Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Dance Floor Democracy: The Social Geography of Memory at the Hollywood Canteen

Author:  Sherrie Tucker
Genre:  Non-Fiction/History

Four Stars

Open from 1942 until 1945, the Hollywood Canteen was the most famous of the patriotic home front nightclubs where civilian hostesses jitterbugged with enlisted men of the Allied Nations. Since the opening night, when the crowds were so thick that Bette Davis had to enter through the bathroom window to give her welcome speech, the storied dance floor where movie stars danced with soldiers has been the subject of much U.S. nostalgia about the "Greatest Generation." Drawing from oral histories with civilian volunteers and military guests who danced at the wartime nightclub, Sherrie Tucker explores how jitterbugging swing culture has come to represent the war in U.S. national memory. Yet her interviewees' varied experiences and recollections belie the possibility of any singular historical narrative. Some recall racism, sexism, and inequality on the nightclub's dance floor and in Los Angeles neighborhoods, dynamics at odds with the U.S. democratic, egalitarian ideals associated with the Hollywood Canteen and the "Good War" in popular culture narratives. For Tucker, swing dancing's torque—bodies sharing weight, velocity, and turning power without guaranteed outcomes—is an apt metaphor for the jostling narratives, different perspectives, unsteady memories, and quotidian acts that comprise social history.

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As an avid reader of all things history, especially American history, I was excited to read this book.  However, it was not as I expected it to be.  Let us not say I was disappointed, per se, but rather a slight tad disillusioned.  What I thought was going to be a history and description of the Hollywood Canteen (how it started, stories of the servicemen who visited, etc.), turned out to be something entirely different.
 
What it is is how there was a division between the African-Americans and whites at the canteen.  Please don't get me wrong: there is quite a few stories of the workers at the canteen, and several of the guests.  But there are questions asked of the workers:  Did you see a lot of colored soldiers?  Were there colored hostesses?  and other questions of the like.  The author touches upon the fact of Mexican-Americans and Asians, but basically sticks to the subject of why there was a division, why white workers were instructed to not dance with "coloreds" who might 'inadvertently' show up, why there was a lack of 'colored' hostesses/performers, when the answer is very simple:  It was the 1940's, and we, as a people, did not have the interaction that we do today.  Today, I am glad to say, clubs are open to all races.  But this era of American history cannot be changed; the best we can hope for is that it is understood.  It is worth noting that many members of Hollywood refused to accept racial discrimination in any form (Clark Gable and Mervyn LeRoy among them), but, unfortunately, they were in the minority.
 
I enjoyed the section on "jitterbugging," having learned quite a bit about that beforehand.  Let us say that it is not a dance for the timid, nor for the frail of body.  My own opinion is that the soldiers enjoyed dancing this way because it helped get rid of a lot of their emotions as to what they were facing in the future - going overseas and not knowing what was going to happen.  Expending a lot of energy ahead of time might have calmed them down somewhat and made them less anxious. 
 
Ms. Tucker touches upon the Communism scare which struck Hollywood - and came to fruition with the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s - the Zoot Suit riots (which is another story in itself), how female military personnel were treated differently; there was no Hollywood Canteen for them, although they were given time of their own as an afterthought.
 
While I cannot say that this book would be interesting to everyone - it is far too technical for that - it will be interesting to students of race relations, history, Hollywood during the war. etc.  It is more a specialized read, not one that is for the general public.  Still, I enjoyed the book and was impressed with the work that went into writing it.
 
I was given a copy of this book in return for an honest review, but it in no way influenced my decision.
 
 

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