Issue: Fall 2011
American Legion Post 43: Serving a New Generation of Veterans
Hollywood history is enveloped in drama, intrigue and glamour. It is the mystique of the place and its legends that truly excite, and nowhere in Hollywood is that mystique more apparent than in the hallowed halls of American Legion Post 43. From the earliest days of Hollywood, the history of the American Legion and Hollywood has been intertwined.
The roots of the Legion in Hollywood started with the men who had gone off to fight what they believed was ‘the war to end all wars’. According to Terance Duddy, post adjutant and administrator, the returning men rallied behind the idea of establishing an organization of, for and by veterans. In 1919, Army captain Taylor Duncan returned from WW I to work as an actor and stagehand in Hollywood’s burgeoning film industry. He was one of the actors at Lasky Studios and by all accounts, was an engaging and persuasive fellow. He tirelessly campaigned for a post established in Hollywood that could serve returning doughboys who had come to Hollywood to make their mark on the silver screen.
In what would prove to be another instance of Hollywood being ahead of its time, Hollywood Post 43 received its charter several days before the national American Legion received theirs from the United States Congress.
Working under that charter, plans were quickly underway to find a permanent home for the American Legion. In a touch of providence, screen star and singer Al Jolsen helped make the building that sits regally on Highland Avenue a reality. “Jolsen, it turns out, was a big fan of boxing. He claimed he was tired of driving all the way to Vernon to watch the fights, and suggested to Taylor and a few of his veteran buddies that they should build and operate a boxing arena in Hollywood,” said Duddy. Boxing in Hollywood was an immediate success and the money poured in. Fights were regularly attended by a who’s-who of Hollywood’s A-listers – Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Ida Lupino and Clark Gable had ringside seats. The likes of Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, and Mary Pickford cheered their favorites along side blue-collar patrons. “The Marx Brothers used to have a craps game on the floor until they were booted out, “ joked Duddy.
Using money generated from the boxing matches, the American Legion purchased land near the Hollywood Bowl, and groundbreaking for the building of a permanent home began in 1928. The architects were themselves Legionnaires. Gene and Joe Weston, together with construction expert Paul Jefferson, designed and created the massive concrete bunker. Both Gene and Joe had served as Vice Commanders of the post. The building, with its ornate entrance of colored terracotta tiles, wide steps, terraces and pyramid give an indelible impression of strength and solidity. On July 4, 1929 the permanent home of American Legion Post 43 was opened at a cost of $168,000.
The building features a ballroom, a cabaret-style dining room, auditorium, four-room museum, library, conference room, dressing rooms, and a Deco bar. In 1989 the clubhouse was designated as an historic location by the City of Los Angeles. The museum holds a treasure trove of military memorabilia. It is a testament to the close relationship of Hollywood glamour and the United States military forces, with signed photographs of Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth and Shirley Temple nestled between military medals and ribbons. The four-room museum boasts donations from veterans and families of veterans, and includes a wealth of personal documents and artifacts. The building also has its share of ghosts. Maria Zambrana, who is archiving records and photographs at the post, has heard some unexplained noises. “I think he’s a nice ghost, though,” laughed Zambrana. Duddy has had conversations with one of the ghostly residents, Marshall Wyatt, who was the bar manager for 31 years. “His spirit is still here,” Duddy remarked. “The Canteen” or bar at the post was open during Prohibition. “If the walls could talk,” Duddy sighed.
Dances and live performances were a mainstay throughout the war years and beyond. The Legion was in its heyday during World War Two when the post was crowded by legion members who filled a neon-lit Art Deco bar and swelled into a nightclub-like dining area called the "Cabaret Room." Singers and top acts of the day performed from a stage above a small dance floor. Larger performances showcasing top-name artists drew crowds of more than 1,000 upstairs in the main auditorium. Hollywood stars and studio moguls regularly lent their efforts to help when war bond drives were held there.
There was also something purely Hollywood taking place during those years. From 1932 to 1964, the Legion was the “it” spot used by the motion picture industry to introduce their starlets to the world. Girls under contract to the major studios, but still unknown to Hollywood’s movers and shakers, would have an opportunity to be ‘presented’ to Hollywood’s elite. “Those were the days when the studios ran everything,” remarked Duddy, “and this was known as the ‘Post to the Stars’”. Some of the starlets introduced in the Legion ballroom include Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner, Rosalind Russell, Rita Hayworth, Piper Lorrie, Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island and Linda Evans. “Paramount Studios, Columbia, Warner Brothers would send over usually two each year of their new starlets and these were people they had under contract but who were not stars yet, and so they were being introduced to Hollywood,” said Duddy. “The girls would come to the post and they were made ‘Honorary Colonels’ of the American Legion.
Past and current membership include Charlton Heston, Mickey Rooney, Aldo Ray, Ernest Borgnine, Morgan Woodward, Clark Gable, Red Buttons, Gene Autry, Adolph Menjou, Hugh O’Brien, Rudy Vallee, and Ronald Reagan. “Sure, there’s been a lot of glamour and star power here, “ Duddy acknowledges. But he also wants people to understand the importance of the American Legion in the lives of veterans. “We are a family. Being shot at or in a war zone, or combat situation changes a person. There is no other way to explain it.” Duddy says the Legion offers a place and a group of people who can instantly understand and relate to one another. “We have an incredibly diverse membership here. Every war and conflict is represented,” stated Duddy. He believes that given the complexity of conflicts in which the United States is currently involved makes the American Legion more relevant than most realize. “Soldiers need to be nurtured by families of soldiers,” Duddy adds.
Ted Ott, first Vice Commander of Post 43, recalls his own experiences after his time in the Navy from 1967-1970. For Ott, it was theatre that brought him to the American Legion. “I was at a bar and I see this lanky guy kind of sizing me up. I am pretty wary around this time and when he came up to me and asked if I was a vet, I think I was ready for just about anything. Instead, though, he says we’ve got this little theatre group and we’d like you to come and check it out.” It was a theatre group run by The American Legion. “That was 33 years ago,” said Ott, “It was a lifeline.”
Theatre was a long-time staple of Post 43, and there are hopes of more productions in the future. In 1984,the post was the venue of “Tamara”, a groundbreaking interactive theatre experience that ran for nine years. Legionnaires realized the building held untapped potential for other, shorter-term shows and events. Legion leaders turned their Egyptian-Moroccan Deco showpiece into a backdrop for movies and commercials and a venue for musical artists and entertainment events. The Hollywood Legion continues to nurture talented veterans, and several of the newer Legionnaires work in the theatre and film industry.
Ott considers himself to be a ‘roving ambassador’ for the Hollywood American Legion. “It’s a great place for young vets who have families. When I meet young vets I say ‘Come in once on a Thursday night’ once they come in, they see what we’re all about.”
Members of Post 43 put in more than 5,000 hours of volunteer time last year. They work in the V.A. hospitals, with the Red Cross, YMCA, and the Boys & Girls Clubs. “At the Legion veterans don’t have to explain themselves to anyone. We all understand. We get it,” said Ott. “We make a home for the people coming home.”