The USO Finds Its Future In The LAX Theme Building

The Theme Building at LAX (Photo by Libby Denkmann)

If the USO evokes a nostalgic vision of Hollywood starlets and famous crooners entertaining overseas troops, the existing Bob Hope USO center at Los Angeles International Airport might be a disappointment.

But that's about to change (though there will probably still be no showgirls).

The center is moving from a nondescript single-story building on the arrivals level between Terminals 1 and 2 to the base of the iconic Theme Building.

That's the 1960s-era, spaceship-looking, straight-outta-Jetsons architectural delight that hovers in the center of the airport.

The current USO structure, which opened in early 2000, is actually made of four temporary trailers. "At one point they poured some concrete under them, called it a foundation, and it became permanent," said Bob Kurkjian, president of the Southern California-based Bob Hope USO.

The building is bursting. It was designed to provide food and comfort for 12,000 active duty military members and their families traveling through Los Angeles every year. In 2017, it welcomed over 100,000. Also noteworthy, the Automated People Mover is on track to roll right through the space it presently occupies.

Enter the USO's "Space Age" upgrade! Come inside.

(Photo by Libby Denkmann)

Kurkjian took me on a hard-hat tour of the new center under construction. It has tons of natural light and a sleek design by architecture firm Gensler, which preserved elements of the original Googie flare. "I want this to be a first-in-its-class, next generation facility," Kurkjian said.

The new USO digs are much bigger — 7,000 square feet, almost double the current size:

(Photo by Libby Denkmann)

It has private family rooms, specialized booths for video chatting with faraway loved ones and a spacious new dining area/lounge:

(Photo by Libby Denkmann)

There are stations for video games:

(Photo by Libby Denkmann)

There's an outdoor patio space:

(Photo by Libby Denkmann)

And a movie theater:

(Photo by Libby Denkmann)

And, shhh, a sound-proof nap room with noise canceling technology:

(Photo by Libby Denkmann)

As for the kitchen, the volunteer staff will be able to make a lot more of their special chili dogs in the decked-out industrial space, which has "a lot more storage capacity, a lot more refrigeration," Kurkjian said. Most importantly, "we will have a dishwasher, which our volunteers are absolutely thrilled about."

(Photo by Libby Denkmann)

The new center is slated to open later next month. If you can't wait until then to see how the construction turns out, watch the live cam.

(Photo by Libby Denkmann)

How big of an update is this, exactly?

Well, here's what the current building looks like:

(Photo by Libby Denkmann)

(Photo by Libby Denkmann)

(Photo by Libby Denkmann)

(Photo by Libby Denkmann)

A LITTLE BIT MORE ABOUT THE BOB HOPE USO

Bob Hope USO is a non-profit that serves 8 counties in Southern and Central California. The organization maintains six centers: four at airports including LAX and John Wayne Airport in Orange County, one at the Los Angeles Military Entrance Processing Station, and one on March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County. It also runs events and provides services at two dozen military installations across SoCal.

250 volunteers and a handful of full-time staff keep the center at LAX running 24/7, ready to assist active duty military and their families, plus a limited number of retired servicemembers, every day of the year. Over 750 volunteers give back across the entire Bob Hope USO, helping around 200,000 people every year.

Named after the legendary comedian who entertained troops around the globe, Bob Hope USO is one of the largest USOs in the country.

The USO doesn't get federal dollars. Funding for renovating the space and building the new center came from individual donations, foundations, corporate sponsors, and Los Angeles World Airports, which gave the USO a 20-year lease for the ground-level Theme Building space. The project broke ground in December. Kurkjian estimates a soft opening for the new facility will happen in late July, and a grand opening in September.

The airport is still looking for tenants for the rest of the Theme Building, including the restaurant level.

WHAT IT MEANS TO INDIVIDUALS AND FAMILIES

Entering the military means getting relocated multiple times over the course of a career, and traveling countless times for training exercises. Many young people on their way to basic training or their first duty station have little experience in airports.

"They've been trained to operate 19 different weapons systems and to do celestial navigation, but there is no class for how to navigate an airport," Kurkjian said. "It may seem simplistic, but it isn't."

Because the Pentagon is always looking for cost-savings, "you will get perhaps a seven, eight, nine-hour layover," Kurkjian said. "Men and women could be traveling for 20 or 30 hours, They just want someplace to relax that's not the terminal."

Amenities for families with children are particularly important.

"We get a lot of families doing a Permanent Change of Station, or 'PCSing,'" Kurkjian said. "Some of them are traveling without mom or dad because mom or dad are deployed."

At the front desk of the current LAX USO, Barbara Barnett checks in troops lugging duffel bags and backpacks. The reception area sports memorabilia from comedian Bob Hope's decades of USO tours entertaining deployed servicemembers around the globe. Barnett has volunteered here since 2011, and she has a more somber mission.

Barnett leads the Families of the Fallen team at LAX — a specially trained group that helps families who are escorting or meeting fallen members of the military at the airport.

"I find it a huge privilege and an honor," she said. "I leave my ego at home, that's number one. We watch and we listen, and we're absolutely there to support them."

USO volunteers keep an eye out for guests who need extra care. Kurkjian remembered one young sailor who came through the center recently — "a volunteer immediately realized something was wrong," he said.

The sailor was trying to get home to his mother on emergency leave, after getting word she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He had just come off a submarine on a duty tour in the Pacific, but there were flight delays to contend with, and the young man was worried he wouldn't make it in time.

"Our volunteers jumped into action and booked him on another flight," Kurkjian said. "We got an incredible note from his dad saying if USO hadn't done that, he wouldn't have gotten home to see his mom before she passed."

Volunteer Trudy McQuillan is looking forward to the USO relocating to its new home in the Theme Building. She hopes the improved kitchen could mean some upgrades to their culinary offerings. Right now they mostly offer comfort foods like PB&Js, breakfast sandwiches, and frozen pizzas.

"The facility will be bigger and nicer and better and more modern, so the things we provide might be a little bit different," McQuillan said. "But the mainstays, I'm sure, will be the same. There will always be our very famous chili dogs!"

McQuillan worked at Boeing in the 1970s, when the restaurant at the top of the Theme Building was a destination for power lunches.

"[Airport] security was very different. You could go in and bring your friends who were flying to eat and go with them to the gate," she remembered. McQuillan called moving into the landmark building, "thrilling."

Emily Schott, wife of the Vice Wing Commander at Edwards Air Force Base, Col. Jason Schott, shared a cupcake with her daughter Erica and reminisced about what the USO provides for military families trekking across the globe.

"It's a good place to come with your kids and rest, because it's hectic out there. It means a lot," she said. "We've been in 25 years, so we've traveled quite a bit. You get such early flights, you just come and rest."

Texas-based Reservist Jesse Bryson was on his way to Oxnard from LAX when he stopped by the USO for a bite to eat. He was due at Naval Base Ventura County Port Hueneme later that day for annual training. It happened to be Bryson's 20th birthday.

"Traveling kinda sucks, honestly. It's not fun. You sit on an airplane or a terminal for hours," he said. "The USO is just a nice place to be. It's a safe haven in the airport madness."

And the volunteers? "They are wonderful people. They treat you like family," Bryson said.