood Palladium, and tourist attractions.
But it is impossible to talk about the Hollywood Canteen as just a place. It was also more than a place, from the time it opened. It was treated like a nostalgic glimpse into democracy American-style at its best from the very beginning. The story about how it was the pinnacle of democracy was told time and time again in newspapers, movie magazines, newsreels, and later in documentaries and World War II re-enactments and memorials. It was supposed to represent the best of the US civilians—movie stars!—being kind and loving and devoted to the enlisted men. It is still one of those stories that you encounter over and over in World War II home-front nostalgia, montages in documentaries, etc. Usually the images that show up to represent the Hollywood Canteen as the warm and fuzzy side of democracy and patriotism in the US during the “Good War,” is a starlet jitterbugging with an anonymous soldier. It is almost always a white dancing couple, even though there is almost always a reference to the Hollywood Canteen as racially integrated, and that the lack of discrimination on the dance floor was so important to the people who ran it that they fought each other to keep it that way. There is a lot of idealism and longing and contradiction loaded into this strange mix of democracy as epitomized by an integrated dance floor that invariably features a white jitterbugging couple.
Contradictions are the bread and butter of nostalgia. All nostalgia contains contradictions. I mean, that is what nostalgia does! That is why it is so powerful at evoking longing. One definition of nostalgia is a longing for a home that never was. That’s why so many families fight at holidays. They might long to see each other all year round, but that longing might be lodged in different memories, and none of them are remembering exactly what happened. Then they get together and have to confront the difference between the nostalgic longing and actually dealing with each other. They might bicker all through the reunion, and then six months later that feeling might start waving over them again and they start longing for the family again. National nostalgia is similar. It isn’t surprising to find contradictions woven throughout the nostalgia attached to a place like the Hollywood Canteen. What I’m interested in is what this place and the memories attached to it look like from many perspectives of people who were likely to have experienced, processed, and recalled those contradictions in different ways. The people in those film clips and photos, and those who are outside the frame: what were they experiencing? Do they all have the same feelings and memories attached to this physical place? Does any room feel the same to everyone there? Does any couple-dance feel the same to both partners? These are rhetorical questions. All of these things are important aspects of the Hollywood Canteen, the place, the people, its success as nostalgia, the contradictions rolled up in that nostalgic success.
I interviewed and corresponded with sixty people who attended the Hollywood Canteen as civilian volunteers or military guests. I wanted to interact with people who had been there, not because I thought they could tell me what really really happened, but because I wanted to see if they remembered it the same way that the World War II home-front documentaries and re-enactments represent it. Because I wanted to expand my own repertoire of ways to think about this place, and the nostalgia attached to it, I especially sought perspectives missing from most of the other accounts I had encountered in books and documentaries.
So instead of tracking down screen stars, I put my energies into locating bit players: extras, and workers in off-screen industry jobs, clerical workers, musicians, inkers and cel painters, and others I knew were there from the many invocations of “the Guilds and Unions of the Motion Picture Industry” even when movie stars dominated the photos and film clips. Once I got started it was not difficult to find people who had been there. I found more people than I had time to interview. When forced to make choices, I would prioritize interviews with people whose perspectives seemed to offer new ways in. I was surprised to also find people whose connections to the industry were tangential or nil: defense workers, family members of people whose workplaces put out calls for volunteers, and included their interviews equally with those in the industry. I intentionally sought racial and ethnic diversity in my selection of interviewees, and this led me to even more variety in how people got from their daily lives to their Canteen work. Because the Hollywood Canteen was supposed to be racially integrated, but most of the jobs in the motion picture industry were not, some of the young women of color who danced with the soldiers were recruited from neighborhood YWCAs and social clubs in parts of town where most people of color lived, far from Hollywood. Likewise, I also made sure to not only interview military men and civilian women, but civilian men and military women. I also intentionally sought interviewees from a variety of political orientations, conservatives, liberals, and Communists.
I want to be very clear that my goal in seeking a variety of perspectives was not to discredit the interviews that had come before and those that are quoted elsewhere. I wasn’t interested in debunking the nostalgia, nor do I equate the memories of famous people who have been interviewed before as nostalgia or as identical to nostalgia. Everyone I interviewed was aware of the nostalgia attached to the Hollywood Canteen; its threads were interwoven in every interview, but with a wider range of ways that I had seen before.
To explore these simultaneous differences to learn more about their cultural meaning isn’t the same thing as what an investigative journalist might do in an expose. I took all of the stories people shared with me as equally truthful, and none of them as True, in the sense of “what really happened.” I wanted to find out more ways in to this place, contradictions and all. Most, but not all, of the white people I talked to remembered the club as being completely integrated, and most, but not all, of the people of color I talked to remembered segregation or partial segregation. I did not locate any servicewomen of color who went to the club, but I did talk to lots of white servicewomen, most of whom remembered being sent to a mezzanine and not being allowed to dance. Most people who were not servicewomen remembered them being on the dance floor and treated equally as servicemen. I talked to men who had been draft-aged civilians when they volunteered at the club, busing tables of men in uniform at a time when there was a lot of resentment against young men out of uniform.
I treated the interviews like a couple dance. I would ask for the dance, and then try to be sensitive to where ever the interviewee wanted to go, bearing in mind that we were all people in the present at the time of our interview, and that their experiences, perceptions, and memories of the Hollywood Canteen were shaped by experiences, perceptions and interpretations of their lives before they got to the club, and after they left, and all the way up to sixty-five years later when I showed up to ask them questions.
I also tried to be attentive to moments when I led us in a different direction. I didn’t consider myself outside the interaction, but tried to pay attention to my own feelings about swing, democracy, and war. Interviewees hardly ever stuck to the war period, so everything they talked about when I asked them about the Hollywood Canteen was pertinent to me as an oral historian, for whom the ways the narrator frames the story and makes sense of the past in the present is at least as important as the contents of the interview.
I didn’t just want to know facts about the Canteen, but the meanings that had come to be attached to it over time by diverse members of the cohort that is also talked about as a nostalgic site: the “Greatest Generation.” They are getting up there in years—in fact, most of the people I interviewed were deceased by the time the book came out. So it seemed really important to learn more perspectives on Hollywood Canteen memory as one of the many nostalgic sites through which (U.S.) Americans reflect on World War II.
By listening to memories of a diverse group of people talking about what the Canteen was, I learned a broader array of different relationships to the nostalgia, to the club, and frankly, to the workings of swing music and dance as the soundtrack, look, and feel of that nostalgia.
What can swing dancing at the Hollywood Canteen tell us about democracy?
As someone who has been very interested in jazz and swing for a long time, I have thought a lot about what I and my colleagues have assumed about the relationships between music, dance, and democracy. People in my field have been doing a lot of reflecting on those linkages, and coming to terms with our reliance on them, even though we haven’t always been that careful to define what we mean by “democracy.” Within jazz studies, there is a really interesting contradiction in the way we have written about swing. Sometimes swing is used as examples of democracy, either as forms that promote egalitarian relationships between individual expression and the larger group—think about the soloist and the ensemble in big band music, or the breakaway and couple moves of the jitterbug or Lindyhop—or in stories about integration within swing bands and dance floors. Alternately, we are drawn to the ways that swing is this giant commercial betrayal, the most glaring white appropriation of black music, exemplified by the economic disparities of who profited and who didn’t when swing became mainstream popular culture and, soon after, the patriotic music of a popular war. When scholars tell stories about swing and democracy from this angle, it is frequently through stories of exceptional band leaders who hired across race, musicians who jammed in integrated sessions even when the unions, clubs, and industry was segregated, and people and club policies that disobeyed the usual restrictions on dancing across race.
What a focus on the Hollywood Canteen is able to get at is how these contradictions in swing democracy—as success, as failure, as unified, as differentiated, as white, as multicultural, as black, as segregated, as integrated——continue to play out in the most iconic mainstream sites of World War II nostalgia. If we can revisit swing dancing memories of that place through different perspectives, and imagine people dancing together but having very different experiences, sometimes sharing weight, sometimes blocking each other or toppling over and sometimes figuring out how to lift off in ways they couldn’t do alone, I think we can learn more complex and useful ways of thinking about relationships between swing and democracy, the many different definitions of democracy that are rolled together here, and a broader range of ways to do democracy that are more accountable to everyone.
In the book, some of the former Canteen goers remember the dance floor being welcoming to all people, and others remember to be very segregated. How can those two views be reconciled?
Well, I’m afraid that this is not an unusual contradiction in the United States, which is a big reason for why I wrote this book. So I’m not trying to reconcile it, I’m trying to figure out how to think more democratically, by which I mean more accountable and more attentively to difference, about a very typical contradiction. Many of us who are teachers or students need look no further than our classrooms. I have often had that experience where one student will come to my office hours and tell me how great it is to be in such a diverse environment and another will come to tell me how difficult it is to be in such a white institution. This doesn’t mean that one student is right and one student is wrong. It means that the classroom (or college or committee or workplace or conference or town or gym or whatever) and the people who go in and out of it exist in a world where land and neighborhoods, laws, habits, life chances, are carved in inequalities in ways that are more palpable to some people than others, even in places when there is consensus to trying to create “safe spaces.” We know this, right? A diversity statement on the syllabus doesn’t make differential experiences and perceptions go away.
I wanted to wrestle with the contradictions at the Hollywood Canteen because I wanted to find better ways of thinking about them than the reconciliations on the surface of national nostalgia as they show up in all kinds of places. The contradictions are really obvious, even in Canteen nostalgia, but there is something about the pressure of national nostalgia that makes it seem like focusing on contradictions is going to ruin what democracy is there. I wanted to find another way to think about it. I wanted to resist the harmonious earworm versions of what democracy should feel like, and I was fascinated by the opportunity to listen to such a nostalgia-drenched site for the noise and dissonance that was there, and that could actually teach us something how to listen to one another in more accountable ways.
Integration and segregation are not opposites and they are not wholly determined by policy or attendance. It is a contradiction that I want to understand better, and what better site than a patriotic nightclub that had a reputation for being completely integrated, harmonious, and therefore democratic? I mentioned earlier that part of the proof of integration at the Hollywood Canteen is that people like Bette Davis fought other people in order for it to be integrated. Well, if people were fighting about it, it wasn’t racially harmonious, and there wasn’t consensus. What were those different positions that people took and how did they justify them in relation to wartime democracy? And then there are those pictures that usually show people who are apparently white, unless they are entertainers on the stage, and then you see a lot of famous African American entertainers. So, yes, there are contradictions, but I really didn’t see a need to reconcile them. I wanted to study that very contradiction because it is still very much a part of culture.
What is the significance of WWII nostalgia in the post-9/11 U.S.?
World War II nostalgia was everywhere in the US after 9/11. The Trade Towers attack was compared with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in news stories, public discourse, and popular culture. Swing music, re-enactments of World War II era USO shows, Andrews Sisters imitators, etc., accompanied appeals to national unity. It was absolutely everywhere. I began my interviews in 2000, and I saw an enormous difference in how my interviewees, and how I, talked about World War II swing culture after 9/11. The World War II era felt much closer than it had prior to 9/11, for me, as well as the people I talked to, and this had a variety of effects on conversations. Some people identified with the comparison with post-Pearl Harbor unity and post-9/11 and used the similarity between the two times to get across their points. And some people were offended by the comparison and talked about how different the times and wars were. Feelings about World War II were much closer to the surface in both cases. It was strange for me to be talking to people about the 1940s and then to see advertisements, news stories, and popular culture that looked so similar to what had seemed historical and corny only months before.
And it wasn’t the first time that this had happened. World War II nostalgia—characterized by swing music and jitterbugging young people—had flooded the cultural landscape in recruitment periods of public opinions for going to war many times. I had remembered this from the Gulf War, but in reading studies of World War II nostalgia, I learned that this had happened repeatedly, beginning in the immediate post-war years of the late 1940s. Because swing has been such a huge part of this, it seemed important to me, as someone who has written about swing culture equalities and inequalities, that I face this phenomenon directly in this book. I hadn’t planned to, but that’s what it turned into. 9/11 shaped the turn for me and my interviewees, but it also led to an obligation to recognize that this was not an isolated return of World War II nostalgia for such purposes.
World War II nostalgia has, time and again, proven its affective potential to move Americans to national love and war. At other times, big bands and jitterbugging seem historical again, or even kitsch. But, as we saw post-9/11, it can go back to powerful accompaniments to feelings about going to war. If World War II era swing culture is effective in mobilizing people’s feelings about war, the nation, and democracy in times of crisis, we really need to study that nostalgia. Not just like it or not like it. Not just debunk it, but wrestle with it.
It was actually a challenge to find a way to write about the Hollywood Canteen without reproducing or diametrically opposing the nostalgia. I tried to write the crowded dance floor as it appeared to me in conducting all of these different interviews. I am in the last wave of scholars to be able to do a large interview project with people who were young adults during World War II and I was struck by how aware they were of the uses of nostalgia and how differently they thought about it. They are members of a generation that is also used as part of the nostalgia, and represented in ways seals in the contradictions and differences among them. Stories of their differences sometimes also get reconciled into heroic stories of overlooked groups—black soldiers, military women, etc.—who rightfully belong in the nostalgia. The people I got to know both in research for Dance Floor Democracy, and my previous interview project with women musicians in all-woman jazz and swing bands of the 1940s, were way more interesting, diverse, and smart than how the generation appears in the nostalgia.