The quality your correspondent prizes more than any other in the theatre is mystery. Is this real? Fake? A put on? Who is this? Can this person hurt me? Is he as inhuman as he seems? It is the quality that makes some children cry at birthday clowns. I always leave it at the “what if?’ and give the clown the benefit of the doubt with the assumption that he’s just a playful person in a costume. But, trust me, there are plenty of adults who can’t even go that far. (Think of the millions, for example, who couldn’t deal with Andy Kaufman’s antics).
At any rate, this is the quality I think of when I think of A.Robins, a.k.a The Banana Man. As an act, he was both memorable and magical: part clown, part musical “nut”, part magician, part quick change artist. The “elevator speech” description of his act is that “he’s the guy who keeps taking an impossible number of things out of his coat”, but there’s a lot more to it then that. There are visual gags, like picking up a fallen handkerchief with a big magnet. And his voice, which he would sometimes use to imitate musical instruments, or sometimes he would simply coo and cackle in a voice that bore a resemblance (to modern ears) to both Elmo and JarJar Binks.
So, there’s a magical thing to this coat. But, the really cool part is….who’s that behind that weird make-up? For a long time no one, not the public, not the performers who shared the bill with him, seemed to know the answer to that question. In recent years, some biographical details have come to light. It is known that his real name was Adolph Proper and that he was born Austria in around 1886. But the really cool part to me is that after A. Robins passed away in 1950, others (including one Sam Levine) took the role over, and the Banana Man lived on. Like Santa Claus, like commedia characters the character has the magical property of transcending any single mortal human being. He could go on for centuries. At any rate, it’s cool to compare two of the Banana Men. Here’s the original A.Robins in a 1939 short hosted by Red Skelton. And here’s a subsequent one, Sam Levine a 1969 episode of Captain Kangaroo. Is he kind of creepy? Sure! But so are Red Skelton and Captain Kangaroo! That’s show biz, man!
To find out more about these variety artists and 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.