A biography of the facinating entertainer Benny Bell, the songwrtier responsible for "Shaving Cream," "Everybody Wants My Fanny" and dozens of other novelty hits.
Benny Bell Book
Benny Bell was one of the funniest, quirkiest and hardest working entertainers ever to come out of the vaudeville and Borscht Belt eras—although national fame, often regarded as the true measure of success, eluded him. A genuine entrepreneur, Ben wrote, arranged, sung, recorded, packaged and promoted most of his music himself—over a hundred records, including such novelty and double-entendre song classics as “Shaving Cream,” “Everybody Wants My Fanny” “Pincus the Peddler” and “Take a Ship for Yourself.” To be a Ben Samberg meant to be spirited, witty confident and sometimes a little crazy—as well as obstinate, paranoid, suspicious and sometimes a little hasty. That is partially why his 70-year career saw more than its share of professional frustrations and misfortunes. Still, he persevered and made his mark in novelty music. His greatest popularity was in the 1940s and early 50s, though in the mid-1970s “Shaving Cream” was re-released and became a Top 40 hit. His grandson, journalist Joel Samberg, has written a book that is part biography and part memoir that serves as a fascinating exploration not just of what it meant to be a Benny Bell, but also what it meant to be a loving, admiring grandson who was both amazed and confounded by him at the same time.
A Bell Grows in Westbury
I was awakened by my parents only twice when I was a kid after already having gone to sleep.
Once it was when Neil Armstrong jumped off the ladder of the Lunar Module to become the first man on the moon. My mother and father knew that I loved everything about outer space and would never forgive them if I missed that historic broadcast from a quarter of a million miles away.
So they woke me.
The other time was when my grandfather appeared on “The Joe Franklin Show” on New York’s WOR-TV to demonstrate his latest invention: a pair of hot pants that steamed up whenever a pretty girl passed by. Mom and dad knew how much I enjoyed Poppy Benny (as my sister and I always called him) and that I would never forgive them if I missed his live performance on Franklin’s popular late-night program.
So they woke me.
Sure, I’d be tired in school the next day, but I didn’t care. Come on—my grandfather was on television! Which of my friends could say the same of their own grandfathers? Theirs ran rigging companies or owned candy stores or sold suits. Mine wrote songs like “Everybody Wants My Fanny,” “Home Again (Without Pants),” “A Goose for my Girl,” “Go to Work, You Jerk,” “Two Times Tonight,” and “Shaving Cream,” which twice in his lifetime and once in mine had been popular on the radio. Perhaps not everyone knew the name of the man who was responsible for the song, but a lot of people recognized his words:
Our baby fell out of the window
We figured her head would be split
But good luck was with her that morning
She fell in a bucket of…
Be nice and clean
Shave every day and you’ll always look keen…
This was no ordinary grandfather. Ordinary grandfathers sat around grumbling about Social Security. Mine wrote books like “What Men Know about Women,” which was comprised entirely of blank pages. Ordinary grandfathers fixed loose doorknobs. Mine drew up plans for eyeglasses with windshield wipers and happy greeting cards to give to people whose bosses have died.
Other grandfathers, if they weren’t already retired, worked for companies, toiled in shops or factories, or were partners with other men in one business or another. Mine was an entrepreneur who wrote, recorded, packaged, promoted and distributed his own records—at last count 114 of them—and sometimes even appeared on stage or on television to sing them. Mine was the only one of all my friends’ grandfathers with a stage name—Benny Bell. Mine never retired. Instead, he worked incredibly hard for more than 70 years trying to entertain as many people as possible.
Mine was the only grandfather who routinely made silly wordplay out of the names of all the kids on the block—“Kevin, Kevin, walla walla wevin, walla walla dinkle dinkle devin”—and offered strange and funny bits of advice, like “Be well, if you have the time,” or “Don’t work too hard, if you can afford it.”
Mine was the only one whose job was to make people laugh, and when I was a kid I believed that Poppy Benny was doing his job flawlessly, note by note and joke by joke. How did I know? Because I laughed all the time when he was around, and so did my friends (like Kevin Kevin walla walla wevin). Poppy Benny made laughter happen, regardless of the Cold War and the energy crisis or Vietnam and Watergate.
All grandfathers started out as children, though some were forced into adulthood early in their lives. Mine was born a child and stayed that way for the rest of his life. Which to my way of thinking meant that Poppy Benny was what a grandfather is supposed to be: just another kid, although with a lifetime of interesting experiences to share.
At parties, my grandfather sang his silly songs into a big silver megaphone while strumming an old, beat-up ukulele to which the megaphone was attached (another one of his ‘inventions’), and to me it was a far more natural thing for a grandfather to do than sitting in a chair reading the sports pages.
Mine taught me how to play that ukulele. I sang his songs whenever the situation presented itself and repeated Benny Bell-isms to my friends and classmates whenever I could find a good opening. I figured if I could stay a kid forever, like him, why shouldn’t I? If I could find my own true path and travel upon it as fittingly as he did his, I’d be ahead of the game.
There were always a lot of pictures of me in my parents’ house in Westbury, Long Island, and also in their photo albums, but the single shot that always meant the most to me is the one in which I’m strumming an old ukulele and singing into a big silver megaphone.
Which is why the message my parents drummed into my head throughout my entire childhood was very disturbing and confusing:
“Heaven help you if ever turn out to be anything like your grandfather.”