I was reading an old blog post the other day that mentioned The Banana Splits. I have been meaning to write about the characters in those whacky shows ever since, so here goes…
The Banana Splits Show ran from 1968 to 1970 but was repeated countless times on TV stations around the world. Especially through the 1970s. The show was a Hanna-Barbera production but instead of their usual cartoons it featured live scenes with actors in funny animal costumes playing in a fictional rock band called The Banana Splits. The show centred around the Splits’ clubhouse and was interspersed with a mix of cartoons and live action series. The Banana Splits band were; Fleagle (Guitar and singer), Bingo (drums), Drooper (bass guitar) and Snorky (keyboards). They played a type of bubble-gum rock as well as the instantly recognisable theme tune. The show was fast paced, slapstick with some decent tunes. It was exactly as it sounds – Completely Nuts!
The Banana Splits was a landmark moment in children’s TV; the show was the start of a whole new genre of youth TV and helped shape an entire generation. The first generation of TV kids. My generation in fact!
The show’s catchy theme tune (the Tra-La-La song) was written by Nelson Winkless. He managed to get his sons to play three of the Banana Splits characters although their names were changed for the credits to avoid any suggestions of nepotism. Here is a rundown of the people who played the costumed characters and those who did the voices.
Fleagle (the dog) was played by Jeffery Winkless (credited as Jeffery Brock) and voiced by Paul Winchell. Winkless died in 2006 of a brain tumour aged 65 while Winchell died a year earlier of natural causes aged 82. Winchell voiced many Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters including Dick Dastardly. He also was the voice of Tigger the tiger in the Winnie the Pooh movies.
Bingo (the gorilla) was played by Jeffery’s brother Terence (credited as Terence Henry) and voiced by Charles Dawson Butler. Terence Winkless is still alive, but Charles Dawson died in 1988 of a heart attack aged 71. He was also the voice of Yogi Bear, Huckleberry hound and Elroy Jetson among many others.
Drooper (the lion) was played by the third Winkless brother Daniel (billed as Daniel Owen). The voice of Drooper was Allan Melvin who played Sergeant Bilko’s sidekick Corporal Steve Henshaw in ‘Sgt. Bilko’ (aka The Phil Silvers Show) that ran for 5 years and 143 episodes between 1955-1959. ‘Bilko’ remains one of the most well known and loved TV shows of all time – and still very funny, over 60 years later. Melvin also voiced many Hanna-Barbara cartoon characters. He was also the voice of The Banana Splits show’s unseen announcer. He died in 2008 from cancer aged 84.
Snork/Snorky (the elephant) had a slightly more chequered career. He was initially suited by James Dove but only in the first season’s song segments. He was replaced by Robert Towers for most of the other parts of the shows. It is not clear why, but a third actor (Jay Larremore) is also credited with playing Snorky. I read some time ago that one of the actors playing Snorky was doing so much cocaine that they called him Snorty – but I think that was just a rumour. But who knows? The way they all ran around the stage they could have all been on it!
Snorky of course had no voice as he only honked. Apparently James Dove, the original Snorky, was previously a voice-over artist. He also once stated that he was fired as a result of not being able to get along with the Winkless “kids”.
Unfortunately for the actors anyone could wear those furry suits. When the show did nationwide tours they ended up hiring locals to fill the suits, hence saving on expenses. One of the Winkless brothers (Terence) later starred in a few films and later produced and directed. Robert Towers went on to play an alien of sorts in a Star Trek spin-off. Other than that the acting careers of the furry suit wearers never really took off.
Well that was the suits and the voices. what about the actual band who played the instruments and sang the songs? Nobody seems to know. It’s all a bit of mystery.
Music and Buggies
‘Over Hill and Highway the Banana Buggies Go…’
Apart from the catchy Banana Splits (Tra-La-La) title song the show featured the Splits playing various tracks in keeping with the music of the time. The songs were written by well known or soon to be known artists.
Songwriter and musician Al Kooper who was in the band Blood Sweat & Tears and later played with and produced Lynyrd Skynyrd also wrote a song for the show. This track, “You’re the Lovin’ End”, is one of Kooper’s creations:
You can find another groovy tune, “I’m Gonna Find a Cave”, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cfHKmQ2ZzI
One of the shows featured the funky “Doin’ the Banana Split”. It was written by the upcoming soul icon Barry White.
The Splits darted around in their cool Banana Buggies, (mentioned in the title song) and there wasn’t a single kid in the world who didn’t want one of those Banana Buggies. They were modified versions of the amphibious six-wheeled all-terrain vehicle known as the Amphicat. The Amphicat also appeared as a ‘moon buggy’ on the cult sci-fi series Space: 1999.
I can still remember watching the live action sequences that were filmed in the amusement parks at Six Flags Over Texas (in Arlington, Texas) and Coney Island (in Cincinnati, Ohio). They looked great to me when I was only 7 or 8 years old. I so wanted to visit those parks.
There was a cartoon version years later and in 2008 the show was introduced to a new audience in the original costumed format. But only for a few shows on the Cartoon Network. Nothing ever got near the popularity of the original series however and few if any shows have ever had the same impact.
For some inexplicable reason the Banana Splits were revived in 2019 through a feature-length comedy/horror film. It is called The Banana Splits Movie (no real thought gone into that one eh?), rated MA15+, and is definitely not aimed at the same audience as the original TV show. Our four heroes are turned into animatronic robot killers. I have absolutely no idea why they decided to make the Banana Splits into a gory slasher body count movie. But I intend to find out and will post a movie review, as and when I get to watch it.
Note: You may also want to see a follow up post to this one: The Banana Spliffs