BOOTLEG FILES 600: “The Banana Splits Adventure Hour” (1968-70 television series).
LAST SEEN: Bits and pieces can be found on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It is a bit complicated.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not in its original form.
Contemporary children’s television is a fairly boring scene that offers little in the way of genuine fun for the young viewers. Indeed, some shows are so lacking in energy and personality that you can’t help but wonder if the programming is designed to narcotize the kiddie audience into a state of numbness.
Things were quite different when I was a kid. My first memory of Saturday morning television involved a wild and wacky NBC-aired program that debuted in 1968 and gave its audience visceral doses of laughter, music and thrills – I was four years old, and the impact it had on me still resonates. The program is “The Banana Splits Adventure Hour,” and while has not been seen in its original state since going off the air in 1970, there are still enough tantalizing bits and pieces floating about that offer irrefutable evidence of its originality and charm.
“The Banana Splits Adventure Hour” marked the first foray by the animation studio Hanna-Barbera into live-action programming. The idea for the show was a bizarre mix of two popular television shows of the mid-1960s, “The Monkees” and “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.” From “The Monkees,” the program would follow the antics of a freewheeling rock-and-roll band, complete with musical sequences with the performers running amok in oddball situations. From “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” the show borrowed the set-up of a rapid-fire skein of sight gags and jokes within a psychedelic setting.
The one original aspect was the cast: four anthropomorphic animals, each with its own zany personality, that made up the group called The Banana Splits. The leader of this squad was a yellow-tan dog named Fleegle, who spoke in an exasperated manner laced with a harsh lisp – Paul Winchell did the voice performance for Fleegle. Also in the group was a smiling orange ape named Bingo (voiced by Daws Messick), a grungy lion with a slacker vibe named Drooper (voiced by Allan Melvin with a Southern drawl), and a strange looking woolly elephant with polka-dot ears named Snorky (whose communication was achieved in a series of horn honking noises). All four of the animals wore matching red hats and all but Fleegle sported oversized sunglasses. Sid and Marty Krofft designed the animal costumes, but otherwise played no role in the program.
The Banana Splits congregated in a clubhouse full of surreal nonsense, including an insulting cuckoo clock bird that constantly pointed out the group’s shortcomings and a talking gnu head hanging on the wall that served as doom-and-gloom commentator. The clubhouse décor had a groovy Peter Max-style vibe, but the shenanigans that went on within its walls – including the driving of dune buggies through the building, an omnivorous garbage can, and slapstick knockabout including the inevitable pie in the face – was pure vaudeville. Occasionally, The Banana Splits were visited by a rival gang called The Sour Grapes Bunch, which consisted of little girls in purple mini-skirts who terrified the oversized animals with their dancing.
“The Banana Splits Adventure Hour” opened with what could arguably be considered the greatest television theme song of all time, “The Tra La La Song.” This happy, trippy tune promised the viewer “lots of fun for everyone” while a montage of The Banana Splits cavorting in an amusement park or acting silly in their clubhouse fills the screen.
After its great opening, each character is introduced individually, which is followed by Fleegle trying to maintain some degree of order in their clubhouse. The show is peppered with Hanna-Barbera animated sequences – a pair of light comic adventures, “The Three Musketeers” and “The Arabian Knights” – as well as a live-action cliffhanger serial called “Danger Island,” which focused on the search for lost treasure in the South Seas. A young Jan-Michael Vincent was cast in those episodes as the son the expedition’s leader, and the serial was directed by an up-and-coming filmmaker named Richard Donner.
But the real surprise with “The Banana Splits Adventure Hour” was the show’s musical interludes. The song selection ran a diverse gamut from bubblegum pop (“I Enjoy Being a Boy,” “It’s a Good Day for a Parade”) to funk (the dance tune “Doin’ the Banana Split,” with Barry White as the lead singer) to show tune-style ditties (“The Beautiful Calliopa”) to Class-A pop (Gene Pitney’s comic “Two-Ton Tessie” and the uncommonly mature ballad “Wait Till Tomorrow”). The music sequences found The Banana Splits in playful settings – “Wait Till Tomorrow” had them cavorting across San Francisco, “It’s a Good Day for a Parade” had them disrupt a Confederate (!) military drill exercise in an amusement park – and sometimes the sequences were highlighted with flashes of psychedelic animation reminiscent of the “2001” trip to Jupiter and beyond. For a kiddie show, this was extraordinarily elaborate.
“The Banana Splits Adventure Hour” was sponsored by Kellogg’s, and the commercial breaks featured the characters hawking the various breakfast cereals produced by the show’s corporate backer. Kellogg’s, in turn, prominently featured The Banana Splits on their cereal boxes and also produced show-inspired merchandising.
The program was a big hit in its initial 1968-69 season, and Hanna-Barbera turned out a second season. But a few changes were made: the woolly Snorky was replaced with a new character design that more closely resembled an elephant, and “The Three Musketeers” cartoons were replaced with another Hanna-Barbera work, “The Hillbilly Bears.” Kellogg’s returned as the show’s sponsor in its second season.
“The Banana Splits Adventure Hour” was not continued when the second season ended in 1970. The show was still very popular, but clearly the expense of producing a live-action program with original music proved too costly for Hanna-Barbera, which returned its focus to animation. Ideally, Hanna-Barbera would sell the episodes into syndicated channels, but several problems popped up here. For starters, Kellogg’s ended its sponsorship when the show went off NBC, so all references to the company needed to be removed. Also, syndicated children’s programming was strictly for half-hour time slots, so “The Banana Splits Adventure Hour” needed to be cut in half. And music clearance issues for the various songs created for the program also had to be addressed.
For years, Hanna-Barbera offered a half-hour syndicated “The Banana Splits and Friends,” which seemed to put more emphasis on the “Friends” (in this case, the studio’s animated cartoons). Only the episodes from the first season were included in the syndicated package, but strangely the opening and closing credits from the second season were used for syndication – which resulted in the replacement Snorky being seen in the opening and closing but the original woolly Snorky seen in the body of the program. Hanna-Barbera revived the characters for a one-shot animated film, “The Banana Splits in Hocus Pocus Park,” but then dropped the concept.
Nonetheless, the memory of “The Banana Splits Adventure Hour” was maintained by many fans – including music stars Liz Phair and The Dickies, who recorded covers of The Banana Splits’ tunes. And, most notably, Bob Marley borrowed a riff from “The Tra La La Song” for his reggae classic “Buffalo Soldier.” Warner Bros. attempted to revive the characters in 2008 for a Cartoon Network series, but it lacked the inventive fun of the original offering and quickly folded.
Warner Bros. also released a DVD based on the truncated “The Banana Splits and Friends,” but only on the European Region 2 DVD – it is not clear why there was no U.S. release. There have also been at least two bootlegged video releases culled from the syndicated version.
Mercifully, some enterprising Banana Splits fans have managed to rescue long-lost clips from the original series to share on YouTube. If you hunt around, you can find the original opening title sequence from the 1968-69 season, with the woolly Snorky as part of the pack. A few Kellogg’s commercials from the second season are also available, including one with the quartet selling cereal through a “Laugh-In”-style joke wall. There are also several sight-gag and sketch numbers from the elusive second season, as well as a viewer-edited version of the original “Two-Ton Tessie” musical sequence (the syndicated version of the show chopped the song into two parts).
The likelihood of a full DVD offering of the complete and original two-season run of “The Banana Splits Adventure Hour” is scant, which is a major shame because this was (and still is) a highly entertaining show. And going back to my original rant, I would hope that today’s kids find a way to sneak off from the dreary children’s programming that is polluting the airwaves today and get introduced to Fleegle, Bingo, Drooper and Snorky – they will be so much better off for having the jubilant comedy of The Banana Splits in their young lives.
P.S.This column marks the 600th entry in The Bootleg Files, which began in 2003 on the original Film Threat site and migrated here to Cinema Crazed in February. I would like to thank Felix Vasquez Jr., the publisher of Cinema Crazed, for having The Bootleg Files back online on this site, and I would especially like to thank the column’s readers for their support and friendship over the past 14 years.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.
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