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Slow Dancing These Days at Hollywood USO

December 25, 1987|IRIS SCHNEIDER | Times Staff Writer

At the Bob Hope USO building just off Hollywood Boulevard, a lot of the warmth is going to waste.

Consider this year's Christmas party. The Los Angeles Laker cheerleaders were practicing in the wings, the Christmas tree was all aglow and 15 turkeys were being carved in the dining room. The staff was ready and smiling.

But instead of having a line spilling out the door as in past years, the place was half empty.

Two busloads arrived from Camp Pendleton with about 100 Marines. Two more buses were due from Barstow, but only one arrived and it was hardly full.

Attractions at Home

The female mud-wrestling near Barstow that evening definitely discouraged some from making the four-hour trip, said one Marine.

"You feel appreciated here," said Tony Cravello, 20, a Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton who had driven to the party. Yet, out of a company of 300, only Cravello and three companions had made the drive up.

By the end of the day, half of the turkey was uneaten and only a smattering of military men and women had signed up to take advantage of the free phone calls home. "Last year," said long-time volunteer Anne Polim, "the place was seated twice for dinner--they were waiting on line."

Hard times for the well-known Hollywood USO reflect, among other things, the changing nature of the military.

With fewer bases nearby and changing tastes, the hours at the Hollywood USO have been sharply curtailed. Most weekend nights, it's not open, and the fate of the branch is in doubt. Instead of dances and socializing, this and other local chapters of the United Service Organizations are branching out into day care, housing referrals and other social services.

"Let's face it, times have changed," said Joan Jones, executive director of the Bob Hope USO. "We have a volunteer military and their needs are different. Sixty-eight percent of the military is married with dependents now."

Recently, the board decided that the evolution may mean the eventual closing of the Hollywood branch as the USO sets up two "outreach" offices in Long Beach and Barstow near sizable military installations.

The Bob Hope USO, with a budget of more than $600,000, operates separately from the World USO organization that sends comedian Hope to the Persian Gulf and arranges other overseas projects. Although it is chartered by the World USO, it draws no financial support from that organization.

In the 1940s, the Hollywood USO held a special meaning. It was the Hollywood Canteen back then, and movie stars by the dozens signed up for overseas tours and came down to be there for the boys, serving coffee and doughnuts or allowing them the once-in-a-lifetime chance to dance with a real pin-up girl.

Bob Who?

Much to her surprise, Jones recently found out how different things are today. "I visited several bases to talk with the military men and women and find out their needs," she recalled. "I said I was with the USO. I got nothing. No response. They didn't know who Bob Hope was. You just want to die."

Hoping to fill the needs of the servicemen and women, the group is increasing its hours and services at the Jimmy Doolittle branch in the American Airlines terminal at Los Angeles International Airport. At times, Jones said, as many as 700 people, waiting for overseas flights, have come in on a single day.

The changing agenda in USO services has come about in part at the prodding of the group's major source of funds, the United Way.

"We had received numerous complaints regarding the USO from board members, volunteers and community people questioning the low clientele coming to the facility and the lack of programs," said Sirel Forster, vice president of the United Way's Los Angeles branch, which contributes almost half of USO's budget.

In a city with so many "life-and-death" problems, United Way executives said, the USO no longer seemed to be providing essential services. United Way cut its contribution by one-fourth. "We asked that they look at what was the greatest need for the military today," Forster said.

Reaching Out

USO officials, in consultation with military officers, decided that instead of having the military come to them, they needed to reach out to the young men and women at their bases. Although full of nostalgia, a USO in the heart of Hollywood was simply no longer accessible to military personnel.

"It's obvious that the idea of a drop-in club is passe--over--it's history," said Ben Dolin, a USO board member. " . . . It used to be that our services were mixed--50% here and 50% at the bases. Now it's 99% of the time that we go to them and take our hostesses with us."

If the strategy works out, the USO will have much more than hostesses to attract the military. Through a survey done with the cooperation of all the military branches, Jones has attempted to find out just what servicemen and women want the USO to provide.

Some of the priorities that emerged include assistance with higher education, housing referrals, referrals for family services, including marital, parenting or financial assistance, and even low-cost vacations.

"Rather than just serving the single person, we are looking for family involvement," said Capt. Walter Heinecke, chief commanding officer of the Long Beach Naval Base, who is helping to set up a satellite USO office there. "We have 15,000 servicemen living here. One of the key challenges we face is single parents. That's why I have three child-development centers on the base here.

"Working spouses are another challenge new in the last 10 years," he added. "We already have clubs, a marina, a golf course, movies, tickets. The military is more supportive of the quality of life of its people than it ever was. What we need is a branch to complement what we're trying to do here."

Although the changes may breathe new life into the USO, there are some who are sorry to see the old era pass.

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