Banana museum is the latest quirky institution to give L.A. the slip


Let’s face it: The Los Angeles area is in danger of losing its reputation as the capital of offbeat museums.

The latest blow was the news that the International Banana Museum, founded almost four decades ago in Altadena, has peeled off to a Salton Sea community after a brief stay in Hesperia.

Its 17,000 artifacts, ranging from a banana lounge to a petrified banana, were owned by museum creator Ken Bannister, 71.

But after he moved to Apple Valley, he realized he could no longer manage his treasures. He put them up for sale on EBay but no Angeleno came forth with a bid ( Eli Broad, where were you?)

Instead, Riverside County businessman Fred Garbutt bought the collection.

Aside from the Banana (as aficionados call it), several equally prestigious local institutions have departed or shut down, including the Lingerie Museum of Frederick’s of Hollywood, and two other Tinseltown attractions, the Erotic Museum and the Weird Museum.

Yes, even the Weird Museum couldn’t make a go of it in Hollywood.

Speaking of weird, Venice’s UFO/Bigfoot/Nessie Museum also disappeared and there have been no sightings of it for more than a decade.

Other casualties included the Carole and Barry Kaye Museum of Miniatures on Wilshire Boulevard, whose displays included a replica of the Titanic fashioned from 75,000 toothpicks, and the Punk Rock Museum of Silver Lake. Both closed in 2000.

The disturbing trend began in the 1990s with the demise of the Foot and Toe Museum of Long Beach, the Hopalong Cassidy Museum of Downey, the Poodles Museum of Los Angeles and Exotic World, a striptease museum at the Sassy Lassy lounge in San Pedro.

The reasons for the decline vary.

Dwindling attendance brought an end to the Erotic Museum in 1996. Its collection included a two-person, bicycle-like sex apparatus and its Hall of Fame boasted such luminaries as Hugh Hefner and sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Co-founder Mark Volper said he had too much competition, noting, “Sex is everywhere these days, on the Internet, on TV, in the movies.”

The Frederick’s Lingerie Museum was dismantled in 2005 after the naughty-underwear emporium filed for bankruptcy and switched locations on Hollywood Boulevard. The owners said there was no room for the celebrity underthings, which were packed off to a warehouse in Phoenix (Phoenix!).

So much history lost. In 1992, a remorseful young man walked in to the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Hollywood and dropped off two items he had looted from the Lingerie Museum during the L.A. riots: a bra belonging to actress Katey Sagal (of TV’s “Married With Children”) and some pantaloons of the late actress Ava Gardner.

The Rev. Robert Fambrini said the looter had also sought a bra once worn by Madonna but “it was already gone when he went in.” It was never recovered.

The Exotic World museum, founded by stripper Jenny (Miss 44 and Plenty More) Lee, moved to Helendale, a Mojave Desert town, when her health began to fail. She died in 1990 and Exotic World became the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas.

Dr. Tom Amberry shut down his Foot and Toe Museum in 1991 when he retired, donating many of his 10,000 foot-related relics to fellow podiatrists. Amberry joked he never landed the big prize: an authenticated set of Bigfoot’s footprints.

Venice’s UFO/Bigfoot/Nessie Museum never got the prints, either, though it did claim to have a fuzzy photo of “a Bigfoot female holding several Bigfoot children.” The museum had troubles with such earthly elements as a fire and a flood before closing.

A fire also damaged the Weird Museum, a collection of mummies, skeletons and body parts that closed in 1995.

Curator George Derby said at the time that the firefighters were shocked at the items they found, including the 300-year-old mummified hand of an executed murderer.

“They didn’t realize that all the human things were our exhibits,” Derby said. “The stuff was taken to the coroner and he was able to authenticate the age of them.”

Of course, the L.A. area is not devoid of eccentric cultural institutions.

The Museum of Death in Hollywood ($15 admission) is very much alive, with its collection of “serial murderer artwork,” the “severed head of the Bluebeard of Paris, Henri Landru,” and, as its cheerful website says, “much, much more!”

Aiming for a decidedly different audience is the Bunny Museum of Pasadena, cited by the Guinness Book of World Records for the world’s largest collection of rabbit collectibles (more than 20,000).

Admission is free but co-founder Candace Frazee asks that visitors not discard their pet rabbits there.

And, too, there is the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City (suggested donation $5 for adults, $3 for the unemployed).

The Jurassic’s curiosities include a horn that allegedly grew “on the back of a woman’s head,” the decomposing dice of magician Ricky Jay and artwork “from Los Angeles Area Mobile Parks,” but no dinosaurs.

As for the International Banana Museum, it’s set to reopen early next year in the Salton Sea town of North Shore.

Ex-owner Bannister, who retained his title as president of the International Banana Club, still corresponds with fans.

But he misses his collection. “I wish I’d kept the petrified banana,” he said.