NORTH SHORE, SALTON SEA – I have turned the company car east toward Mecca, hoping it will serve as my portal into the palace of potassium that is the International Banana Museum.
And there it stands, nine miles southeast from Mecca on Highway 111, a bright yellow low-slung concrete building with a equally brilliant-hued Volkswagen Beetle out front and a 20-foot sign reading:
World Famous International Banana Museum
Guinness World Record Collection
Though impossible to miss amid the beige terrain and blue sparkling water of the Salton Sea, I wonder what quirk of fate and geography has led to this site being the nexus for 'nanas. The only other business around is Skip's Liquor right next door, with its tantalizing sign touting "Bait, Ice, Beer."
Why not India, Ecuador, Costa Rica? You know, a place that actually produces the fruit being so venerated?
Clearly, I'm asking too many questions, overthinking things like always.
I will soon learn that choosing the Salton Sea as a banana hub had mostly to do with commerce, not geographic concerns. It has much to do with Skip's, that liquor store on a crumbling stretch of the highway, and the owner's fervent belief that bananas would lure the curious.
Don't laugh. You must never underestimate the power of this nutrient-dense super fruit, worshipped by untold millions for its fiber-rich sweetened goodness, not to mention its perfect packaging.
Only five months after its opening, the International Banana Museum has been featured on BBC television, hosted a documentary film crew from the Netherlands, had several cable TV shows stateside come calling, as well as being written up in scads of travel blogs and prompting a torrent of babble on Twitter and Facebook.
Inside what once was a rundown pub is a blinding array of yellow banana items, everything from 10-foot inflatable bananas to books, CDs and posters on the theme, to clocks and plush toys and a banana vehicle – about 21,000 items in all, including a recently acquired rare 1960s banana-shaped record player.
Yes, the museum is "international," since some items come from Russia, Peru and Denmark.
Curator Fred Garbutt, who operated a tennis-court construction business in the Palm Springs area and whose family owns Skip's, never set out to be the Banana Man, the moniker he now gives himself.
This whole enterprise began as something of a family joke, until it got serious and took on a life of its own.
In late 2009, the family matriarch, Virginia, read something online about a gentleman named Ken Bannister selling his collection of bananalia on eBay because he lost his lease at his museum in Hesperia in Riverside County. Bannister had long been the top banana, first opening his museum in the Los Angeles suburb of Altadena in the early 1970s, but apparently he wanted to pass on his fruity artifacts to a new generation – for a pretty penny, of course.
"When my mom, who I now call the Banana Nana, called me up and told me about it, I thought it might be a way to reinvent (Skip's) out here," Garbutt said. "It was really struggling. I thought turning the pub next to the liquor store (into a museum) might draw people off the highway and maybe they'd buy snacks and water at the store.
"It was kind of a risky concept, but I do know that people go out of their way to see the most obscure things."
In April 2010, after the banana collection failed to sell on eBay, Garbutt pounced and bought it from Bannister for an undisclosed sum in a private transaction. Let's just say it costs bundles and bundles of bananas.
Little did Garbutt know that his banana buying had just begun. It took him nearly three years to gut the bar and turn it into a presentable showplace, and during that period, he discovered that Bannister's 17,000 banana items just weren't enough to make the museum truly epic.
He purchased another 500 items himself on eBay and bought a collection of 600 pieces from a man in Mississippi. In addition, the son of a noted banana collector who was being moved to a rest home donated his dad's 3,000-banana cache.
"I wouldn't say I'm obsessed, but I am an avid banana collector," Garbutt said. "If I go into something, I go in full force. Somebody contacted me from that cable show, 'Collection Obsession,' and I told them, 'I'm not one of those guys sitting there obsessed like it's some type of addiction. If I was obsessed, I'd say my home would be loused with it too."
For the record, Garbutt does have one, just one, banana souvenir in his home office.
"It's a life-size heavy porcelain banana that was double-dipped in sterling silver and then gilded in 24-karat gold," he said. "I keep it on my desk."
At some point, Garbutt admits, he came to have real affection for the fruit. He wears a yellow wristwatch with banana hands, wears banana-print tropical shirts, has a banana pendant dangling from his neck and even has a full banana suit he zips into when people with cameras come.
"I'm always trying to promote wherever I am because I'm the Banana Man," he said. "I'm not trying to be too silly, but just enough banana-y to have some fun."
Visitors seem to enjoy themselves as well, judging by the guest book scrawled with names and little banana drawings from several continents. He says he does "decent" business selling banana-themed items such as jewelry, pens, gum and hand sanitizer.
On weekends during the hotter months, Garbutt offers banana sodas, snow cones and ice-cream floats.
Alas, no banana daiquiris. Not yet, at least. Garbutt has plans for the back patio, where adults can lounge under banana fronds and a plantation mural and drink in the view of the Salton Sea while sipping on banana beer or wine.
"My goal," he said, with an arm sweep of his banana manse, "is to make this the finest beloved offbeat museum that people have ever seen."
It's either a truly noble calling or he's totally bananas.
INTERNATIONAL BANANA MUSEUM
98775 Highway 111, Mecca
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays
More information: www.internationalbananamuseum.com
Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.