BUM’S CRUSH : You Want the ‘50s, Dancing on the Table, Wisecracks, Insults, Family? Hey, Go to Bennie’s

Times Staff Writer

A cool breeze had finally cut through the weeklong Laguna Beach heat, but the action was just warming up on the street.

It was 1:45 a.m., and Bennie the Bum was working the sidewalk outside his all-night diner of the same name, carrying on his usual East Coast banter with whomever happened to be standing around.

Someone pulled up in front of the diner but did a poor job of parallel parking. “He likes to walk to the curb,” Bennie wisecracked.

A buxom young woman approached, wearing a sun dress that was fighting a losing battle with the gravity of her situation. In a less-than-demure manner, she tugged at the dress.

“A little higher, darlin,’ ” Bennie said kiddingly.

The woman adjusted her dress again and then walked over to the overweight Bennie and began massaging his chest through his shirt.

Bennie cooed. “Only at Bennie the Bum’s!” he said.

Hey, it happens.

For the sake of historical accuracy, it must be said that Bennie the Bum’s is not owned by a bum, or even by a guy named Bennie.

The brains behind the diner is Ed Campellone, a 44-year-old Philadelphia native who likes to play the angles and tell a good story. A former executive chef and restaurateur, he was driving through Newport Beach one morning at about 3 and was miffed when he couldn’t find a place to get a cup of coffee.

So 4 years ago, he opened the only 24-hour diner in Laguna Beach, betting that his mutt restaurant with only four booths and seven swivel counter stools could make it amid the city’s pedigreed establishments.

“People said, ‘What’re you going to name it?’ Let me tell you a little story. I said, ‘I don’t know.’ I go home. I’m sleeping, it’s 3 in the morning, I wake up. I’m sitting straight up in bed. I say, Bennie the Bum’s Diner. My wife says, ‘Go back to sleep.’ The next morning, I make a caricature of myself. My wife says, ‘You’re going to have all the bums in town eating there.’ ”

So, Campellone has become Bennie the Bum, at least for the several hours a day that he spends at the restaurant.

“The place took off like a rocket,” Bennie says.

If so, it’s probably because Bennie takes a few liberties with his customers. But it works both ways: The customers are allowed to heap it on Bennie too. “What goes on here would never be allowed at the Jolly Roger” restaurant across the street, Bennie says. “They’d bounce ‘em out.”

But it’s kind of hard to ask for decorum from your customers when you have a waitress who dances on the tables to the ‘60s song “Wild Thing.”

That would be Joyce Monsour, the 48-year-old waitress direct from Central Casting, with the perfect combination of salty tongue and sugary heart.

If Bennie is a funny hat, then Joyce is a whoopee cushion.

She showed up for work one day wearing square-shaped earrings with condoms encased in them.

Pity the customer who doesn’t show her the proper deference. Regular customer John Winston says: “Joyce is in between the New York-style waitress who shows you the indifference of ‘why the hell did you come in?’ and the sophisticated Valley Girl, which she is not.”

But part of being a good waitress is sizing up a customer’s personality and knowing what you can get away with.

“Can we sit anywhere?” a customer asks.

“It ain’t the Ritz-Carlton, but sit,” Joyce retorts as the customer smiles.

“One day, I just got up there and started dancing,” Joyce says. “We get these bums in early in the morning, and they get all depressed. One day the music started, and I just jumped on the table. Now they expect me to do it every day.”

To hear Bennie tell it, the diner’s doing quite well, serving around the clock to a potpourri of customers--from the very rich to the very poor, from the famous to those who are famous only to their friends at Bennie’s.

“Sinatra’s been here,” Bennie says. “Joyce didn’t even recognize him. Next to him were two bums.”

In theory, that is part of the appeal of diner-type restaurants--the notion that somebodies share salt shakers with nobodies. Diners, which have long been fixtures in the East, have become trendy in California in recent years--within the past few months, two restaurants using “diner” in their names have opened in Newport Beach.

Bennie is enough of a restaurateur to know he is selling mood as well as food. That’s why the jukebox is a mix of ‘50s and ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll, as well as crooner classics from Sinatra and Dean Martin. The walls are festooned with framed photos of performers like Sinatra, Joey Heatherton, Sammy Davis Jr. and Ray Charles--many with penned inscriptions to Bennie.

“I think it’s part of the nostalgia thing, part of a desire for things that are a little simpler,” said Stan Kyker, executive vice president of the California Restaurant Assn. Kyker isn’t certain how many diners there are in Southern California, but said there has been a movement toward them in the past 3 years.

“The real trend is more toward basic American foods,” he said. “Quite literally, we’re talking about blue-plate specials, meat loaf and mashed potatoes and gravy; also about sandwiches and hamburgers and food items that are very down-to-earth. It’s like what you used to have at home.”

Indeed, Bennie left Philadelphia for California 15 years ago and saw the future. To his surprise, it was in the shape of a nice, juicy hamburger with pickles.

“I came to California and ate more hamburgers in one year than you could believe,” he says. “I said, ‘I gotta be here.’ We used to think hot dogs were No. 1. They’re not. The hamburger is No. 1.”

However, Bennie opened other specialty restaurants before tapping the diner craze. “You better be right with the numbers,” Bennie says. “You got to work your buns off. A lot of this is the American dream. People want to own their own restaurant. And you can do it. But you better be ready to put in the time to do it.”

It’s 8:17 in the morning and Sinatra is on the jukebox.

You and me, we’re not like the rest

We once were the best; back when we were dumb.

How did we become so smart

And learn to break each other s heart?

Half a dozen people are eating breakfast when Bennie walks in. “What? Sinatra at this hour? Let him rest. He’s an old man.” Because Joyce loves Sinatra, she plays the song a lot. “Sinatra says that should have been a big tune, but it never was,” Bennie says.

Although it’s early, Joyce has a problem. She tried to dispense some Coke, but the machine turned on her and sprayed her uniform. Like Ralph and Alice Kramden of television’s “Honeymooners” fame, Bennie and Joyce start in.

“What happened to you?” Bennie asks.

Joyce gives him a look, like, “Whaddaya think?”

A minute or two later, Bennie asks Joyce for a Coke. “Get it yourself,” she says. “I ain’t taking any more chances.”

A little after 9, John Winston comes in. Winston is 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds.

“The guy ought to be a football player, but he’s a jeweler,” Bennie says.

Winston thinks the jukebox is too quiet. “Turn that stupid thing up,” he says. “What are we at, a funeral?”

Over in the corner, another regular sits on his stool. He’s wearing lavender shorts and a pink shirt. He first came in a couple of years ago after Bennie had seen him hanging around the street.

“He said he had a small check he wanted me to cash,” Bennie says. “I said OK. He gives me a check for 10 grand. I said, ‘You gotta be kidding.’ But he gives me the check. He said his family pays him to stay away.” Pausing for a moment, Bennie says, “You never know who’s who.”

On this morning, the man looks a little forlorn. “You going to sleep?” Joyce asks.

“I’m so disgusted with myself,” he says. “I dropped a glass of peanut butter on the floor, and there was glass all over the place.”

The man’s friends commiserate with him, and it is obvious that this is the man’s family.

Finally, to no one in particular, the man says, “I’m a little spacey.”

To an outsider, it seems a poignant admission. To his “family” at the diner, it’s nothing new. “I know he is,” Joyce says. “He didn’t take his medication. I can always tell when he doesn’t take it.”

Meanwhile, the playfully bearish Winston has donned Joyce’s apron and frilly headgear and is serving customers.

“Hey, Baby Huey,” Bennie says, himself a comfortable 240 pounds.

“You want the real story on this place?” Winston says, warming to the task. “Half the songs on the jukebox are not what they say they are, so you have to memorize them. I happen to know H-7 is not ‘Walk, Don’t Run,’ it’s ‘Happy Together.’ Also, notice how half the photographs on the wall (with personalized messages to Bennie) have the same handwriting.”

“Ninety-thousand comedians out of work, and he’s trying to be one,” Bennie says.

Thus, the show goes on at Bennie’s--around the clock, interrupted only when either wisecracking Bennie or a wisecracking customer needs to reload the one-liners.

On this, a particularly warm night, a customer comes in, looking for a seat. “You got air in here?” he says.

Bennie: “Yeah. We got air. Breathe.”

In most restaurants, the customer would have been outraged and stormed out. At Bennie’s, they love it.

During the summer rush--with only four booths--Bennie needs to keep the eaters moving in and out quickly, lest lines form outside. Moving customers along takes the proper amount of cajoling, he points out. To make it easier, he used to offer a T-shirt to displaced customers with the wording, “I’ve Been Bounced Out of Bennie the Bum’s.”

All in good fun and with a method to the madness, to be sure. If some high schoolers want to strum guitars outside the diner door, no one minds.

“It’s like a family, really,” Joyce says. “You get to know them and their problems and their hang-ups. And I guess they feel comfortable.”

The real best sellers on Bennie’s menu are comfort and familiarity.

And, of course, the Bennie and Joyce Show. Following one salty exchange that cannot be reprinted in a newspaper, Bennie and Joyce decide to call it a draw, each out-insulting the other.

“Is this any way to run a restaurant?” Bennie says.

And with just the right theatrical pause, he answers his own question: “You bet it is!”