Over the past 38 years, Mr. Bannister has collected more than 17,000 banana-themed artifacts. He is the founder of the International Banana Club and Museum in Hesperia, Calif., in the High Desert northeast of Los Angeles.
On Jan. 8, he received a letter from the Hesperia Recreation & Parks District informing him the banana collection must go, because the district wants to bring in new blood to the city-owned space. It will be replaced by artifacts collected by the late John Swisher, a local historian. Mr. Bannister has until the end of the month to pack up his bananas.
The collection includes a banana golf putter, banana beverages, and a gold-sequined “Michael Jackson banana.” Mr. Bannister organizes the goods into “hard” (brass, lead, wood, plastic banana wares) and “soft” (stuffed bananas, banana beach mats, banana tents). He estimates the effort has cost him over $150,000 over the years.
There are other fruit and vegetable museums. The Carrot Museum in England boasts more than 1,000 items. The National Apple Museum of Biglerville, Pa., has a related Apple Core Band. And the Vidalia Onion Museum in Georgia will open a new 1,500 square-foot space in April. Still, the banana museum holds the Guinness Book of World Records title for the “world’s largest collection devoted to any one fruit.”
It all began in 1972, when Mr. Bannister worked as the president of a photo-equipment manufacturing company. As a joke, a secretary handed him 10,000 Chiquita banana stickers to distribute at a manufacturers conference. She received them from her husband, a stevedore, and they were an instant hit at the conference.
Friends started sending in banana merchandise, which quickly crammed Mr. Bannister’s office. Soon thereafter, he opened his museum in Altadena, Calif., where it stayed until it moved 80 miles to its current Hesperia location in 2005. Most of the items are sent in from fans who hear about the collection.
Mr. Bannister says he had visions of grandeur when he launched his banana empire. He issued shares of the Banana Club to friends and family, dabbled in selling merchandise and made numerous television appearances. The profits never came, but Mr. Bannister says the obsession was rooted in fun more than anything else.
Curating banana paraphernalia hasn’t always been easy.
Twenty years ago, Mr. Bannister received a call at his photo studio: A Los Angeles County fire truck crashed into the front of the Banana Club Museum. A fireman had forgotten to set the brakes and left the engine running. Several hundred photographs were lost and the facade was boarded up for 11 months.
About 10 years ago, a three-pound can of banana-flavored tobacco from South America combusted after being in its pressurized can for a decade. No one was injured, and nearby objects were unscathed.
Keeping a “family friendly” collection has also proven tricky. If someone sends in anything “lewd, crude or lascivious,” Mr. Bannister not only returns the item, but also mails a “de-merit” to its sender.
Mr. Bannister, who has designated himself the “Top Banana,” has sent out 35,000 Banana Club memberships to people in 17 different countries. He claims his own yellow-colored Banana Club card has gotten him out of six speeding tickets.