Thursday, October 9, 2008
The voice of the valley
MONONGAHELA, Pa. – Be Be Bell has a stage name that sings.
She also has a comic style that kept audiences alive between acts at a once-popular Monongahela nightclub.
"I stripped once. ... They told me to put my clothes back on," said the 86-year-old New Eagle woman, telling the kind of one-liner that would have ended with a few drum beats and the clamber of a cymbal during live shows.
Known in real life as Be Be Bell Barantovich, she has been a fixture at countless banquets, Democratic rallies and veterans celebrations in the Mon Valley. At each event, she always sings "God Bless America" somewhere between the invocation and the first course.
She claims to have sung the lyrics to "God Bless America" more times than songstress Kate Smith, who turned it into a pop song in 1938 through her radio hour.
"If I would have kept track, I'd be in the Guinness Book of World Records," she said, while volunteering recently at the senior citizens center in Monongahela.
Barantovich was born into show business, learning how to carry a tune beside her brothers, Frank and Harvey, who were well-known entertainers in Uniontown.
The youngest of eight siblings, she became forever known as Be Be because that was how her Italian immigrant mother pronounced "baby" in English.
She left high school and turned to a career on the stage, singing with the George Silvers Orchestra, a big band from Pittsburgh. It was George Silvers who taught her the art of wooing a room as master of ceremonies.
Her career path took a different twist after World War II broke out and nearly every draft-age man went off to battle, leaving big bands without audiences. She toured along the East Coast entertaining troops with the USO in 1942 and sold "war bonds for bullets," she said.
At war's end, she sought work through the American Guild of Variety Artists, and her agent booked her at Danceland in Monongahela.
"I said, 'Where in the hell is Monongahela?'"
She was under contract for one week at the club about 25 miles south of Pittsburgh, a popular nightspot among returning veterans. It served up burlesque in between performances by dance bands, comedians and crooners.
"I ended up there for three years. The place was like New Year's Eve every night. I met my husband there."
She and her husband, Ed, "The Baron," became inseparable. She left the stage when her ball gowns no longer fit her while pregnant with the first of her two daughters, and later opened a snack bar.
Eventually, the couple took over Danceland, operating it as Club Be Be Bell, and held on to the place until television killed the supper clubs. Then they purchased Elite Grill in Monongahela, and by that time, they had befriended just about everyone in town.
Any Democratic candidate with a brain knew it was important then to win over the Barantoviches in order to win an election. They knew all the movers and shakers, said Washington County Commissioner J. Bracken Burns.
"It's very important when you are running for office," said Burns, who refers to Be Be Bell as "the Mon Valley's songbird."
"She can still belt it out at every opportunity," Burns said. "She lights up. She will sing like, right now. She'll come right through the phone at you."
The highlight of her career came in September, when she was asked to sing for Joe Montana when the Ringgold football stadium was named in honor of the Monongahela native and NFL Hall of Famer.
"It felt so good. I knew the Montana family."
She said she will leave the stage the day she forgets the words to "God Bless America."
"I'm tickled to death they still ask me to sing."