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Did you know Al Bell?

I always thought Al Bell had the best job in the world. When I was a little boy growing up on the prairie back in the 1950s and 60s, our small school would bring in an Al Bell Production once a year to give an "assembly" program. This is how I am guessing Mr. Bell made his living. Bell and his wife would take a very nice vacation somewhere exotic each summer. Now in small town Iowa circa 1960, "exotic" might have been interpreted a little differently than it is today. I remember some of the places Al traveled were Calgary in Canada, Mexico, Washington State, and Ireland. Anyway, the Bells would go to a place, take some slides, buy a native costume (the more outlandish the better), and couple music recordings. From these materials, he would spend an hour combining his slides, jokes, dancing, and a touch of mania on a stage in front of 500 delighted elementary school kids (and grateful teachers) in a gym or auditorium, in different schools every day throughout the school year. I'm guessing he charged maybe $50 a show, two shows a day. In the late 50's, working even 50 school days a year would have made him a rather nice income.

Does any one else remember Al Bell? I know he existed since I found reference to his programs in school histories on the web. I remember hearing that his home town may have been Menlo, Iowa. Let me know if you remember an Al Bell production - they always started with a ringing school bell.

I thought of Al Bell because I gave a short talk to my Kiwanis club today on my Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu last November. Heavy on slides, a little trivia (there is a depiction of the Last Supper in the Cuzco Cathedral where guinea pig is being served), and a straight account of the rigors of the hike. It was well received, and I thought, I've finally gotten my chance to be Al Bell!

Sometimes accomplishing the small goals are just as satisfying as accomplishing the big ones.




Update: May 2008 Thanks so much for all the responses and memories shared. Keep them coming! This photo came to me via blog reader. She attached a Christmas photo of the Bells from about 1958. bellfamily.jpg

There has been a great interest shown in finding and preserving the films and memorabilia from Al Bell's school programs by those of us who fondly remember him and appreciate the influence he and his wife had on our lives. They infused some wanderlust in many an Iowa farm kid! At some time, I will approach Iowa Public Television or the Iowa Historical Society with the this blog entry and all the interest shown, and hope they will pick up the ball. It may not happen until I retire - a mere 9 years away! In the meantime, if you'd like to leave a comment, sharing you memories of the Bells and leaving information about how family members might be contacted, please do so. Doug

Update: May 2008

Jim Calkins from West Branch Middle School is working on putting together a list of Bell's topics and schools at which he spoke. If have specific information about either of these things, please e-mail Jim at conn53victor (a) Thanks!

Here are a some newspaper articles from Wright County and Estherville about Al's visits.


Update: March 2010

Another Al Bell post here with a link to a Des Moines Register article about the Bells and a Facebook Fan page.

Update: August 2010

An Al Bell Film Festival, Sept 12, 2010 in Stuart, Iowa and a movement to restore his films!

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Reader Comments (210)

Welcome to the VERY same world each and every one of us overseas educators enjoy each visit back to our hometowns and cities.

I had my Saudi presentation memorized and my Shanghai/China one is pretty darn good if I do say so myself! How about webcasting it and sharing it with the rest of us... become the Al Bell of the web!

January 30, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Torris
I loved Al Bell and his wife growing up in Northwest Iowa. One year while recuperating from a concussion that kept me out of school for 4 weeks, I insisted that my mother drag me into the gymnasium just to see them. Of course I threw up before, during, and after, but it was worth it to see their presentation on Spain. One of my teachers went to Alaska one year and came back with slides and artifacts. That was my first inkling that I too could travel and come back to share. When I was 20 years old, I lived in Taiwan for a year. I was able to do a presentation for my hometown church when I returned and have shared those materials many times with my students. I have traveled to Germany, Czech Republic, Denmark, Austria, Lichtenstein, Italy, Monte Carlo, Switzerland, France, THunder Bay, Canada, Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. I'm looking forward to continuing to travel when my children are older. Doug, you continue to travel. I agree with Andrew Torris. Share! Be the Al Bell of our generation.
February 1, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDiane Chen

I am SO happy you wrote this. I was beginning to wonder if Al was figment of my imagination.

I do wonder what puts the travel bug in some of us and not in others. There is almost nothing I like doing more than walking down a street in some country where life is TOTALLY different than it is here in Minnesota.

I would love to put my presentation online as Andy suggests, but like I told him, my horrendous pronunciation of Quechuan words would be preserved forever!

May you get many more chances to travel and if you ever learn more about Al Bell, let me know.

Thanks again for writing,

February 1, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson
from Rob Carson

When I was growing up in Neola, Iowa in the 70’s, Al Bell would come and speak at Tri Center Elementary school. We loved his presentations. The one I remember the most is his tour of the Galapagos Islands. He would ask boys to help him carry he and his wife’s equipment, then give them a fake $3 bill with his name on it. I currently work at WRQX in Washington D.C. MIX1073FM.COM. My website: ROBCARSONONLINE.COM.
February 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson
What small town in Iowa? I am from Iowa and yes, I remember Al Bell and his wife. We had a little ditty: Al Bell is going to Hong Kong to play Ping Pong with King Kong.
February 28, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTildy
Hi Tildy,

I grew up on a farm north of Sac City, Iowa - one of the nicest towns in all Sac County.

Funny rhyme. The things we remember.

March 1, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson
I also fondly remember Al Bell and his wife from elementary school assemblies in Humboldt, IA in the early 60's.

My son and his wife now live in Hong Kong and have been traveling extensivly in the region since they got there in August 2006. His wife is a writer at heart and writes wonderful, 10-page emails about each adventure. Following her notes about their trip to SW China in the Himalaya mountains, I told her she was my own, personal Al Bell. Just like elementary school, I read her letters and sit there with my mouth hanging open in awe.

I found your post after thinking of Al Bell today and plugging his name into Google. Thanks for your post and all the replys.
March 1, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRich Weiss
My friend Mary and I were just talking about a slide presentation on Egypt that we had seen, and she asked me if I remembered Al Bell. Do I! He was the bright spot in every school year here in central Iowa. His shows introduced us to those exotic, far away places that we had seen in magazines or books. Most of the students at our rural school had enjoyed vacations to such faraway places as the Iowa State Fair, so hearing Al opened our minds and imaginations to the world. When I googled his name, we were excited to see a few other people share our memories of growing up in Iowa. Does anyone have any current information on Al Bell?
March 21, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterNancy and Mary
I was reminded of the six points of separation when I found your blog. I had typed by own url address in the google search and your blog came up with my son's name mentioned. Andy Torris is living in China and asked you to become the Al Bell of the internet. What a wonderful connection.

We did not have Al Bell at our school when I was a child but we did have other National School Assemblies that brought the outside world into our little community in eastern Oregon. I am sure that an Al Bell of sorts planted the seed that lead to a life of dreaming about travel and then as a retired teacher the travel itself.

As for the six points of is a small world after all. Incidentally, I loved your blog.
April 8, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBarbara Torris
I sure do remember Al Bell and his wife. I am from Madrid and we would have an all school assembly once a year with he and his wife. I remember always looking forward to his yearly visit to our school.
April 11, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDebbie Myers
Oh I am so pleased that I am not the only one that recalls these wonderful people that would take time out of their lives to entertain and inspire a small town Iowa boy.

The travels of the Bell's were the one time of the year that I was a good boy and sat quietly in my seat in the school auditorium waiting to see what wonderful adventures the Bell’s had been on. What an awe inspiring world they would bring with them and they shared their adventures with us children in such a manor that I so wanted to travel the world and experience each and every adventure first hand. Unfortunately I never did much traveling but, I will for ever and days relive these fantastic adventures in my minds eye and deep in my heart. I will always be grateful that I as many have, had the opportunity to experience the magic of the Al Bell Adventure.

I now live in Dunlap, Iowa with my wife Tina and we while away the time talking about how the Bell’s inspired us to be adventurers even if it’s in our own “back yard”. Also, we have a gentleman that lives here locally and attends our church that was a teacher here as well as at another Iowa town and he was personal friends of the Bells and has related several funny and interesting stories of Al and his wife.

Now, with that having been said, I understand that after the passing of the Bells that his works and manuscripts have been sold and, in fact these wonderful films etc. are once again up on the market. I’m not sure how true and or how recent this information maybe but, I would like to go out on a limb here and make a suggestion.

In conjunction with others like ourselves that may be able to donate small funds and with other creative individuals I’m wondering how hard and what steps could be taken to preserve these amazing artifacts and then in turn share them with others? In essence how hard would it be create an Al Bell Foundation gather enough capital to buy these items and then contact Public Television and see if these would or could be re-televised on Public TV.? And, then find a museum in the mid-west (Iowa, only because he was from here or maybe even share these with IA /MN) and have them on display.

Anyone else even interested on trying to establish such a memorial / program? If so please feel free to contact me via email and in subject line put The Al Bell Foundation as the subject matter. Otherwise I will not open and that would be a shame seeing how there seems to be so many Bell supporters out there.

I look forward to hearing from everyone very soon.

(In found memory of the Bell’s and how they inspired us all to live our lives as an adventure.)


Russell D Willis
April 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRuss Willis
Sent by Daniel Fears ---------------------------------------

I remember Al Bell very well! Googled him the other day and got the hit for your blog. I lived in Pleasantville, IA, for my formative years, and found it very humerous that you specifically mentioned WA State and Ireland in Al Bell's "exotic" list of travels since that's where I live now and my wife and I went to Ireland last year. Remember how he started every show with "And it's a Gggggggrrrrrreeeeeaaatttttt day"?
April 22, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson
I can still remember the first Al Bell show I saw in kindergarten in 1958 at Orient Community School. It was a trip to Hawaii. I was so upset my junior year of high school at Orient-Macksburg Community School (we consolidated by then) when Al Bell came to do a presentation and some boys in the back of the room started making rude noises and Al Bell said, "If you aren't interested in hearing this presentation, I will spend my time elsewhere." One of the boys replie, "Good!", and he left. The boys got in trouble, but I didn't care about that, I had wanted to see his presentation. His son said that Al Bell quit going to schools shortly after that. The last time I talked to his son, Al Bell had died and his wife was in Arizonia. I told them that he should have the reel to reel made into video tapes. I asked him to let me know if he did because I am a teacher now and would love to use them in my classroom. He said he was going to talk to his mother and they would probably go through an AEA (Area Education Association).
Great Memories!!
Diana (Jensen) Fisher
April 28, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDiana Fisher
Googled Al Bell like others. He hooked us! Where was he from? We had two rural schools that switched year to year where he gave his show once a year. Parents' night with kids. That was in the late 60's. Then I guess we didn't have him after the 70's. Would like to get the tapes to view....or are memories better?
May 5, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJay E

I am originally from Menlo, Iowa and was well acquainted with the family. There oldest daughter Rhea, a year older than I was a good friend and we were in Music together and also played basketball together. Their oldest son Allen married one of my classmates and am hoping to see them at our 50 year alumni banquet this year. The two younger children Becky and Doug where just barely in high school when I left Menlo. We felt so privileged to have them build their new home 2 miles south of Menlo and bring their family to our community. This was in the 50's and they truly were wonderful people. I remember enjoying their programs also and was delighted that Al was just as jovial and comical in his day to day life. I think that endeared him even more to his audiences and his exuberance in putting on his shows displayed his own excitement in learning the cultures of other countries and passing that on to the students. So happy to read your blog and hope I can gain some further information from Allen in June. Remember, "It's a bea--uti-ful day today!"

Liz Kalbach
May 15, 2007 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson
Doug, I wondered if Al Bell would be on the web and ran into your website querying whether anyone remembered Al Bell. I went to school in Traer, Iowa and certainly do remember him with his travelogues. This was at a time when few people went to Europe to see the sites. I remember his corny jokes but had forgotten his wearing of native costumes. I also remember he went to a South or Central American country but can't remember which one.

His assemblies were a chance to see other parts of the world that were certainly unfamiliar to me at that time. Maybe his travels were a subconscious stimulation for me to imitate his wanderings.


Jon Hilbert
Chico, CA

Truth has no special time of its own. Its hour is
--Albert Schweitzer
May 29, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Al Bell - what a hoot. I saw him many times, growing up in Dumont, Iowa. Could I possibly remember him having a big Chow dog after he went to China? He was a phenom of the era, I doubt we'll ever see his like again (our loss)!

June 8, 2007 | Unregistered Commentercowboy

OK - I feel better to have heard so many people who remember Al Bell. I recently asked several of my co-workers (all of whom are from Iowa) if they remembered Al Bell and his school assemblies. They all looked at me like I was crazy. Apparently, he limited his shows to smaller venues, perhaps? I grew up in Auburn, Iowa (Lake View-Auburn schools at the time) and remember sitting in the gym absolutely amazed by this man and his wife.

It really would be something to have his collection celebrated somewhere. I recently saw an exhibit on Duane Ellet (not Eliot, as so many of us pronounced it) and his dog, Floppy, at the Iowa State Historical Museum. You'd think there would be room for Al Bell, too!

June 9, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterConnie B

How ironic, While watching the travel channel last night, Anthony Bourdain, I was telling my girl friend how as a kid in Southerland, Iowa, we had Al Bell come every year to share his travels. The most memorable moment as a child was watching him drive a red car around curving mountain roads; when suddenly the car went off the road crashing into a stream. Then when we thought he had crashed; a hand picks up the car, and holding the car laughing was Al Bell.

June 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTim Bintz

Just yesterday at childhood friend called me trying to remember Al's name... We had to call my brother in Wisconsin, who remembered instantly. Then my friend Ike, googled Al and now here I am. I love that so many people have this collective memory! Thanks for putting it out there.

I grew up in Lake City, Iowa, Calhoun County (4 counties over, four counties down on the map while watching the weather on WHO).
I was in elementary school in the 70's and Al was still touring the small town schools then! Your description is spot on - the slide shows and the outlandish costumes. (You did forget to mention the dirty gym floors where we had to park the seat of our pants). Good grief I remember the excitement and anticipation when we knew he was coming.

Reading the comments has given me pause - did I get the travel bug from Al? I spent a couple of summers abroad, working as I went to fund my travels...then a whole year struggling (an understatement) through a grad program in Sweden...then a honeymoon thriftily spent in Positano.

I no longer live in Iowa, but I still go back to butcher chickens, get my pork... and cul de sacs still confuse me!

Thank you for your post. Great way to start my Friday.

June 29, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKristin

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