Go totally bananas at a fruity-tutti museum

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Jorie Parr

Fred Garbutt, owner of the International Banana Museum in Mecca, wears what else but banana-theme togs.
Photo by Gordon Parr

If you head nine miles past Mecca toward the north shore of the Salton Sea, just before you get to the Albert Frey yacht club building, there it is: the International Banana Museum in all its golden splendor. Swerve over and check it out.

You’ve never seen so many banana-themed objects: thousands of gadgets, from staplers to a banana-shaped record player with the 45 rpm of Harry Belafonte’s Day-O, the Banana Boat Song. Don’t fight it, get into a banana costume and take a selfie by the plastic banana tree.

Perusing the mind-boggling collection, you’ll need to take a break. Climb on a banana-like bar stool and enjoy a treat. Enjoy the Latin-beat music (Tito Fuentes, etc.).

The “banana mon” jerking up bananas foster shakes is Fred Garbutt. You’ll know him by his banana-printed shirt or maybe the slightly sinister banana tattoo on his calf. His banana-yellow VW is parked outside.

The party atmosphere makes it easy to chat up other visitors. Two young geologists, Emily Kleber of Phoenix, Ariz., and Kendra Johnson of Golden, Colo., told their story. They’d passed by the museum a year ago and to their regret had not stopped. So recently, reconvening in Palm Springs, they made a special trip down to bananaville. All smiles, they shopped and bellied up to the bar for refreshments.

Crazy for bananas

Fred and his mother, Virginia Garbutt, aka the banana nana, purchased the museum from Ken Bannister of Hesperia in 2010, opening their own facility in November 2012. The Garbutt family, which has operated Skip’s Liquors there on highway 111 since 1958, visualized an adjoining museum as a roadside attraction. They spruced up, edited the original stock and have been adding to it ever since. How about that McCoy cookie jar, circa 1948?

“I can’t stop. I’m hopeless,” Fred Garbutt says with a big grin. After work at his straight job, contracting clay tennis courts and the like, he trolls eBay at his banana-free La Quinta home. “My wife says all banana stuff has to go to the museum.”

On vacations, the hunt accelerates. There’s a banana zombie from China, banana liqueur from Spain, marzipan from Bruges, Belgium. “How can you not have fun?”

All kind of souvenirs proliferate, from T-shirts and stuffed banana pillows to elegant prizes like the Sheffield knives and forks the Garbutts use for Thanksgiving. Anyone can grasp a banana phone, but there’s a nod to 21st century technology with a banana tooth (off-shoot of bluetooth) device. Inevitably, someone asks about X-rated banana doo-dads. They’re secluded behind the counter, but a French Canadian film crew did insist on a peek.

The museum has drawn international press, and even been featured in the Wall Street Journal. Nevertheless, it appears that Fred Garbutt buys more than he sells. There’s nothing else to do but to expand, and that’s the master plan. Got to get those extra cartons of banana memorabilia unpacked.

Concedes Fred, “I’ve created a monster, and it can’t be stopped.”

If you go

Hours: 11 a.m. till dark Fri. through Mon. Hours at the museum are “flexible.” It’s best to email or call before setting out.

Fee:  $1, unless you buy something.

Directions: Take Interstate 10 east to 86 expressway south, exit Avenue 66 and go left to Highway 111. Make a right on 111 and go about nine miles to the museum, attached to Skip’s Liquors, on the southbound side.

Contact: (619) 840-1429, ibmbigbanana@aol.com

Addenda: While you’re in the neighborhood, go down the road a bit to see the stunningly restored North Shore Beach and Yacht Club. The 1959 building amounts to a monument for its architect, Albert Frey. Inspired by a futuristic ship, the two-story wonder offers a spectacular Salton Sea view. The waterscape is dotted with pelicans, egrets and many other beautiful birds.