Paul Winchell is Fleegle (of the Banana Splits)

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Today is the birthday of Star of Vaudeville #275: Paul Winchell (see here for his full story). I wasn’t around for his great TV ventriloquist heyday, but I did enjoy his unmistakable voice in countless saturday morning cartoons and that sui generis program The Banana Splits.

Now: The Banana Splits is hardly forgotten; everyone who’s ever seen it remembers it well because there’s nothing like it. It’s part of that era of psychedelic children’s programming that characterized the late 60s and early 70s. Highly interesting to me is the push on the part of entertainment executives and marketing people to replicate the success formula pioneered by Brian Epstein and the Beatles: funny, loveable, musical quartets. The Monkees were the first, of course. Then, like the Beatles before them they started exploring directions that were bewildering and alienating to the younger end of their demographic.¬† The bubble gum group/ saturday morning cartoon project The Archies were one attempt to reclaim that audience (as were, oddly enough this edition of The Hardy Boys).

And so were the Banana Splits, a quartet of mimes in amusement park mascot costumes who mysteriously talked without moving their mouths: Bingo, Fleegle, Drooper and Snork (the elephant, who didn’t talk anyway). Winchell was Fleegle, the dog, the leader of the group. In this clip, starting at about 1:14 he calls the meeting to order. Then a twelve year old girl dances in with some go-go steps and delivers a message from their nemesis the Sour Grapes Bunch. That’s when the weird starts to get a little weirder. I’m convinced it was all part of a Russian plot to weaken the minds of American children.

To find out more about  the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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