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Bunches of banana stuff to occupy new museum

Liquor store owner says he's been consumed by the fruit ever since he bought 17,000 bits of banana kitsch on EBay. He hopes the world-record display will boost his struggling business.

June 10, 2010|By David Kelly, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from La Quinta, Calif. — The timing was perfect.

At the very moment Fred Garbutt was looking to boost business at his family's flagging liquor store on the edge of the Salton Sea, Ken "The Bananister" Bannister was trying to unload 17,000 bits of banana kitsch.

Bannister started the International Banana Museum 38 years ago and made it an Altadena fixture. He later moved it to a new home in Hesperia. Then he lost the space and found his garage crammed to the rafters with "bananabilia."

Buying it up was the easy part, said Garbutt. Living up to the legacy is much harder.

So with a grand opening slated for January, the La Quinta man is busy immersing himself in his new subject.

He's learning his banana puns. It turns out there are a bunch.

"Who knew there were so many?" he asked, testing out his new skills. "It's hard to pick one. I never knew they had such … appeal."

He's reading up on banana lore (a bunch is a "hand," one is a "finger"), collecting banana facts (it's a plant, not a tree) and having a banana tuxedo made, complete with yellow tails. He's also trying on a new name: Big Banana Mon, pronounced with a Jamaican accent.

"Before this I never thought about bananas all that much," Garbutt said, strolling around his yard with a banana-shaped golf putter over his shoulder. "I wonder if I'll get away with it or if I'll get completely ridiculed."

To some, he's already a hero — the guy who saved what the Guinness Book of World Records calls the largest museum on Earth dedicated to a single fruit. Sure, there are carrot, apple, corn and onion museums. There's even another banana museum, in Washington state. But no other is as big or as famous.

That's why Garbutt's phone rarely stops ringing, why journalists from all over call to ask about his plans.

"Before this I really had no hobbies except restoring old cars," he said. "Now I am really into bananas. They just consume me."

Garbutt, 46, builds tennis courts for a living, but he's also a natural showman. He used to go to his daughter's classroom dressed as a Power Ranger, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle or Barney.

"I used flash powder to make an entrance," he said. "One time I was the Easter Bunny and made a giant, carrot-shaped go-cart."

He plans to put the museum in a former pub next to Skip's Liquors in North Shore, a faded wedge of desolation along the Salton Sea. The family has owned Skip's since 1958 and hopes the museum will draw curiosity seekers.

"I never thought I'd get this much attention in all my life," he said.

He can thank Bannister, who grew his collection from a few tchotchkes into a phenomenon. When he retired to the High Desert to sell real estate, Hesperia let him house the museum in a building.

But it couldn't last forever, said Lindsay Woods, administrative manager for the Hesperia Recreation and Park District.

"He was in there four years and we felt it was time to change things up," he said. "If you hadn't seen it already, chances are you weren't going to."

So out went the banana couch, banana soda, gold-plated banana, banana boogie board, banana ears — even the famed "petrified banana." In March, Bannister put it all up for sale on EBay for $45,000 but there were no takers. He lowered the price.

When it dropped to $7,500, Garbutt asked if he would take less. The Bananister agreed — but only if the sale price remained a secret.

Bannister, 71, has the wholesome good looks of a young Donny Osmond and the sunny disposition of the late Mister Rogers. A tall, trim teetotaler, he eats one banana a day and prefers them sliced with scrambled eggs.

"My entire philosophy has always been to emphasize the positive and put a smile on people's faces," said the father of three and grandfather of seven. His Century 21 business card still introduces him as the Banana Man and shows him in full banana regalia.

"I once got a million-dollar listing by using that card," he said.

A former Campbell's Soup salesman and professional photographer, Bannister has appeared on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and in dozens of magazines, newspapers and books, including "Offbeat Museums" and "You Think You're the Only One: Oddball Groups Where Outsiders Fit In."

He started his fruitful journey by taking 10,000 Chiquita Banana stickers to a photography trade show and sticking them on the lapels of everyone he met.

"I told them they could get a discount if they came to my booth wearing a sticker," he said. "I would get on a plane and pass out the stickers. It was a way to get attention."

Before long, people began sending him banana artifacts. When he ran out of room for them, he rented a building in Altadena, which became the museum's first home. His International Banana Club grew to 30,000 members in 27 countries. He dispensed doctorates of bananistry (PhBs), banana merits (BMs), banana stickers and plastic banana club cards. Anyone sending in items deemed "lewd, crude or lascivious" received a banana demerit.

He still likes to try to charge dinner on his banana club card. If pulled over for speeding, he said, "I flash the card and say, 'Banana Club member, no tickets please.' ''

And he's working on a memoir tentatively titled "The Banana Man for Real," which will include a banana primer and some favorite banana recipes.

Still, a banana-shaped void remains in his life.

"I'm having withdrawal," said Bannister, sitting in his Apple Valley home beside a pair of elongated yellow slippers. "I miss my collection."

david.kelly@latimes.com

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