Happy springtime, dear readers, and welcome back to the Blog of Funny Names! The glammed-up starlet in the 1930s Jean Harlowesque pose above is none other than Benay Venuta, our funny focus for the day. Thankfully, she was not “bland” like the recipient of this hairfingering headshot. Au contraire!
Born in San Francisco on January 27, 1911, little Benvenuta Rose Crooke grew up in California. We can assume her Swiss-Italian mother gave her the name Benvenuta, as benvenuto means “welcome” in Italian. Personally, it’s not so odd, as my great-grandfather was named Bienvenido (“welcome” in Spanish). Evidently, babies are welcome entities.
Venuta graduated from Hollywood High School and attended finishing school in Geneva. There she studied long enough to learn both French and Italian but subsequently dropped out (thereby not finishing Finishing School) and moved to London to work as a dancer. She returned to the States in 1928, continuing to pursue show business, and made her stage debut in The Big Parade.
“My father was dead, and I had to go to work,” she said in a 1935 interview. “You know the rest — nightclubs, radio, hoofing…”
Venuta explained how she changed her first name to enter show business (who can blame her for not wanting to go through life as Miss Crooke?) She “just added an ‘ay’ to Ben and the rest I guess you can figure.”
Benvenuta became Benay Venuta.
Her big break happened when she replaced the Big Vibrato, Ethel Merman, in Cole Porter’s hit Anything Goes in 1935. She not only gained great success, but a lifelong friend in Merman. Venuta followed up with equally flashy roles in more Broadway musicals through the next three decades, as well as roles in several B movies of the 40s and 50s, including Call Me Mister (1951) in which she joined stars Betty Grable and Danny Thomas in the song “Love Is Back in Business.”
In 1958, Venuta was cast as private eye Bertha Cool in a television pilot for a series to be called Cool and Lam, but it was not picked up. In 1966, she performed in the revival of Annie Get Your Gun with pal Merman at Lincoln Center. In the 80s, she played Jean Smart’s mother-in-law Ellen Stillfield in the sitcom Designing Women.
Married and divorced three times, Venuta’s othere creative outlets included painting and sculptures. During the 1970’s, her Plexiglas sculptures were sold at Bonwit Teller in Manhattan for $150 to $1,500.
Suffering from lung cancer, Venuta died at her home in Manhattan on September 1, 1995, at age 84. She will be remembered for her larger than life performances.