There are two kinds of people in Newport Beach: Those who say the frozen banana was invented on Balboa Island, and those who argue it was born a fraction of a mile away on Balboa Peninsula.
But everyone would agree that the frozen banana’s origin is a mystery wrapped inside a chocolate shell surrounded in a crunchy topping.
Whether fans of bananas dipped in sprinkles or chopped nuts, summer vacationers to Newport Beach have savored the icy treat for decades as a quick and cost-effective way to beat the heat. The local legend was even picked up by the prime-time TV show “Arrested Development,” which centered on the fabulously wealthy Bluth family, which owned a frozen banana stand on Balboa Island.
Yet the dessert’s precise derivation has long baffled banana lovers.
At long last, inquiring minds have their answer: Don Phillips, also known as the frozen banana king, opened the first frozen banana stand on Balboa Peninsula circa 1940, though it didn’t take long before they were popping up all over the place.
“Don opened the first shop right by the ferry landing on the peninsula,” said Ed Richardson, who moved from Hollywood to Balboa Island in 1927 as a 5-year-old. “There were lots of ice cream places around, but a frozen banana was quite a unique thing in the early 1940s.”
Though he’s always preferred a Balboa Bar — vanilla ice cream dipped in chocolate — to a frozen banana, longtime local George Grupe agreed that Phillips was the first local vendor of the sweet treat. And Grupe recalls the merchant managing a penny arcade at the fun zone just about the time he opened the banana stand.
“Don Phillips is the guy who made the first successful frozen banana just before the start of World War II,” Grupe, 85, said. “I know of nobody else who made them before Don, or as successfully as he did.”
Aptly naming his shop the Original Frozen Banana, Phillips appealed to fun zone frolickers and people lining up to board the ferry. He was a stickler when it came to quality and trusted only himself and his mother-in-law to prepare the bananas.
The pair came in early each morning to peel, cut and measure hundreds of fresh bananas before they were placed on sticks, flash-frozen to prevent rotting and finally dipped in Guittard Chocolate, an expensive brand good for providing an extra-thick coating, said Bruce Coston, who worked for Phillips for four years as a teenager in the 1950s. They were offered in three sizes: small (half a banana), medium (two-thirds of a banana), and large (a whole banana), and ranged in price from 15 to 35 cents.
“Only ripe bananas were used, and there were absolutely no spots,” said Coston, adding that Phillips later experimented with pineapples and cherries. “It was an intense process for them, preparing those bananas.”
Seeing block-long lines that disrupted traffic soon prompted other local businesses to sell the product not long after Phillips opened his stand, and the frozen banana quickly became an essential element of the Newport Beach experience.
In 1945, the banana made its way across Newport Harbor to Balboa Island, where it was first sold at Sugar ‘n’ Spice and later available just a few yards up Marine Avenue at Dad’s Donut Shop & Bakery — both of which still offer the dessert among a number of quick and tasty snacks.
Before he founded the Orange County Market Place, Bob Teller came to the area in 1963 with plans to manufacture car seat belts. But inspired by Phillips’ success, he opened a frozen banana stand — the Original Banana Rolla Rama — right across the street from the original store, which had since been closed by the local health department due to the owner’s unwillingness to repair a torn screen and some broken tiles, Teller said.
A few years later, Teller said, Phillips died, and the Internal Revenue Service auctioned off the business. Teller bought it for $125, including all the equipment and records, and used it to expand to other locations.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Teller’s business was also the sole distributor of frozen bananas to Knott’s Berry Farm and Disneyland, to which he sold about 200 cases a week.
“When I look back, I was so fortunate to be able to take over and run what Don Phillips built,” said Teller, who speculates that Phillips may have first seen the product at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. “Frozen bananas are my whole history and the whole foundation of my success.”
Coston, who now runs a wine business in Sonoma County, said Phillips’ attention to quality still inspires him in producing a consumable product, though he wasn’t always so serious about his work.
“On Saturday night, we’d be partying in there while we were selling bananas,” he said. “Sometimes he could tell more had gone on than just business as usual, but he never said anything — he was a sweet guy and a great boss.”
For Helen Connolly, who bought Balboa Island’s Sugar ‘n’ Spice in 1995, the frozen banana business remains a lucrative industry.
“We sell millions,” she said. “It’s a great treat because you have your potassium and your protein with the nuts, and I hear chocolate is good for the heart.”