The first Stage Door Canteen was opened in New York in 1942, the brainchild of Antoinette Perry (in whose memory the New York Tony awards are named) of the American Theatre Wing. The Canteen provided free relaxation and amusement for uniformed servicemen. Branches were later established in major American centres, London and, following the Liberation of Europe, Paris.
London's Stage Door Canteen in Piccadilly was run by the NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes) and passing showbiz stars 'dropped in' to perform, supported by young performers, often themselves in uniform. On one famous night in September 1944, the cast included Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Jack Buchanan, Beatrice Lillie and opera star Joan Hammond. In New York, celebrities like Marlene Dietrich served drinks or worked on the cloakroom. In London, the Canteen continued for a few years after the war and in 1946 an 11 year old Julie Andrews sang the 'Polonaise' from Mignon before the Queen (later Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother) and Princess Margaret. The Canteens were used as the background for the 1943 film Stage Door Canteen, a literally star-studded musical drama, largely financed by the Theatre Guild, with all proceeds going to various wartime fundraising concerns. Countless British and American celebrities put in an appearance - everyone from Katharine Hepburn to Gracie Fields, Count Basie to Benny Goodman.