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09 May 2013

Time to Go Bananas: The International Banana Museum Sets Up Shop Near the Salton Sea

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Fred Garbutt and his fancy banana record player. Fred Garbutt and his fancy banana record player. Christina Lange

Once I stepped into the one-story building off of Highway 111 near North Shore, I knew I would be going bananas.

After all, this building is the home of the International Banana Museum. 

The first sense that is tested at the museum is smell, as you take in the aroma of banana-nut-bread candles. It’s a bit overwhelming at first, but it becomes a welcome cloak as you peruse the collection.

Vision is the second sense that is bombarded: It’s hard to describe the sheer amount of banana-related items in that room. Books on bananas, plastic bananas, food with bananas, stuffed toy bananas, stuffed toy monkeys with bananas, Christmas banana trees, banana stickers, jewelry-encrusted plastic bananas, banana snow globes, crème de banana liqueur, banana monkey necklaces, a flute in the shape of a banana … the list goes on.

The purchaser of the original Banana Club collection started by Ken Bannister, Indio native Fred Garbutt is an excellent curator with an eye for detail. At the same time, he seems slightly confounded by his decision to have purchased the collection in the first place. He dons “a sporty banana look”: a yellow shirt, glasses, a banana pendant on a chain necklace, Hawaiian shorts, and green-and-yellow Converse shoes. Garbutt’s statement that “bananas are associated with humor, with monkeys, and are fun and whimsical” rings true—and he revels as he throws out banana puns, innuendos and fun facts. He said he tries to keep his obsession on the “right side of totally bananas” while having a great deal of fun.

He bought Bannister’s collection on eBay in April 2010 and opened the museum to the public in November 2012; it’s open four days a week. Garbutt believes the collection originally included 17,000 items, and he has added enough items to reach the 20,000 mark.

And he’s adding more: Every day, he scours eBay and other online auction houses for more stuff. Guinness World Records still lists Ken Bannister as the record-holder for the largest collection of banana memorabilia; Garbutt hopes Guinness will do a recount of his items.

Garbutt’s current pride and joy? A record player in the shape of banana that he bought via eBay. It’s perfect working order, much to his delight.

What song did he recently play on it? “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”

I had to ask Garbutt: Does he like eating bananas? He said his mother made a dish when he was a child in which she would slice bananas, lay the slices out in a circle, and add whipped cream. Other than that, however, he ate no more bananas than an average kid. But, because of the museum, Garbutt has started eating more of them, he said. He has been working hard to expand the items on his soda-fountain menu. Visitors can enjoy banana splits, milkshakes and other banana-related items, including a banana soda ice cream float.

“Before making them available, I had to perfect my float and milkshake, so I would experiment. I have been having repeat customers coming in for the banana soda ice cream floats and milkshakes alone,” he said.

I had the milkshake, and my friend had the ice cream float. I would come back just for the milkshake goodness Garbutt put together.

Garbutt grew up in Indio and would visit the Salton Sea during its heyday in the 1950s. The building which houses the International Banana Museum and Skip’s liquor store has been in his family since 1959.

“There are so many misconceptions of the Salton Sea. The news leads people to believe that it is a cesspool that should just dry up,” he said. He wants the museum to help put the Salton Sea back on the map, and is even working on a “Banana Split Boat Trip” with an airboat operator who is setting up business at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area. Visitors on this tour will be able to enjoy the sea on the boat and then afterward visit the museum.

I came away with the impression that Garbutt would have been just as excited about a collection starring any fruit, if that’s what would have been on offer. However, there is indeed something special about the banana. After all, bananas make numerous appearances in comedy bits, right? As a result, you cannot help but leave the museum with a smile.

The next step for Garbutt and Platty—check the museum’s Facebook page for portraits of Garbutt’s travelling banana friend—is to continue travelling around the world in search of more banana-related items for the museum.

The International Banana Museum, 98775 Highway 111, North Shore, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday through Monday. Admission is $2. For more information, call (619) 840-1429, or visit www.facebook.com/InternationalBananaMuseum.

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