This is a chapter that never made it to the book, about a banana museum in Los Angeles that was about to close. But real life can provide happy endings, even when one never seemed possible...
SOMETIMES, as I worked on this project, I’d find something I’d missed - something obvious - and ended up amazed at the oversight, yet delighted at the discovery. The battle over the banana split was one of those things. Another was the existence of a banana greenhouse two hours south of me, in San Diego. On some afternoons, during the three years I spent researching and writing this book, I’d simply type the word “banana” - with some random modifier, like “folk tales,” or “Florida,” and comb through the results.
A few months before I finished the first draft of my manuscript, I typed in “banana museum.” One sentence stood out amidst the few lines of summary:
“THE BANANA MUSEUM IS FOR SALE.”
I clicked on the link, and was presented with a bright yellow page, with a few more lines of text. The information was presented in the basic words-and-pictures format common during the early days of the internet. The entire message read:
“THE BANANA MUSEUM IS FOR SALE. The minimum bid/offer is $85,000. Sale includes: 1) The Club, 2) The Museum, 3) The two domains: BananaClub.com and Banana-Club.com, 4) The smiling logo and words, 5)Toy and product mfg. rights, and 6) TV Concepts.”
The website was enormous. Page after page of material documented the workings of an international banana fan club, complete with rankings based on the quantity and type of contributions a member made to the organization, which was apparently, the club’s headquarters. The highest rank was a Doctorate of Bananistry, complete with a handsome bronze medal that, the notice continued, would “look just as good as the Olympic” awards. There were pictures, too: of banana toys, banana tableware, banana stickers, beach blankets, pajamas, and postcards - and banana people: images of a club barbecue in 1980s, with participants playing a game called “Stems & Stumps,” described as a “speed game, like checkers.”
I knew of some other banana festivals - there was a famous one in the railroad town of Fulton, Kentucky, which for decades served as a United Fruit’s largest distribution center east of the Mississippi. Those attending the event feasted their eyes on an annually-selected Banana Princess, and their palates on the world’s largest banana pudding, a single, one-ton batch. The fete began in 1962 - to great acclaim - but petered out as trucks replaced trains as the main way bananas were transported to consumers. In 1992, it was cancelled. A longer-lived affair is held in Australia’s Tweed Valley, in the banana-growing part of New South Wales. The seven-day event has been going on for more than 50 years, and includes the crowning of a banana-festival queen, banana-themed contests (including a bowling tournament), and a formalware-required dance. Another ongoing banana celebration - mostly educational, culminating in a banana quiz show - is held in Malita, Philippines every January.
But this festival seemed more whimsical than any of these, and more the product of a single person’s oddball vision. I’d never heard of banana checkers, or a proposed banana television show - or a banana museum that was actually housed somewhere and open to the public (Ann “Anna Banana” Lovell, who lives in the Washington state, where she operates an online banana museum. Among the images displayed there are ones of Victorian ladies, daintily eating fruit; the idea was to make nibbling on the suggestively-shaped tropical product seem morally acceptable.)
A bigger surprise was coming.
I clicked on the contact page. The location of the museum was in Altadena, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. That’s five minutes from where I live. I had driven by the International Banana Museum hundreds of times, and I’d never noticed it.
“I’D LOVE TO MEET YOU!” Ken Bannister’s voice on the phone was relentlessly positive. I let him know, quickly, that I wasn’t a prospective buyer. When I mentioned that I was working on a banana book, he quickly added: “I have lots of books about bananas. Maybe in your, you could mention that the museum’s for sale…”
I explained that the publication date was far off, but I’d be happy to include the information if a transaction hadn’t occurred by them. Bannister wasn’t in the facility at the time - he’d retired several years earlier, and was spending most of the time away from the city - but he’d be there the next day. I made an appointment.
The next day, a friend and I headed four exits up the freeway. The highway skirted the foothills north of town. Bannister had given us an address that was one block off the main avenue that dead-ends at the edge of the Angeles National Forest. It was a hot day, but there were strong winds, and we could see both the hilltops above us, and the skyscrapers of the city’s compact downtown to the south.
There was nothing at the small storefront that indicated bananas. No signs, no yellow paint. I couldn’t peek inside, because the curtains were drawn. I knocked on the door.
Ken Bannister is as upbeat in person as he is on the phone. He was wearing a nicely-pressed yellow sport coat - and a huge grin. He was tall, trim, and squeezed my hand with a tight grip. I pulled out my notepad. Get the basics, first.
Museum founded: 1974.
Correct spelling of name: “KEN B-A-N-N-I-S-T-E-R.”
Incorrect spelling of the name: “B-A-N-A-N-A-S-T-E-R.”
“That’s what they call me. Ken Bananaster, T.B.”
This actually turns out to be true. In his own way, Bannister is as committed to the fruit as any tropical mogul. The banana club began two years before the meeting, when the T.B. - then sales manager at the Campbell Soup company - began handing out banana stickers at conventions, “just as a way to get people’s attention.”
Soon, Bannister was receiving items related to the fruit from the recipients of his little decals (ever since I began this book, my mail has been filled with similar stuff.) The senders were the charter members of the banana club, and the objects were the first elements of the dusty collection I was now being introduced to. Over 17,000 items.
There were some amazing pieces. A vintage Chiquita ripening chart, designed to educate grocers on the best methods of storing and selling the fruit. A glitter-covered “Michael Jackson” banana. Banana clocks, banks, horns, coffee mugs, and pipes; a section devoted to banana food, including packs of chewing gum, breakfast cereal, boxes of candy, and banana beverages (none alcoholic, as Bannister quickly noted - and he’d never heard of Ugandan Tonto.)
But the Pieta of Bannister’s collection is not on public display. Instead, it is hidden behind a door. It is for special guests only. We followed Bannister to the back of the storefront. Bannister opened the rear door; it was so covered in banana posters, calendars, and stickers, that it was nearly invisible. He grinned (again, and wider) and led us inside.
I almost wanted it: a full-sized banana suit, bright yellow, with flowing peels for a collar, and a round head hole. “This is it,” Ken said, before grabbing a framed piece of paper and showing it to us. It was a clipping dating back to November 12, 1984: page 83 of that week’s People magazine. All of Page 83, with Bannister, his head poking out of the suit, his arms outstretched, wearing that same grin - and having the time of his life.
“That banana suit used to go with me, wherever I went,” he said. “It really makes people happy.”
Three were dozens of other media appearances and mentions - the most exalted of which was his appearance with Jay Leno on the Tonight Show in 1990. In a still from the appearance, Bannister is sitting in-between the host and actress Kelly Lynch. Leno seems dumbfounded. Bannister is grinning, holding a banana, his fingers stretched beneath it was if it were a silver serving dish. There is a banana emblem on his sport coat. The female guest is leaning away, blushing.
“You know,” Ken told me, as I stared at the picture, “for me, bananas represent just about everything that’s good in the world. They’re shaped like a smile.” He paused, and then lifted the banana in front of his face, lengthwise, so that it obscured his lips. “And you’re not fully dressed until you put your smile on.”
BANNISTER ACTUALLY DOESN’T KNOW A LOT ABOUT BANANAS. I asked him if he was familiar with United Fruit, or had heard why slipping on a banana peel is real, or had collected any of eBay’s most costly memorabilia of the fruit - menus, silverware, and china from Great White Fleet passenger voyages. He didn’t - making him quite different from Lovell, whose collection - on display in her home, not generally available for public viewing - feels much more like the work of a professional archivist.
Ken shook his head. “No,” he said. “Not really interested in that.”
The friend I came with was more direct. Amidst that mountain of memorabilia, there wasn’t a single artifact that could be considered even slightly risqué.
In the late 1960s, just before Bannister launched his club, a rumor surfaced that eating roasted banana peels could produce psychedelic effects similar to that of LSD. I(It wasn’t true, but it did reduced slippage accidents at Woodstock.) Andy Warhol famously painted the banana that appeared on the cover of the 1967 debut album by the Velvet Underground; Rolling Stone called the record “the most prophetic rock album ever made,” ranking it thirteen on its top 100 list of recordings. And what about the way bananas look? There are dozens of tchotchkes that directly acknowledge the physicalness of that shape, but we didn’t see a single one in the Bannister collection. Wasn’t there anything in the storefront, my friend wanted to know, related to sex, drugs, or rock-and-roll?
To Bannister, it was as if my friend hadn’t even spoken. The top banana wasn’t hurt, angry, disturbed, or amused. He simply said: “This is a fun place.”
The tour continued. I asked him why he was selling the museum.
Bannister said that since he’d retired, it had become difficult to make the hundred-mile commute, back and forth, to maintain the storefront. To me, the dust said that the issue may also have been one of visitorship. I tried to think of a delicate way to ask the question. Before I did, Bannister answered: “I still get some school groups, but I’m not around enough. What I really want is for somebody to take over and do what needs to be done to let people know about that.“ He looked directly at me: “I know that’s possible.”
The happy ending: Ken continued trying to sell his banana museum for another year (I later learned that his original asking price was close to $1,000,000.) In the end, there was no sale. But a taker was found. Ken had finally decided that his collection needed to be preserved, whether or not he received cash for it. The new facility is located at the Harrison Exhibit Center in Hesperia, California. Bannister still stops in, but the new Top Banana is Glen Spears, who manages the center. The museum is open Tuesdays, Thursdays, and the first Saturday of every month. If you’re driving between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, you’ll find it just beyond the San Bernardino Mountains, off Interstate 15. The address is 16367 Main St.