I love animation and going over the history of iconic animated series.
The concept of a show starring a costumed character would become popular during the 1970s thanks to the efforts of Sid and Marty Krofft, who created such series as H.R. Pufnstuf and Sigmund and the Sea Monsters. However, in 1968, networks were uncertain about such an unproven idea.
But thanks to a special set of circumstances, the show that started the trend would be born from not just the talents of the Krofft brothers, but Hanna-Barbera, a cereal company, and several musicians. That show would be The Banana Splits.
September 7, 1968 – September 5, 1970
The Banana Splits actually began life under the title of "The Banana Bunch," and resulted as part of an opportunity presented to Hanna-Barbera by the Leo Burnett Agency in Chicago. The agency had just struck a deal with Kellogg’s to sponsor an entire weekly hour of programming on NBC, but still needed the content, so they began asking various studios for pitches. Knowing that nearly all the pitches would most likely be cartoons, Hanna-Barbera set out to do something really different to stand out from the pack, choosing to make characters similar to their in-house style except, instead of being animated, they’d be live-action costumed characters with real people in the suits.
At first, Hanna-Barbera made their pitch showed the concept art to Leo Burnett and NBC, but found it difficult to get them to understand it would be a live-action show and not animated. The deciding factor would be their pitch to Kellogg’s, and determined to sell the show, Joe Barbera made an eleventh-hour decision to present the pitch to them with a costumed character in the room. There were no costumes made at this point, but Barbera knew that they had a Yogi Bear costume that had been used for promotional appearances, and he knew that Kellogg’s was familiar with Yogi as they had previously sponsored that series, so it’d be a familiar face to put to this unfamiliar idea. So the night before the pitch, he had the Yogi Bear costume quickly flown over from California to Chicago, arriving just six hours before the meeting.
It was that quick thinking which helped ensure the show was picked up, as Barbera would later recall that the Kellogg’s chairman was falling asleep during the actual pitch portion of the presentation. But as soon as the costumed Yogi Bear walked into the room, it instantly caught everyone’s attention, including the chairman’s, in a positive way. One final hiccup did present itself shortly after the show was picked up, when it was discovered that the name “The Banana Bunch” was already taken by a book written by a Scottish author who wasn’t willing to let them use the name. The name was swiftly changed to “The Banana Splits.” but not before Kellogg’s had put the name “The Banana Bunch” on 1.25 million cereal boxes, all of which had to be destroyed and reprinted.
The live-action segments of the show drew much of its inspiration from the sketch comedy show Laugh-In, which had premiered on NBC earlier that same year, borrowing its rapid-fire comedic timing and sight gags; The Banana Splits themselves would actually make an appearance on a season 2 episode of Laugh-In. It also borrowed from the format of another NBC series, The Monkees, which had featured musical sequences. Likewise, the unifying thread tying the Banana Splits characters together would be that they were a band of four members in a club.
They consisted of guitarist Feegle the Beagle (voiced by Paul Winchell), drummer Bingo the Ape (Daws Butler), Drooper the Lion (Allan Melvin) on bass, and Snorky the Elephant (who only spoke in honks) on keyboards. Each week they’d meet at their clubhouse, joined by a talking cuckoo clock, a moose head named Banana Vac, and Goofy Gopher. Together, they’d get into comedic antics, sometimes encountering their rivals, the Sour Grape Bunch (consisting of five girls, all named Charley).
During the first season, all the outdoor scenes were filmed on-location at Six Flags Over Texas, and would often see the characters interacting with the rides there. They’d also often drive around in their Banana Buggies, modified all-terrain Amphicat vehicles; Joe Barbera was inspired to include these after seeing them demonstrated on the Johnny Carson incarnation of The Tonight Show. He got official permission from the company that produced them, Mobility Unlimited Inc., to include them in the show.
The theme song “The Tra La La Song (One Banana, Two Banana)” was written by Kellogg’s jingle writer N.B. Winkless Jr., who also wrote the “Snap, Crackle, Pop” jingle for Rice Krispies cereal. Thanks to the catchiness of the song, it has gone on to appear on many lists of the best TV theme songs ever, been covered several times, and even peaked at #96 on Billboard’s Top 100. Other musicians who contributed to The Banana Splits included Jimmy Radcliffe, Barry White, Joey Levine, and Ricky Lancelotti, among others.
The costumes proved to arguably be the most difficult part for Hanna-Barbera, as it was, again, unlike anything they or anyone else had done on TV before. For that task, they got Sid and Marty Krofft, a duo who would later become their own driving force in the children’s television market. As Sid Krofft once told Film Threat magazine in 1993, "We were the only ones - including Disney - putting people inside of suits at the time. No one had ever heard of that." The colorful costumed characters would eventually open the door for the Krofft brothers to produce their own show for NBC in 1969, H.R. Pufnstuf, which was launched with a one-hour special hosted by the Banana Splits.
Of course, the segments involving the costumed characters were only one portion of the “Adventure Hour”, acting as wraparounds. In between the skits and music videos, there were four different segments filling out the hour.
First was Arabian Knights; It tells the adventures of a heroic band of freedom fighters in Persia led by Turhan, prince of Baghdad (voiced by Jay North, best known as the start of the original Dennis the Menace). Together with his cousin Princess Nida (voiced by puppeteer Shari Lewis), muscle man Raseem the Strong (Frank Gerstle), the jolly Fariik the Magician (John Stephenson), the shapeshifting Bez the Beast (Henry Corden), and Zazuum the Donkey (Don Messick), they formed a group known as the Arabian Knights. Their goal, to take back Persia from the clutches of the evil Bakaar the Black Sultan. It was much like other action cartoons Hanna-Barbera were producing around that time, such as similarly Arabian-themed Shazzan, though with a more comedic and non-violent tone to conform to the growing negative backlash towards action cartoons.
Likewise, The Three Musketeers told new stories involving the classical heroes and their fights to protect the royal family of France. This segment starred Jonathan Harris as Athos, Barney Phillips as Porthos, Don Messick as Aramis and King Louis XIV, and Bruce Watson as D'Artagnian. It should be noted that, similar to other Hanna-Barbera cartoons of the time, each of these animated segments during the Banana Splits show had comic book artist Alex Toth onboard as character designer, and his distinct style is most apparent during this segment.
The Banana Splits wraparounds ended up not being the only part of the show produced in live-action, with the third segment being Danger Island. Filmed over seven weeks and produced essentially like a three-hour film directed by Richard Donner (best known now for the 1978 Superman film; Donner also directed the first season Banana Splits wraparounds), it was split into 36 serialized segments for TV, each ending with a cliffhanger. It centered around a trio of explorers (Professor Irwin Hayden (Frank Aletter), his daughter Leslie Hayden (Ronne Troup), and archeologist Lincoln Simmons (Jan-Michael Vincent)) as they travel through a chain of island searching for the lost city of Tobanya. Along the way, they’re joined by shipwrecked merchant mariner Elihu Morgan (Rockne Tarkington) and his sidekick Chongo (Kim Kahana), and face off against cannibals and pirates who are also after the treasures contained in Tobanya.
Lastly, there was Micro Ventures, a segment seen very infrequently with only four installments produced. It acted as educational material, showing the adventures of Professor Carter (Don Messick) and his children Mike (Tommy Cook) and Jill (Patsy Garrett), as they used an invention of his to shrink in size and explore the world on a smaller scale. Subjects included learning about ant colonies, life inside a pond, what lives in a backyard, or in the desert. Inevitably, while tiny, something would attack them, whether it be an ant, a hawk, a cat, or a Gila monster.
Doin' the Banana Split All These Years
The Banana Splits Adventure Hour was a hit for NBC, and continued on into a second season in 1969. This brought some changes, the most noticeable being a change to Snorky, who changed from his initially wooly mammoth-esque appearance in season 1 to a more smooth appearance (more akin to an elephant) in season 2. The outdoor filming location also changed, switching to the Coney Island theme park in Cincinnati, Ohio. Lastly, The Three Musketeers was dropped, being replaced with Hillbilly Bears, a segment from the 1965 Atom Ant/Secret Squirrel Show.
While the show only lasted two seasons on NBC, it had a lengthy life in syndication, albeit in a shortened half-hour form under the name The Banana Splits and Friends Show. In this incarnation, all references to Kellogg’s were removed, and primarily the first season wraparounds were used. Segments were also added and removed, with other segments from Atom Ant/Secret Squirrell included, as well as The Adventures of Gulliver and The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, two series that had aired separately in syndication a few years earlier.
They even received an hour-long TV movie titled The Banana Splits in Hocus Pocus Park, which aired on Thanksgiving weekend in 1972. Now tour guides at an amusement park (this time being filmed at Kings Island in Cincinnati), they set out to rescue a young girl named Susie who is kidnapped by an evil witch from an animated dimension. The film was one of seven films produced by Hanna-Barbera for The ABC Saturday Superstar Movie, a programming slot that aired a different animated TV movie each week (several of which spun off into new series).
In more recent years, the Banana Splits have seen a few attempts at a revival. 2008 saw Warner Bros. revive them with several new comedy shorts airing on Cartoon Network, as well as a soundtrack of new songs and park appearances at Hard Rock Park in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina with a special area called “Banana Splitsville.” In 2017, as part of a series of crossovers between DC and Hanna-Barbera characters, the Banana Splits teamed up with the Suicide Squad for a one-issue special. Most recently, the franchise took a much darker turn with an R-rated horror titled The Banana Splits Movie, recasting the characters as killer animatronics. The film was released on home media in August 2019, with a TV airing on SyFy later in the year.
Despite these revivals, however, nothing has been able to touch the original show, still beloved by those who grew up with it over 50 years later.