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Photographer Dreams of Being Top Banana

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Whenever Ken Bannister--a.k.a. Bananister--cracks one of his goofy banana jokes, there are invariably peals of laughter. His own.

The self-proclaimed Banana Man is so pleased with himself and the banana empire he has created that he now wants to cash in.

After 15 years as the proprietor of the Banana Museum in Altadena, his hope is to become known around the globe as the yellow fruit’s chief spokesman, or “Top Banana.”

“Chiquita and the T. B. (Top Banana) would make millions!” Bannister wrote recently to a company marketing manager in an effort to sell himself as Chiquita Brands’ spokesman.

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So far he hasn’t received a reply.

“I don’t think they take him seriously,” says Robert Moore, president of the International Banana Assn., a trade group that represents the banana industry. “It’s not that they think he’s a flake, they just don’t have any use for him.”

Well, some people think he’s a bit bananas. “The feeling is that he’s a few fingers short of a hand,” says Howard Nager, director of trade relations for the Del Monte Tropical Fruit Co. (To pick up on the full flavor of Nager’s quip, you have to be up on banana slang, in which “finger” means a single piece of the fruit and “hand” refers to a bunch.)

Still, the Arcadia photographer and photo equipment salesman says he has managed to persuade about 8,500 people to join his International Banana Club at $10 a shot. And he’s received some publicity for his banana exploits--including a piece in People magazine and a recent feature on National Public Radio.

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But what Bannister, who has a self-awarded Ph.B. in bananistry, really wants is to be a spokesman for Dole Foods, Chiquita, Del Monte or any banana company that’ll have him--and pay him.

Bannister, 52, lives and breathes bananas. He eats the fruit daily. He’s always handing out little stickers with his own registered smiling banana logo on them. He has banana slippers and wears banana-patterned pajamas to bed. His wife, Chris, drives a yellow BMW with a vanity plate that reads “TBW,” for Top Banana’s Wife.

He sports a gold ring shaped like a banana on his right index finger. Once he sent a banana putter to Johnny Carson.

Long and lean, with a mop of blond hair, and almost always dressed in yellow, Bannister even looks a little like a banana.

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He tells terrible jokes and guffaws at every one of them every time: “Let me slip this in.” “I’m ape over bananas.” “Thanks a bunch.”

But behind the laughter, Bannister says, is the sad fact that he has been trying to market himself, without success, since 1977. That was five years after he started the International Banana Club.

The club had its humble beginnings in 1972 when Bannister’s secretary’s husband, a stevedore who unloaded bananas on the docks in Long Beach, came home one day with about 10,000 banana stickers. Bannister started handing out stickers at sales conventions to cheer up associates and gain attention for himself and his products.

Then he started offering people Banana Merits (BMs) for sending him anything that had to do with bananas. By 1976 he had so many items he had to rent space just to house them, and thus the banana museum opened in a storefront on North El Molino Avenue.

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The museum, one great big jumble of yellow, is filled with about 15,000 banana artifacts and is open to club members and guests by appointment only. Its phone number is (818) 798-2272.

It is a small dust-filled room cluttered with banana bric-a-brac that includes bottles of banana baby food, Popsicle boxes, banana-flavored popcorn, toothpaste and suntan lotion. There are banana puppets, kick boards, salt and pepper shakers, postcards, books, paintings, posters and even a petrified banana, framed and hung prominently on the wall.

Bannister has developed a line of banana T-shirts, charms, necklaces, lapel pins, visors and stationery to help defray the cost of his $6,000-a-year hobby. “I’ve never made any money doing this,” Bannister says wistfully. “But I sure would like to.”

To that end, Bannister wrote his first letter to Chiquita 14 years ago, and has been writing off and on ever since. Of late, though, he has stepped up his efforts. His three children are grown and out of the house, and Bannister is ready to retire from the photography business. “I am ready now on a full-time basis to make this entire concept fly as a national campaign,” he wrote in June to Del Monte. “The timing is right.”

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And remarkably, after nearly two decades, Bannister is still optimistic. “Can you imagine?” he says. “I’ve stuck with this for 19 years.

“One of these days someone from one of these companies is going to call.”


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