1944: I Danced With Maureen O’Hara At the Hollywood Canteen

Recent news of the passing of the beautiful star brought back fond memories of her films with John Wayne and other great performances. It also conjures up a personal recollection from more than 70 years ago when I spent a few brief moments with Maureen O’Hara. While at the Navy base in San Diego awaiting sea duty orders, this 19-year-old sailor and a group of shipmates hopped a bus to Los Angeles.

We headed to the Hollywood Canteen, then a famous free gathering place for servicemen and women. It was popular throughout World War II, because on any visit one could meet famous volunteers. They were there daily to chat, sing, dance and serve refreshments to the uniformed visitors. 

On any day, a homesick sailor or GI could come face to face with Joan Crawford, Jack Benny, Bette Davis, Danny Kaye, Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr, Marlene Dietrich and many more of movie history’s most glamorous stars. We lucky swabbies were there on a memorable night when one of the volunteers was Maureen O’Hara.

As we sat at a table blinking at all the sights and music, a beautiful young woman approached with a tray of doughnuts. Of course, we instantly recognized the fantastic red hair, brilliant green eyes and flashing smile of Maureen O’Hara. When she asked if we wanted anything, we all froze. Along with the overwhelming presence, that musical Irish lilt in her voice was hypnotic.

What happened next is still fresh on my mind, even after seven decades. Bending close to me, she asked if I wanted to “take a wee whirl around yon dance floor”. I couldn’t move, so several other sailors recovered from their trance, laughed and pushed me out of my chair.

I still clearly remember we glided to “I’ll Be Seeing You”, a popular song of the time, recorded by Frank Sinatra and other crooners. On the dance floor, Maureen and I were close for five minutes. To me it seemed like just a few seconds, then she kissed my cheek and disappeared into the crowd. 

I never saw her again, except, of course, in her great movies. As with every other fan, I was impressed by the variety of her most popular roles. She excelled as a feisty Irish girl in “The Quiet One”, and a young American widow in “Miracle On 34th Street”.

She certainly deserved to win many times, but Maureen O’Hara never received an Academy Award. In this fan’s opinion, the perforance in her final film in 1991, “Only The Lonely”, was certainly worthy of an Oscar. She brilliantly portrayed the feisty Irish, naturally, mother of John Candy’s character, a Chicago cop.

As with her multitude of fans, I mourn the passing of Maureen O’Hara. This ex-sailor will always fondly remember the beautiful movie star who asked him to dance. Or was it all just a wonderful dream?

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