The History of the Frozen Banana Stand | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
Current Issue
November 2014 magazine cover
Subscribe

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

The History of the Frozen Banana Stand

The chocolate-covered dessert was the rock of the Bluth family empire. But where did the idea come from?

smithsonian.com

Mr. Manager George Michael mans the The Bluth Family Original Frozen Banana stand while his uncle G.O.B. hovers. The stand in the show is based off of Bob Teller’s Banana Rolla Rama, which opened in 1963.

 

Turns out, there may not have always been money in the banana stand.

Ask Bob Teller. The frozen banana stand he opened on Balboa Peninsula in the ’60s popularized the famous snack in Newport Beach, California—something fans of the cult Fox television series, “Arrested Development,” may find familiar.

In the show, which returns for a fourth season on Netflix after a seven year hiatus on May 26, the Bluth family runs and owns a frozen banana stand on Oceanside Wharf boardwalk on Balboa Island—a business endeavor launched by George Bluth (Jeffrey Tambor)—though the Bluth’s banana stand was actually filmed in a fishermen’s village in Marina Del Rey, 50 miles from Balboa Island. According to the show’s pilot, George held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the booth in 1963—the same year Teller opened his banana stand. The connections do not end there. In 1976, a 13-year-old Mitchell Hurwitz, along with his brother Michael (another connection!), opened up a dessert stand of their own right next to Teller’s Banana Rolla Rama. With the help of their father Mark, who coincidentally went to college with Bob Teller, they rented an abandoned taco stand and renamed it the Chipyard. Hurwitz would later become the creator, executive producer and mastermind behind “Arrested Development.”

Though several restaurants on Balboa Island claim to have invented the “original” frozen banana dipped in chocolate and nuts—both Dad’s Donuts and Sugar and Spice say they sold them first on the island (a conflict reminiscent of the season three, episode eight “Making a Stand” when G.O.B. sets up the “Banana Shack” feet away from the original), the story of the first banana stand in Newport Beach goes a little further back. Circa 1940, Don Phillips, the true “frozen banana king“, opened a banana stand, “The Original Frozen Banana,” on Balboa Peninsula right next to the ferry landing—an idea he may have borrowed from the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago.

About 20 years later, in 1961 at the Arizona State Fair, Bob Teller was also selling frozen bananas dipped in chocolate and nuts with his wife, Rita, from their concession stand, the Banana Rolla Rama. Teller borrowed the idea for the frozen bananas from a candy shop in Lake Arrowhead Village, California. The recipe was simple: Freeze a banana, dip it into the specially-made, proprietary chocolate, and roll it in nuts or sprinkles. They sold for 25 or 30 cents each, depending on the size of the banana.

Teller was a true entrepreneur—though he received a degree in real estate and finance from the University of Arizona, he dabbled in running a flea market and vending his frozen bananas for the state fair. In 1963, when Teller was interested in manufacturing car seat belts, he and his wife headed to San Diego for a business convention.

“My parents had honeymooned there,” says Jeff Teller, Bob’s son. “They saw a sign for Balboa Island where the original frozen banana was and decided to check it out.”

When Bob and his wife were in line to buy a couple frozen treats, he told the teenager behind the counter that he had also sold frozen bananas in Arizona. The counter help was not interested in the coincidence, but there was a gentleman within earshot who certainly was. Roland Vallely was looking to rent out a commercial space near the ferry landing across from Balboa Pavilion where Don Phillips ran his shop. “ told my dad that he’d make $50,000 in a summer selling bananas in that space,” Jeff says.

Vallely and Teller exchanged phone numbers and parted ways. Nearly two months later, when Teller learned that Phillips’ original frozen banana stand was closed by the health department, he remembered Vallely’s offer.

“That night my dad tossed and turned,” Jeff says. “When he heard Phillips was never going to reopen his doors, he thought ‘My God! What a captive market to sell the product to!’”

Bob called Mr. Vallely at six the next morning and signed a lease to open up a banana stand later that day. As expected, Phillips never reopened the original banana stand and Teller’s shop next to the peninsula’s Fun Zone thrived. Vallely and Teller would later become next door neighbors and remained so until Vallely’s death in 2003.

“As the story goes, had said that everyone had deserted him—that he was living the life of Job from the story in the Bible,” Jeff says. “Everybody deserted him, including God and Mr. Phillips felt the same way.”

A connection to the show’s G.O.B. Bluth (pronounced “Jobe”) is unlikely, but the coincidence is bananas.

Judy Greer and Mae Whitman appear at the “Arrested Development” Bluth’s Original Frozen Banana Stand First Los Angeles Location Opening on May 20, 2013. (Photo by Araya Diaz/Getty Images via Netflix)

“Everyone says that one of the characters in that series is loosely based on Bob Teller,”  Jeff says. “There’s a lot more truth to the show than one may realize.”

Whatever happened to the actual banana stand?

According to the Daily Pilot, a few years later when Mr. Phillips died, the Internal Revenue Service auctioned off the business and Teller bought it for $125—a steal for Teller as the building still contained equipment from the original stand including freezers for the bananas. Teller began selling his Banana Rolla Rama desserts in Disneyland in the mid ’60s, expanding the frozen banana’s presence to the greater southern California area. In the mid ’70s, Bob sold the company to his insurance broker, Emory Frank, so he could focus on his mall chain, “Bob’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream,” which sold his real claim to fame: a vanilla ice cream bar dipped in chocolate and rolled in nuts that he called the “Beach Bar,” later known as the “Balboa Bar“.  Teller had at least 70 shops at the chain’s peak. Frank kept the name, Banana Rolla Rama, but Teller could not confirm how long Frank ran the business after he sold it.

Around 1976, Teller’s other business investment,  a “swap meet,” a kind of large-scale flea market in Orange County now known as the Orange County Marketplace, took off. Bob ran a flea market and sold concessions including his frozen bananas and “Beach Bars,” making use of the Orange County fair grounds. His son, Jeff, is the current president of the company. 

Bob Teller, now 75, was unavailable for comment, but he is still involved with the family business. All the more time for his latest entrepreneurial foray: the development of electric boats. Though Teller is no longer a seller of bananas, he said in an interview with Orange Coast Magazine in 1990, that ”When I look at things to buy, I still think in terms of bars and bananas I’d have to sell to afford them.”

On May 8, a recreation of “Bluth’s Original Frozen Banana” banana stand, also known as the “Big Yellow Joint“, began a world tour, dolling out chocolate-covered fruit in London, then New York City the following week. The stand was last seen in the Los Angeles area just days before the program’s return.

While we can confirm a few items in the show are based on real life experiences, some things—whether or not anyone in the Bluth family has ever seen a chicken, for example—remain up for debate. 

 

Tags
About K. Annabelle Smith
K. Annabelle Smith

K. Annabelle Smith is a writer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico who covers a wide variety of topics for Smithsonian.com. Her work also appears in OutsideOnline.com and Esquire.com.

Read more from this author |

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus