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I Will Go to See the Banana Man, the Joy of My Youth
January 14, 2008

The Roman Catholic Mass of my early years began with this exchange:
Priest: Introibo ad altáre Dei.
Server: Ad Deum qui laetificant juventútem meum.
As translated in the St. Joseph's Daily Missal:
P: I will go to the altar of God.
S: To God, the joy of my youth.
I have always enjoyed this equation of the divine with childhood joy, at times even going so far as to wonder if it is the joy itself, and not its cause or object, that is in fact divine, but that's heady stuff, for another time perhaps.

For now I just want to share one of the cornerstones of my childhood joy, and though I doubt anyone would mistake him for divinity, he remains one of the most amazing clown acts in history, second in my recollection only to Bill Irwin (with whom I became acquainted only as an adult, obviously).

The clown's name was the Banana Man, though I have learned he had an earlier incarnation as, among other things, the Walking Music Box. This earlier version of the act featured A. Robins, an emigre from Vienna and a Manhattan maker of props and gags for the comic theater of his time: Vaudeville. He ultimately developed his own act, which involved the production from his voluminous pockets of fake instruments and other unwieldy objects that he himself had hand-crafted: an over-sized mirror and comb, an equally oversized hand, a rubbery violin, a dubious mandolin, a cocktail set (that he filled from the daisy on his lapel), etc.

The version of the act which I remember seeing was actually a later incarnation, developed by a successor named Sam Levine, who performed from the 1950s into the 1970s. This act included hand-sewn spring-triggered fruit—watermelons, pineapples, and the eponymous bananas—which the Banana Man would produce from his pockets with a gargly, "Wooooooowwwwww!" Or a snickery: "Uh oh!"

Unfortunately, YouTube only has a film of the older act.

However, Rhett Bryson at the Furman University Department of Theater Arts has erected a website dedicated to the Banana Man in all his various guises. The website includes a page dedicated to the various toys and props A. Robins invented, and also includes a page with still photos from a video of the later Sam Levine version of the act taken from a Captain Kangaroo episode. (This is the one I remember.)

Last, it includes a fan statement from someone who recounts how often, at dinners or cocktail parties, he would recollect the Banana Man's act, only to be met with disbelieving stares from members of his own generation who also watched Captain Kangaroo (and the Ed Sullivan Show, on which the Banana Man also appeared), but had no recollection of the act. It was a little crazy-making, for how could anyone have made this thing up?

Now, the Internet has confirmed the joy of my youth! Please, check it out for yourself. It really is an amazing part of American comic theater history.

As I've mentioned in the last several Weekly commentaries, my time is being monopolized by deadlines for various projects. This will be my last commentary for a while—I've decided to launch my hiatus with an atypically humorous piece. Feel free to browse through previous offerings, most of which are of a more serious and political nature, and which you can find here.

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