My earliest memory of connecting with pop culture took place in 1968 when I was four years old. The cultural happening that caught my attention was the Saturday morning TV show starring a furry foursome called the Banana Splits. While the march of time has forced me to abandon many of the treasures I cherished as a child (including the consumption of peanut butter and potato chip sandwiches and the pleasure derived from ramming my playmates’ heads into walls), the adult version of me is still madly in love with the Banana Splits.

“The Banana Splits” was a live-action Hanna-Barbera creation involving the mad adventures of four anthropomorphic animals who took their group name from the show’s title: Fleegle (a dog and the leader of the group), Bingo (an orange ape), Drooper (a somewhat scraggly lion) and Snorky (an elephant who spoke in a Morse Code of honking noises). The quartet all wore funky red hats and all but Fleegle wore sunglasses 24/7. (The character costumes were designed by Sid and Marty Krofft.) In fact, I began wearing sunglasses as a child due entirely to the influence of the Banana Splits.

The Banana Splits hung out in a psychedelic club house that came complete with a slide, a fire pole, a sassy talking cuckoo clock, and enough floor space to drive a dune buggy around. Needless to say, this was the perfect residence for an impressionable four-year-old circa 1968 (not to mention a jaded 40-year-old circa 2005!). The Banana Splits engaged in a wild number of skits and blackout gags, told silly jokes, were chased by animated monsters while they yelled “Hold the Bus!”, and engaged in extraordinary music video productions. Yes, the Banana Splits had their own style of rock music (Barry White and Gene Pitney were among the talents behind the songs), and I would boldly state their tunes were superior to those offered by another TV band, the Monkees. Even Bob Marley was a fan, which may explain why his classic “Buffalo Soldier” bears more than a slight acoustic resemblance to the Banana Splits’ theme, “The Tra La La Song.” The Banana Splits would also pause to allow some Hanna-Barbera cartoons to be shown, and there was also airtime slotted for a live-action adventure serial called “Danger Island” that featured a very young Jan-Michael Vincent.

Hanna-Barbera ran this brilliant madness from 1968 through 1970 under the title “Kellogg’s Presents The Banana Splits Adventure Hour.” When that Saturday morning offering ran its course, the program was syndicated as a half-hour “The Banana Splits and Friends,” and that ran on-and-off across the years on local TV stations around the United States.

In 1972, Hanna-Barbera brought back the Banana Splits for their first movie. Even a rabid Banana Splits fanatic like me has to acknowledge that was a bad idea – or at least it was a bad movie. “The Banana Splits in Hocus Pocus Park” not only ruins the wacky joy of the celebrated program, but it also among the very worst productions excreted under the Hanna-Barbera banner.

The main problem with “The Banana Splits in Hocus Pocus Park” was the sorry fact that the Banana Splits themselves are barely in it. The bulk of the film is animated, which was silly since the true joy of the Banana Splits was seeing live characters running about and acting zany. The three-dimensional happy-shock of seeing people dressed in hippy-dippy animal costumes was replaced with the one-dimensional sorrow of the fourth-rate Saturday morning animation that was Hanna-Barbera’s specialty. The Banana Splits went from being living cartoons to mediocre cartoons.

Furthermore, the magic of the Banana Splits was the fractured manner of the original show: plenty of quick jokes, sight gags and mishaps presented in staccato styling. It was something along the lines of Attention Deficit Disorder Theater: the quartet’s antics were limited to rapid-fire nuttiness ranging from 30 seconds to a maximum of four minutes per segment. The program clearly took its inspiration from “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” which engaged in similar bang-bang-bang comedy hits. Alas, “The Banana Splits in Hocus Pocus Park” is an hour-long (minus commercials) linear story that wears out its welcome almost immediately.

“The Banana Splits in Hocus Pocus Park” opens with live action segments shot at Cincinnati’s King’s Island amusement park. Fleegle, Bingo, Drooper and Snorky are tour guides who can only attract a single visitor to follow them around the park: an obnoxious little girl named Susie, who gets distracted quickly by a magical balloon. Susie pursues the balloon into a billboard and she disappears into the billboard (hello, Lewis Carroll?). The Banana Splits follow her through the billboard, at which point the film turns animated. It seems Susie has been lured away by a wicked witch who wants to enslave her (hello, L. Frank Baum?). The witch has a pair of bumbling wizards named Hocus and Pocus as her henchmen, but they are too stupid for words. It seems their magic can only work if they chant “Hocus Pocus” in unison – if one is out of line for a second or two, their spells backfire.

The remainder of the animated adventure includes some of the lamest slapstick imaginable: Hocus and Pocus dressing up as a zebra, the Banana Splits trying to cross a castle moat in a submarine, a mean old dragon raising a rumpus, a medieval-style joust between Drooper and a mechanical knight, and a ho-hum chase back to King’s Island amusement park.

“The Banana Splits in Hocus Pocus Park” premiered on November 25, 1972, as part of the “ABC Saturday Superstar Movie” program. That was a grab-bag of Saturday morning programming designed (it would seem, in retrospect) to punish naughty children by offering the worst possible animated shows imaginable (an earlier Bootleg Files column, “Daffy Duck and Porky Pig Meet the Groovy Ghoulies,” was also part of that show). The film was rerun a few times during the 1972-73 season and then vanished.

To date, “The Banana Splits in Hocus Pocus Park” has never been available on commercial home video (oh thank you, most merciful God in Heaven!). Bootlegs are circulating, primarily from private collectors with a passion for gathering as many vintage kiddie programs as possible.

Sadly, the Banana Splits themselves disappeared with this sorry mess. Hanna-Barbera permanently retired the characters with this film. Over the years, the syndicated half-hour versions of the Banana Splits live action show have popped up on the Cartoon Network, much to the delight of those old enough to recall the program when it was new (and to the wonderment of today’s kids, I would think). Die-hard fans of Fleegle, Bingo, Drooper and Snorky will always cherish the original episodes and sing merrily along with “The Tra La La Song” for as long as their vocal cords allow.

UPDATE: It is not often that the Banana Splits and Liza Minnelli are mentioned together, but I can happily report that one of the previous titles in the Bootleg Files, Liza with a Z, is coming back in a fully restored commercial presentation. It seems the Showtime cable network will be broadcasting this classic concert production in a digitally-enhanced restoration. Look for it on TV and later on DVD in 2006.


IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on August 19, 2005 in Features by

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