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Los Angeles | L.A. THEN AND NOW

'Mom' Kept Home Fires Burning for Millions of Servicemen

November 04, 2001|CECILIA RASMUSSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As stars take the stage to raise money for victims of terrorism, they're following an example set decades ago, during another war, when a Hollywood housewife opened her heart and even her home to U.S. servicemen.

Her name was Anne Lehr, but to more than 2 million GIs during World War II, she was just "Mom." She was also the spiritual godmother of Hollywood fund-raising in wartime, and the inspiration for the USO.

In 1942, soldiers and sailors who wanted a taste of Hollywood hitchhiked to Hollywood Boulevard, gawked at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, and grabbed a soda at Schwab's drugstore.

At the start of the war, servicemen outnumbered civilians in Los Angeles. Park benches, church pews and hotel or theater lobbies often provided their only place to sleep.

Lehr changed that. She founded the Hollywood Guild and Canteen, where servicemen could find a clean bed, a free meal and live entertainment.

Her establishment inspired the more famous and similarly named Hollywood Canteen, which served as a model for the USO clubs, chartered by Congress to boost the morale of American troops. That became almost as important to the war effort as victory bonds.

And through donations from film celebrities and the public, the Hollywood Canteen's contributions enabled Lehr to feed more than 2 million soldiers at her home and to become a surrogate mother to the nation's fighting men.

Lehr, a transplanted New Yorker, was the wife of Abraham Lehr, vice president and general manager of United Artists and later Sam Goldwyn Studios. During the Depression, with both her children grown, she found herself with time on her hands. She founded the Hollywood Guild, which was dedicated to caring for disabled and down-and-out actors and studio hands.

Her mission began when she learned that a new Paramount employee had traded his Midwestern home, sight unseen, for an orange grove that had no house. He had to pitch a tent so he and his eight children had a place to live.

Drawing on her husband's connections, she asked studio carpenters and electricians to volunteer their time to build the newcomers a home. They did--and finished it in a day. The studio caterer even contributed dinner and beer.

Encouraged by that success, she raised more funds and reached out to help provide shelter and clothes for struggling actors.

Soon she enlarged her home near Santa Monica and Crescent Heights boulevards into a free hostelry. The Craftsman-style house had once been the abode of silent screen actor Dustin Farnum, who starred in Hollywood's first feature-length film, "The Squaw Man."

But at the start of World War II, Lehr saw an even greater need. She shifted her focus to men in uniform.

More than a dozen carpentry-savvy Navy Seabees with the 93rd Battalion built hundreds of bunk beds, enlarged Lehr's house and erected other structures on the property to accommodate up to 1,000 military guests.

On May, 15, 1942, Lehr opened the Hollywood Guild and Canteen--to an empty house. She had forgotten to advertise. But she wasn't about to let all those good intentions go to waste. She and her crew of volunteers cruised Hollywood Boulevard, pulling servicemen into their cars. Some were skeptical: "What's the catch, lady?" they'd ask.

Word spread of "Mom's" clean sheets, free meals and weekend entertainment by Hollywood stars. Lehr and 1,000 volunteers cooked, cleaned, played cards, wrote letters to soldiers' families and listened to endless war tales. The only chore Lehr eschewed was laundry. She installed ironing boards and washtubs in the basement so the men could do it themselves.

The Hollywood Guild and Canteen was governed by a board of stars, including Mary Pickford, Janet Gaynor and Myrna Loy. But it was Lehr who got a good-night kiss each night from her "boys," who drank $100 worth of milk a day and consumed 1,400 eggs each morning.

To feed them, she held lavish fund-raisers at the Trocadero supper club and at Pickfair, the former estate of Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. She also staged a star-studded aquacade gala at her home featuring motion picture stars and champion swimmers Johnny Weissmuller and Esther Williams.

Film studios gave the most money to Lehr's guild, but night-clubbers at Hollywood's Florentine Gardens and Earl Carroll's Vanities passed the hat, collecting more than $1,000 a week.

On Oct. 3, 1942, five months after Lehr's canteen opened, Bette Davis and John Garfield converted a barn near Sunset and Cahuenga boulevards into the Hollywood Canteen. It functioned more like a nightclub and featured famous entertainers every night, not just on weekends.

Eddie Cantor presided over the opening ceremonies, which were broadcast on nationwide radio. Rudy Vallee, Kay Kyser, Duke Ellington and the Santa Ana Air Base bands serenaded the troops, while Bud Abbott and Lou Costello brought the comedy. It was free to anyone in a military uniform, but stars had to pay $50 for a front-row seat.

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