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About Face : Once a Magnet for GIs, USO Maps New Strategy for Success

March 20, 1988|RON RUSSELL | Times Staff Writer

Within minutes after arriving in Hollywood on a recent Friday nightC. Hanson and his four buddies from Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base were holding forth in the lobby of a Holiday Inn, laying plans for a long-awaited night on the town.

Time was when those plans might have included a trip to the Bob Hope USO. But no more.

"USO, what's that?," asked Hanson, 19, a North Dakotan fresh out of boot camp.

It is the kind of remark that officials of the Los Angeles Area United Service Organizations say they are used to hearing.

Once a Magnet

And, they insist, it accounts for the fact that while hundreds of soldiers drift past the bars and cinemas of Hollywood on weekends, the USO Club that was a magnet to earlier generations of military personnel is dark and empty.

"To put it simply, the military isn't coming," said Joan Jones, the USO Club's executive director. "Military preferences have changed, which has meant that the kinds of services the USO provides have had to change."

The decision last November to close the club on nights and weekends was among several operational changes that USO officials say have been necessary to revive the club's sagging fortunes.

Others aren't convinced. "It appears to a lot of us that they've just abandoned the playing field, that they've decided to strangle (the club) slowly, and move on to other activities," said Gary Northcutt, one of about two dozen USO volunteers who were told last year that their services were no longer needed.

He and others, including several former staff members, have been sharply critical of the club's strategy in recent months, including the elimination of such traditional activities as chaperoned dances and Bingo in favor of other priorities.

Some of those priorities include assistance with higher education, housing referrals and referrals for family services, including marital counseling and financial assistance, officials say.

In the past year, the USO has beefed up its hospitality lounge in the American Airlines Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport, and plans to open outreach centers soon near military installations in Long Beach and Barstow.

Officials say the new approach is necessary for several reasons, not the least of which is that personnel from the 21 military installations the club serves are no longer willing to travel long distances to play Bingo and dance with volunteer hostesses.

"There's a feeling out there (among the military) that only nerds go to the USO," said one USO board member. "We're trying to change that."

However, such changes have raised doubts about the club's future in Hollywood.

Sale Considered

Timothy Viole, president of the Los Angeles Area USO, said last week that the organization's board of directors is "seriously considering" selling or leasing the building at 1641 N. Ivar Ave. that the USO purchased in 1973 after 32 years at other locations in Hollywood.

"We're seriously considering several possible options, including selling the building, or leasing it, or leasing part of it and retaining a part for ourselves," he said. "Right now, we're in the process of determining what our needs are."

Citing complaints from USO board members, volunteers and community members about the low number of people being served at the facility, the United Way of Los Angeles, which contributes almost half of the USO's budget--about $650,000 this year--cut its contribution for fiscal 1987 by 25%.

Club officials acknowledge that even some special events designed to pump up attendance have flopped.

For example, when the club staged a $35-a-plate comedy fund-raiser last June, officials were forced to let people in free at the last minute after only about a dozen paying customers showed up, according to several who attended. In October, the club promoted an old-fashioned hayride for military personnel and their families down Hollywood Boulevard, but the event was canceled after no one other than staff members came.

Christmas brought another disappointment. Despite the presence of the Los Angeles Lakers cheerleaders, 15 turkeys waiting to be served in the dining room and an offer of free long-distance phone calls home, only about 100 military personnel came, less than half the turnout of the previous year.

Bus Service Suspended

Last month, a bus line that for 14 years has transported Marines to Hollywood from Twenty Nine Palms Marine Corps Base on weekends, depositing passengers in front of the USO, suspended the service after failing to attract any Hollywood-bound passengers for several weeks in a row.

"There used to be two buses full every weekend," said Ardella Cook, who owns the Desert Stage Line. "But if there's no demand, we can't provide the service."

Some of the USO's more vociferous critics, upset at the prospect of the club's disappearing from Hollywood, have blamed the club's management for the declining clientele.

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