History


(An early image of A. Robins - from "Seeing Red", 1939)

Anyone attempting to name the most unusual variety act of all time would HAVE to consider the act of Mr. A. Robins. His Banana Man act has fascinated almost everyone who ever saw it over the years. He was born in as Adolphe Proper in Vienna, Austria around 1886.

His father was a cabinet maker and did not approve of young Adolphe's path into show business. At the point he found he would be working regularly as a clown with his "walking music store" act, he changed his name to A. Robins (apparently in a tribute to his favorite painter, Peter Paul Rubens.

This web site is presented as a homage to the man and the act. It attempts to gather in one place all that can be learned about The Banana Man act.

A. Robins was a vaudeville performer who likely was from Europe. There is a very small portion of his act on the PBS special American Masters Production of Vaudeville, 1997. The segment shows A. Robins in his baggy suit producing a tray, glass, bottle with liquid, music stand, page of music (on the rear of his shirt front) and the mandolin that appears in later videos. He is identified as A. Robins The Banana Man.

After posting this web site about The Banana Man, I have received numerous communications from people who have seen the material - many who have offered additional information. The most intriguing message came from Frank Cullen who founded the American Vaudeville Museum. He tells me that the issue of the journal published quarterly by that museum (the issue of Jan 01, 2002) has an article titled "The Mystery of A. Robins." They believe Robins stopped performing the act around the beginning of World War II.

The brochure that I have was sent to me by Max Roth in the late 1960's. It is clearly labeled A. Robins, The Banana Man. Max Roth is listed on page three as the agent (along with Bernard Burke.) Although I had heard the act had been sold and/or franchised to others, this information that all of the performances of the Banana Man were by someone OTHER than A. Robins. What is not in dispute is the fact that there was a vaudeville performer named A. Robins who performed an act billed as "The Walking Music Store." He did appear in two films, "Seeing Red" in 1939 and "Mother Wore Tights" in 1947. Although he did not produce any bananas in the Seeing Red film, there are bananas produced (among with other fruit as well) in the Mother Wore Tights film. This may be the first instance on film showing the Banana Man actually producing bananas. It is still not clear exactly who the performer is in this film.

Since “publishing” this series of pages as a tribute to the character and performances of The Banana Man, I have had contact with people who have been able to provide me first hand information on the successor to A. Robins. The reliability of the sources and depth of the information leave no doubt in my mind about who did take over the act in the 1950’s and who was the performer playing the character most remembered by generations of TV viewers who saw one of the many permutations of the act. This new information is detailed on the page devoted to Sam Levine as The Banana Man.

The fact remains that there WAS a performer who appeared as The Banana Man and that performance is remembered by many with some affection. Even if Max Roth always was The Banana Man, he continued to use the A. Robins name in association with the performances. This site shall continue to document information about the permutations of the A. Robins name and the Banana Man character.


(From the PBS Vaudeville show - Using the "magent"
to pick up a dropped glove - as in later versions of the act.)


Snatches of information about the Banana Man have been uncovered over the years. Much is hearsay and speculation. I have heard that when A. Robins "retired" the act he sold it to someone who performed it for a time just as he had been taught by A. Robins.

One correspondent has told a story related to the television recording of the act. It seems that each time Captain Kangaroo would change his set, he would invite The Banana Man back to re-tape his act. Since the voluminous costume was impossible to dry clean, it is suggested that no one wanted to be in the studio when the act was being recorded because of the powerful smell.

John Moehring remembers being taken to a supermarket by his Aunt Polly to see the act performed in the parking lot! This would have been in Houston, TX around 1949. John remembers the train getting longer and the costume changes more than the "magical" productions of produce. He also remembers it was the first time he was aware of how annoyning a kazoo could be. He was later to learn that the sound was likely produced by means of a "swazzle" (as used by Punch & Judy operators.) John has been told that Robins "franchised" the Banana Man character to clowns in the United States. John also has seen a video of Robins' act on the "It's Magic" show that aired on CBS in 1955. On that show he was introduced as "A. Robins, Magical Clown."

Jim Steinmeyer (whose source was Jay Marshall) tells me A. Robins was a New York theatrical prop maker, specializing in small props for the stage. He was well known for the immaculate state of his shop. His standard "trick" for visitors was to be blindfolded in his shop. Someone would request an item, like a "One inch, 1/4-20 bolt," and he would walk directly to the drawer, open it and remove the bolt. Clearly Robins made everything in his act. All of the things produced (bananas, watermelons, pineapples, violin, etc) were cloth covered "spring items."

Jim recalls he may have seen a part of the act in "Meet Me In St. Louis" (or Easter Parade - one of those MGM period musicals.) He believes that Robins sold the act to another fellow who performed it for a time. Jay Marshall remembered him as "Larry of the Radio Aces" (a singing group).

Chet Dowling (who served as an usher in vaudeville many years ago), remembers seeing A. Robins perform an act called "A One Man Music Store." It is certainly easy to see how he could fill one spot on the bill doing his voice imitations of all of the instruments that he produced.

The Banana Man appeared as a vaudeville performer in "Mother Wore Tights" (1947) (In an uncredited performance), staring Betty Grable. IF the performer were to be A. Robins - he would have been 61 years old and the person in the film is CLEARLY much younger. The Levine family tells me that it is not their father in the film. So, this part of the story remains a mystery. He does, however, produce bananas in his brief film appearance. As a sort of “finale”, he produces a large stalk of REAL bananas - something he was never again seen doing.

In the summer of 1943, the Ringling Brothers presented "Spangles, The Continental Circus." The original A. Robins, close to the end of his career as The Banana Man appeared as "Display No. 9" - closing the first act of the show. His billing read: "The Banana Man Himself! Pre-eminent Star of Continental Circus and Music Hall fame - The Inimitable A. Robins The Walking Victory Garden, Artfully Assisted by Seductive Spangelettes." The addition of the Spangelettes was pretty strange to an act that was used to being a single.

The program for this 1943 show contains a publicity photograph and a short feature article:

A. ROBINS..."The Banana Man"

* No one has yet discovered exactly the tight word to describe A. Robins. He has been termed a clown, a wizard, musician, impersonator and jack-of-all-trades.

* Robins comes back from a tour of Europe. His native city, Vienna gave to the stage such other jesters as Toto, and Joe Jackson of bicycling repute. His father was a merchant and wanted him to be a respectable business man.

* Robins, whose real name is Adolph Proper, would rather draw and paint, and he was more interested in magic and acrobatic tricks: After starting out in life as an illustrator, he eloped with a circus as a lightning-sketch artist. He doubled-in-brass, too, as a clown and magician.

*The palette and brush was forgotten when he learned the theatrical possibilities of his talent for quick-change costumes and imitating musical instruments. He makes his own ingenious costumes, wigs, collapsible instruments
and odd stage "props" himself.

* Robin still dabbles with paints as a hobby. For exactly 27 years he has been trouping behind footlights, resting only six weeks each year, but during his "vacations" he is busier than ever working in his New York workshop.

The original Banana Man, A. Robins died December 17, 1950. He had been on the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner when he was taken ill. He died in Bournemouth, England.

Bill Mullins has shared with me some reviews and notices associated with the original Banana Man's early performances in the US. The reference to the show "Katinka" was taken from the Internet Broadway database. The rest of the references were from various newspaper notices. In them you will find what likely is the first mention of Robins using bananas in his act and a reference to a banjo playing character. The banjo man character was found in the original props trunks but we had no idea where it appeared in his act. Here are the reviews and notices:


A couple of late 1910's references tie Robins and his act to a Broadway musical "Katinka".  Sure enough the Internet Broadway Database has:
Katinka
44th Street Theatre, (12/23/1915 - circa. 4/1916)
Lyric Theatre, (4/03/1916 - 7/01/1916)
with "A. Robbins" [sic] performing as the character Halif.

This is the earliest definite reference to Robins that I can find in print.

Other references include:

Pacific Coast Musical Review  1/19/1918 p 8 (Google books)
A. Robins, "The Walking Music Store," is just beginning an Orpheum Circuit route.  Robins was one of the sensational hits of a Broadway musical comedy last season and he continued with it this season until recently.

Variety 12/6/1918 p 26
"A. Robins and his woman partner, in the familiar musical imitations, accompanied by collapsible instruments drawn from every wrinkle of his weird clothes, took several bows."


NY Clipper 2/19/1919 p 9 at the Palace
"A. Bobbins, who bills his act as "The Walking Music Store," is all of that, for about his person are concealed a half dozen musical instruments of various sizes and shapes, as well as fully as many "props," used to build up the comedy section of his performance. He imitates all the instruments well, one or two being exceptional. That of the cornet and guitar are most deceptive. A woman plays the accompaniments on a small street organ."


NY Clipper September 22, 1920 p 10  Review of a show at the Hamilton
"A. Robbins has never been seen to better advantage by this writer and, although on second, he scored from start to finish. He is billed as the walking music store, but, in reality, he is a walking curiosity shop. His ability to delineate various musical instruments with his mouth, is done in a most effective manner. In addition, he has concealed about his person enough "props" to furnish a stock theatre. And all of them are used as the medium of manufacturing laughs."

NY Dramatic Mirror 12/31/1921 p 1002 at the 44th St Theater
"A Robins, "the Walking Music Store," made the usual hit with his vastly clever impersonations. His shrill singing, and his uncanny imitations of various instruments was remarkably interesting. He injects a good bit of comedy into the act, and it all gets over mighty well, while the audience responds heartily to his naive bows. The ludicrous bouquets and medals which he produces by some mechanical means from his voluminous trousers made a funny finale. And when he leaked tears from his eyebrows, everybody roars with glee."


Utica Observer-Dispatch 2/8/1925 p. 5D
"His ability to imitate a wide and varied assortment of musical instruments, with each number given a surprise comedy twist, is the qualification which gives A. Robins his headline position on the new Keith bill at the Robbins Gaiety, commencing tomorrow matinee.

Mr. Robins's talents, however, are said not to be limited to his vocal powers, as he is credited with having perfected enough trick and collapsible instruments to equip the average, good-sized orchestra. These he conceals about his person, producing instrument after instrument to the surprise and amusement of his audience. This is the reason for his appellation, "A walking music store."

"He is also a master of character impersonation," the notice continues, "making complete transformations in the twinkling of an eye, without passing from view of the audience. These varied and unusual accomplishments have won for him an enviable position among the Keith stars, placing his name in the electrics, wherever the best type of vaudeville is shown." "

Motion Picture Herald 7/2/1932 p 91  Review of show at Detroit Fox
"This is a droll bit of clowning that wins applause on its originality.  Robins works alone with what is probably the most elaborate wardrobe and array of props on any variety bill.  From voluminous pockets he extracts, throughout the act, enough bananas to satisfy all the monks in the Bronx Zoo.  He also does, vocally, a number of musical imitations and several grotesque impersonations."
[this is the earliest I've seen references to bananas in his act -- Bill]


Brooklyn Daily Eagle 3/25/1937 p 23
"Gala faster Show Opens At the Music Hall Today
A. Robbins, the "banana man" who scored a personal triumph in "Jumbo" is featured in the Radio City Music Hall stage spectacle, "Easter Greetings," opening today. Robbins is the celebrated clown whose pockets hold a seemingly never-ending profusion of bananas and whose comic quick costume changes from a Negro banjo-player to a blonde prima donna are made on stage in full view of his audience. In his act, Robbins appears in nine different disguises, all of them humorous and all of them accompanied by elaborate "props" concealed on his person."

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 6/17/1943 p 9 Review of Ringling Bros Circus at Madison Square Garden
"In addition, A. Robins, the Banana Man, who has been away a long time, returns to fill a bright spot."


Malone NY Evening Telegram 8/22/1944 p 3 review of County Fair
"The star of the show, discarding the use of speech entirely throughout his act, brought the house down with his hilarious pontomimicry and mumerless props, all the while humming a few bars of a melody which brought laughs from the audience merely through its monotony.

Al Robins' act reaches the peak in originality. He was given the full stage to himself for his performance—and he needs it. During the course of his act, he pulls from his clothing nearly enough material to furnish a three-room apartment, with ingredients for a massive fruit salad thrown in for good measure, catching his act can easily understand why he is called "The Banana Man."

Bill Mullins also shared this graphic from an article from Charleston, SC reviewing what just might have been The Banana Man's last performance before leaving for England and his eventual death.
SC review



There is a four page article on the history and lore of the Banana Man in the August 2002 issue of MAGIC Magazine. It was written by Rhett Bryson and has numerous photographs.

 

 

Anyone having additional information about A. Robins' life, his act or any related information (including additional pictures) is encouraged to contact Rhett Bryson so that the new information can be added to this site.

 

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On Video
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On TV
Sam Levine
in History of Clowns
The ORIGINAL Props!


Tip Top Toy Company
The "Pretenders"
Fans of the Banana Man

 

2001 Rhett Bryson
If you have ANY Banana Man stories, material or information,
Please eMail
Rhett Bryson (rhett.bryson@furman.edu)
Last Updated 05/20/2002