How the “Grunch” Stole Christmas

My Rouses Everyday, November/December 2017

Benny Grunch and the Bunch at Rouses Markets

December 14th | 5-7:00p | 4500 Tchoupitoulas St., New Orleans, LA

 December 16th | Noon-2:00p | 91 Westbank Expy., Suite 600, Gretna, LA

December 23rd | Noon-2:00p | 2900 Veterans Blvd., Metairie, LA

During the holidays in South Louisiana, snow is unlikely (to say the least), and even wintry weather isn’t guaranteed, but there are still some dependable, festive traditions that always let you know what time of year it is.

There’s the Celebration in the Oaks light display at City Park, for one. There’s the grand opening at the track on Thanksgiving Day, when locals work up their turkey appetites by showing off their holiday finery. From Christmas to New Year’s, restaurants host Reveillon dinners, reviving an elegant and magical 19th-century dining tradition. And, of course, there’s Benny Grunch.

A local institution since at least 1990, when he released his four-song cassette featuring the signature parody “The 12 Yats of Christmas,” Benny Grunch works year-round: the Benny Grunch & the Bunch band has played Jazz Fest and the French Quarter Festival, and takes plenty of gigs outside the holiday season. Carnival time is a busy one, due to their other big seasonal comedy hit, “Ain’t No Place to Pee on Mardi Gras Day.” But Christmastime — which, on the band’s calendar, starts around late September — is the true Grunch season, when audiences clamor for Benny’s extensive songbook of holiday-themed joke songs with a New Orleans twist, including “O Little Town of Destrehan,” “Santa and his Reindeer Used to Live Right Here,” and of course, the “12 Yats,” the one that started it all.

In the early ’60s, the comedian Allan Sherman, probably best known for his hit novelty song “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,” had put out a parody of the classic carol “The 12 Days of Christmas,” which did well on Billboard’s special Christmas chart. As Grunch recalls, it was the wife of one of his bandmates who remembered the Sherman tune and suggested they do their own New Orleans-flavored version.

“The original ‘12 Days of Christmas’ is in the public domain — it’s probably from the Middle Ages or something like that,” Grunch explained. There was no need to pay to license the melody; all he had to do was come up with his own countdown.

“And I just started thinking backwards,” he said. “Twelve dozen Manuel’s tamales. Eleven — I couldn’t think of anything to go with eleven. Seven — 17th Street Canal. Six — six-pack of Dixie. Five fried onion rings. Three, instead of French hens, French breads. Two — Tujague’s restaurant.” Slowly, he filled in the rest: eleven Schwegmann’s bags. The Lower Ninth Ward. Eight became “ate by ya mama’s,” in familiar dialect. But the last one was the toughest.

“’And a crawfish they caught in …’ he said, letting the missing rhyme dangle. “I thought of Metairie, but no, way too cosmopolitan. Paradis — no, way too small.” Then, in its way, fate intervened. On his way to a gig at the Riverwalk, he got stuck in traffic behind an Arabi Cab.

“And I thought, I’m so stupid, it’s right there. Literally,” he said. The band recorded at Ultrasonic Studios on Washington Avenue in October 1990, and had the song — complete with a crawfish they caught in Arabi — out for the holiday season.

Benny Grunch, whose real name is Benjamin Antin, displayed a wacky sense of humor from an early age. “In grammar school, I used to always write something funny when they’d tell us to do a composition as an assignment,” he said. “And that got me thrown out of St. Dominic’s at the end of sixth grade in 1957.” But he spent decades playing professionally before becoming Louisiana’s favorite holiday parodist. Around the time of his expulsion from St. Dominic’s, he’d gotten his first guitar. He took lessons at Werlein’s Music and apparently was a natural. By the time he turned 16, he was picking up jobs with bands on Bourbon Street, covering the early local rhythm-and-blues hits that were only just, at the time, starting to come out of studios like Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Music Shop on Rampart Street, and on local labels like Instant, Minit, Ric and Ron — now-classic songs by Ernie K-Doe and Fats Domino and Oliver “Who Shot the La La” Morgan.

“It was an instant education,” he said. Bourbon Street in the early ’60s was teeming with music, from the traditional jazz revival at clubs like the Famous Door, Maison Bourbon and of course, Preservation Hall, to rock and roll and R&B at joints like the original Papa Joe’s, where Dr. John and Freddy Fender both put in time in the house band. There was the Sho Bar, Gunga Den and Leon Prima’s 500 Club, among others, where live combos backed stripteasers. One burlesque dancer, Reddi Flame, had a place out in Lakeview, where Benny Grunch has lived for his entire life; he’d see her car, a big, white, late ’50s Buick convertible covered in large purple polka dots, near both home and work.

The teenage future Benny Grunch — “Nobody cared in those days how old you were,” he said — played bass, guitar and harmonica on marathon sets, sometimes starting at 3 a.m., while still going to high school and later, college, as a commuter student at Southeastern in Hammond. That led to a job with a band that crisscrossed the U.S. playing contemporary jukebox hits. From 1967 until 1972, when his daughter Angel was born, he was on the road.

Back home in New Orleans, he returned to playing rock and roll in various versions of Benny Grunch & the Bunch. The first version of that band, he said, had actually come together while he was still in college in Hammond. The name Grunch reportedly comes from a joke about a secluded area called Grunch Road — the stomping grounds, according to local lore, of a chupacabra-like animal. In a 2013 interview with New Orleans magazine, Benny Grunch attributed the name to a vaguely off-color joke that irritated the dean of Southeastern, and may have gotten him suspended.

And, just shy of 20 years later, he channeled his off-kilter sense of humor into holiday music — and the Grunch stole Christmas. The Yuletide oddities kept coming, from rapping elves to Elvis parody. But there must be more to the endurance of Benny Grunch & the Bunch than just leaving something silly under the tree, and the clue might be in his other long-standing local hit, “Ain’t Dere No More.” Set nominally to the tune of “Jingle Bells,” it’s less a Christmas song than a list of shuttered and disappeared local businesses and institutions — Godchaux’s, Krauss, K&B, Schwegmann’s — some of which have been gone so long that younger listeners don’t even know them to miss them.

New Orleans nostalgia has always been a big part of Benny Grunch’s repertoire. Even his non-Christmas songs celebrate local personalities and brands, like “Nash Roberts Was Our Weatherman,” “The Creature from the City Park Lagoon” or “The Hubigs Pie Boogie Woogie Sing Along Flavor Song.” In the early days — so long ago, he said, that he released it as a 45 rpm vinyl record — he wrote “The Spirit of Smiley Lewis,” a song about the musician’s hangouts and the old nightclubs, mostly already gone even at the time, that he recalled from his earliest days as a Bourbon Street sideman.

New Orleanians have always loved the romance of remembering the city’s past, and — particularly since Hurricane Katrina — more and more beloved institutions have slipped into it. As long as Benny Grunch is around, though, he’ll be keeping them alive, with a song and a smile. How’s that for a Christmas present?