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Going, Going, Gone Bananas

What started as a silly joke involving Chiquita stickers grew into a museum with a-peel

in Altadena. Now its proprietor has put the fruits of his labors up for auction on EBay.

December 29, 1999|AL RIDENOUR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Casual observers would probably characterize the color of Ken Bannister's house in Arcadia as "light green."

But to Bannister, the home is clearly "the color of bananas before they're gassed" (with the ripening agent ethylene). The interior, he says, is chromatically keyed to the mellow cream of a ripe banana. There are other, less subtle cues to his obsession: He's painted the mailbox banana yellow, put a 5-foot cartoon banana on the porch and strung tiny banana holiday lights from the eaves.

"Neighbors just look and smile," says the 61-year-old founder and owner of the International Banana Club and Museum in Altadena. But now, after nearly 28 years of collecting, Bannister sees his banana-centric world as a treasure ripe for the picking. In an auction that ends today, he's attempting to sell his entire bananabilia collection online at EBay.com.

Starting price: a wishful $900,000.

"I need to pay off my house and a few bills," he says. "You know, this banana's getting older; I'm starting to get the brown spots--but my wife points out, I've still got a head full of blond hair!" The hair goes with his yellow-themed wardrobe--banana-patterned shirts, ties and suits.

In a punning, acronym-rich world of his own creation, Bannister is the TB (Top Banana). He refers to his wife as TBW (Top Banana Wife) and designates his daughters TBD1, TBD2, TBD3. While explaining this, TBW hands TB a newly discovered bottle of banana shampoo.

"How many BMs do you want?" he shouts excitedly. (That's Banana Merits, something earned by BCMs, Banana Club Members, for contributing to the collection.)

Bannister wasn't always TB. Back in 1972, he enjoyed bananas in moderation, but worked as a photographer and purveyor of photo equipment. His Banana Club began when he received a mammoth roll of Chiquita stickers from his secretary, whose dockworker husband unloaded banana boats.

At a convention, Bannister passed out stickers and joked that he represented the "Banana Club." The shtick stuck. Pretty soon, the "Bananaman" was receiving banana-themed gifts from a widening circle of club members. In 1976, Bannister moved the collection into an Altadena storefront.

Today, some 17,000 artifacts are crammed into the museum, a monochromatic muddle of banana lamps, banana phones, an 8-foot banana-form couch, a banana pup tent, a petrified banana, a "banana warmer," banana toothpaste, banana-flavored popcorn and even a Michael Jackson-style gold-sequined banana.

The value of the curios, he says, accounts for barely half his starting price. Just as valuable, he claims, are the Web domain name, the BC trademark and registered logo, licensing rights, and a line of banana toys and novelties offered as part of the package.

As of Tuesday, he'd received only two bids, topping out at $900,100. Whether the bids are real remains to be seen when the auction ends today at 1:07 p.m. Under EBay rules, he does not have to sell unless he receives his "reserve price" of $1 million.

Still, the thought of trading all those bananas for a million simoleons worries him. He's offering his services as part of the deal. Otherwise, "I would have nothing to replace it. I certainly have no plans to go on to pears, apples or oranges."

Most worrisome to him are the lewd connotations certain buyers could exploit. "I've kept it clean all these years," he says. "I'd hate to see somebody take it and make a joke out of it, and turn it into something that's below the table." The only anatomical analogy Bannister sees in the banana is the curve of smiling lips.

And if there are no takers?

"I'm putting it right back up for sale," he says. "But this time I'm going to raise the price!"

International Banana Club and Museum, by appointment only, (626) 446-0220. Web site: http://www.bananaclub.com.

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