Chapter V: Dancing on Broadway
I was contacted by some Broadway entertainers who wanted to establish a Stage Door Canteen strictly for merchant seamen, patterned after the now famous Hollywood canteen. I attended the meeting they arranged to go over some of the details. At first I was leery of the setup. I had that old paranoid feeling that some religious missionaries were out to "save" the heathen seamen. I was sure it would end up like many other well-intentioned endeavors--another means of slugging you over the head with the Bible. It turned out I was wrong.
At the first meeting only three representatives of seagoing unions were present. Here, we met many of those trying hard to put this together. Union people like myself just sat there with eyes and ears open and mouths shut. A week later we had another meeting where a progress report was made, and we were told that the project was going to bring a high level of entertainment to the merchant seamen. Stars of stage and screen were supporters of the canteen. So fast was the work progressing that the building had been obtained, a stage, screen, bar, and tables were already in place and a date was set for its opening. One of the geniuses behind the establishment of the canteen asked me to be on a greeting committee to take Mrs. Roosevelt by the hand as she exited her car and escort her into the canteen where she would be greeted by the crowd and cut the ribbon to officially open the canteen.
The idea almost blew my mind. I had visions of tripping and falling flat on my face in front of her or forgetting her name when we met. The reason I had been chosen over others was because I had done the most among seagoing union representatives to promote and support the project.
The day of the opening the police were on the scene. Crowd-control fences were set up in the street and the area cleared of cars and trucks. Ten minutes before Mrs. Roosevelt's car was to arrive, in popped Joe Curran, president of the National Maritime Union.
Curran was considered a progressive union official, outspoken and dead-set against the gangsterism and bureaucracy that some unions were noted for. A tall man with a strong voice, he was also a character who loved the glare of publicity on center stage. He knew how to handle himself with anti-union forces and always landed on his feet in debates. There were those in the Communist Party that used to say that Joe was cheating the Party of dues by not joining. After all, he was always carrying out the "Party line," at least as far as its trade union policies were concerned, they claimed.
When Mrs. Roosevelt's car pulled up to the door, Joe had already decided what his job was going to be. He consulted no one, but dashed out to meet her while a barrage of photo flashbulbs followed their every movement into the canteen. the first thing Joe said to her was, "My dear lady, when is your husband going to open up a second front in Europe?"
I could detect that many of those that put on this super opening did not find Curran and his remarks a highlight of the day, but there was nothing they could do about this at the moment.
Mrs. Roosevelt smiled and came into the building, shook hands with most of the committee and was handed a pair of scissors. She talked about the brave merchant mariners out there in the ocean laying their lives on the line, delivering the men and material to win the war.She made a few remarks about the goodness of the people who worked so hard to create the canteen for the seamen and thanked them warmly. Then she snipped the tape. The canteen was now open. Mrs. Roosevelt departed as gracefully as she arrived.
There was never a doubt where actors and actresses stood in their support of the war. Places were set up where seamen could go to pick up tickets for any stage play in the city. Blocks of tickets were set aside for seamen and members of the armed forces, all free. Aside from the cultural lift that seamen were now getting by new doors opening to them, with the canteen they also had a fascinating place to go for a dance and for other facets of life they had long been denied. Some seamen I knew took in a play every night of the week until they shipped out. The union halls always echoed with the talk of the shows one had seen the night before.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Three