The International Banana Museum is on Grapefruit Boulevard, a highway that runs along the Salton Sea, a sizable desert lake where Sonny Bono learned to waterski before he became the mayor of nearby Palm Springs. Once a playground for the Rat Pack, this lake is now famous for massive fish die-offs, suffocating algae-blooms, a shrinking shoreline, and its distinctively acrid smell.
This part of the California desert is a hotbed of roadside attractions. To the north is a six-story concrete dinosaur; to the east lies Salvation Mountain, Leonard Knight’s painted hillside that was a Southland destination long before Emile Hirsch and Kristen Stewart left their handprints there in Into the Wild.
In 2010, Coachella Valley local Fred Garbutt bought enough cans of yellow paint to transform the drab exterior of a dive bar that had been in his family since 1958 into an unmissable canary-colored funhouse. Inside, he hung shelves, installed vitrines, and unpacked a newly acquired collection of seventeen thousand banana photographs and tchotchkes he found for sale on eBay.
Two years later he opened the doors to visitors with a one-dollar admission, waived with the purchase of homemade banana ice cream or a bedazzled souvenir. In recent years the collection has grown to well over twenty thousand items, thanks to eBay and acquisitions from noted banana-merchandise collector Charles Stansifer, a history professor at the University of Kansas with a dubious degree in bananaology.
The collection is still growing. When I visited, Garbutt was wondering if the eighty-two-foot-long inflatable banana promised to him by the Dada Land Agricultural Department was actually going to show up. Until it does, the following highlights remain the seven wonders of the International Banana Museum.
1. Fred and Kym Garbutt
A color tattoo of a banana smoking a cigarette takes up the majority of Fred Garbutt’s lower left leg. Depictions of the fruit hang from his necklace and cover his shirt. He also collects Chuck Taylors (110 pairs and counting) and, yes, he has the banana pair from the Andy Warhol collection.
When Fred informed Kym of his vision for the banana museum she thought he was nuts—“bananas,” to use her word—but his high-school-sweetheart-turned-wife now proudly dons a purple shirt that reads “I Have Apeel” and hangs miniature banana bunches from her earlobes.
2. “Electric Banana”
A 1970s ad for this portable, banana-shaped record player promises that it plays in any position—“even upside down!” A braided shoulder strap suggests that some decades ago you could walk on the beach with this electric-guitar-sized plastic banana slung on your back while playing a 45.
3. Original The Velvet Underground & Nico Album
“PEEL SLOWLY AND SEE,” is printed in tiny font on the cover of the Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut LP. Beneath the instructions is a sticker of a large, well-aged banana that peels back to reveal pink, fleshy fruit. The only other imagery on the album cover is the name of its designer, Andy Warhol.
The peel-away effect was costly for MGM; later editions eschewed the sticker for a flat image of Warhol’s banana.
4. Banana Floats
Don’t let the highlighter-yellow froth deter you; when Fred Garbutt offers you vanilla ice cream and banana soda in a frosty mug, just say yes.
5. Bob Mackie Brazilian Banana Bonanza Barbie
Fred Garbutt never thought he’d be so excited to receive a Barbie for Christmas, but this limited-edition showstopper from costume icon Bob Mackie remains one of the most prized pieces in his collection. Glittery bananas shoot like peacock feathers out of her headpiece and at least fifty more hang like tassels from her sarong.
6. Autographed Photo of Michael Cera in a Banana Suit
Little did Michael Cera know when he showed up to film Gregory Go Boom at a liquor store by the Salton Sea that a banana museum was next door. Garbutt (who also owns the liquor store) recognized Cera from Superbad, but had never heard of Arrested Development. Upon learning of Bluth’s Original Frozen Banana Stand, Garbutt suggested that Cera sign his banana-clad likeness with “There’s always money in the banana museum.” Sadly, Cera signed in his own way.
7. Banana Nut Bread Candle
A 1997 study by Dr. Alan Hirsch concluded that the scent of a banana bread batter increased female arousal by 12 percent. While the odor neutralizing banana nut bread room spray for sale at the museum is redolent of cheap vanilla extract, the $15 banana walnut bread Yankee Candle is wondrously spot on.