Calif. Museum Is a Shrine To the 'Pulpy, Maligned Fruit'

IF it peels, bruises, and comes in a bunch, Ken Bannister has something that looks, smells, or tastes like it.

These are a few of 15,500 items you can find in his Banana Museum: a banana phone; banana pajamas; banana-flavored toothpaste; banana warmers from Germany; a banana nose; banana Christmas lights; banana popcorn. Mr. Bannister's prize is the "Petrified Banana," a black and shriveled specimen discovered in a friend's closet five years after disappearing. For the last 15 years, it has hung framed in the museum.

Yes, Bannister has some bananas - today, and every day. He is a man with a peel - and a mission.

"I don't think it's ludicrous. I think it's entertaining," says the banana curator who prefers his last name to be pronounced "Bananaster."

And in fact, the Banana Museum and its sister organization, the International Banana Club, are not chiefly about fruit. They are about laughter.

Bannister wears yellow slacks and a teal polo shirt emblazoned with a 16-inch, smiling banana.

"I'm just an old-fashioned guy who believes in the need to keep people's spirits up, to exercise one's sense of humor daily," he says.

Bannister sells photographic equipment in his other life. He is married and a father of three and says his family fully supports his role as banana booster; the family puts away six to eight bunches a week, and during a recent interview Bannister ate three.

Years ago, Bannister got a roll of 10,000 Dole banana stickers from a stevedore, and started giving them out at trade shows. In exchange, people started giving him banana stuff, and he needed a place to put it.

His Banana Museum, which opened in 1975, is a total banana experience. Yellow claptrap is strewn on tables, nailed to yellow walls, and piled high on a yellow couch. It smells faintly fruity near the "Notions" section.

An aging stereo blares banana songs. "I Like Bananas Because They Have No Bones" and the classic "Yes, We Have No Bananas" permanently top the charts here.

Most of the museum's visitors (admission is free) are members of the International Banana Club - the bunch that built this collection. Bannister, the club's Top Banana, awards degrees in "bananistry" based on contributions of banana gizmos, and on their attitudes. For a $25 lifetime membership fee, members get an iron-on transfer, a bumper sticker, and a self-chosen nickname, preferably one that lends itself to a memorable acronym. Los Angeles resident Paula Borchardt's handle, for example, is B.A.B.E. - Banana Admirer, Banana Eater.

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