It took a while for rock ‘n’ roll to become a routine part of television. I’m not talking about the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show or a music series like Shindig, I mean as a regular part of the furniture. As an example of what I mean, think of any black-and-white series from the early 60s that might have featured a blaring jukebox annoying restaurant or bar patrons. Said jukebox is never blaring rock ‘n’ roll; it’s always blaring a noisy bebop tune, when in reality, the music that would have annoyed restaurant and bar patrons far more in those days was almost certainly rock ‘n’ roll. It was the mid-to-late 60s before rock and contemporary pop started cropping up incidentally, and the first place it appeared was in kids’ shows. And not just musically oriented live-action shows such as The Monkees, or animated series featuring the Archies and the Beatles. By the late 60s, nearly every kids’ show seemed to feature pop tunes. (Even Lancelot Link Secret Chimp produced a modest hit in “Sha-La Love You,” which is better than a song by a talking chimp has any right to be.)
One of the more well-remembered kids’ shows of the late 60s was The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, which debuted in the fall of 1968. It ran for two years on NBC and for several years afterward in syndication. Inspired by Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and sponsored by Kellogg’s, it featured live-action segments with four costumed actors playing the Splits, as well as cartoons and live-action serial episodes. Three of the actors in the costumes were actually sons of a Kellogg’s jingle writer, billed under assumed names to avoid accusations of nepotism, but their voices were provided by veteran voice-over artists Paul Winchell and Daws Butler and actor Allan Melvin. (The costumes were designed by Sid and Marty Krofft, who would get their own show, H.R. Pufnstuf, in 1969.)
The show was massively promoted at the time, especially on Kellogg’s cereal boxes. I don’t remember if you could cut Banana Splits records off the back of the boxes like you could with the Jackson Five, the Archies, and others, but I know you could send away for them, because I did. I got an EP featuring “The Tra-La-La Song,” as well as “That’s the Pretty Part of You,” “The Very First Kid on My Block,” and “I Enjoy Being a Boy.” Despite its vaguely gay title, “I Enjoy Being a Boy” is actually a garage-rock tune that seems to have been inspired by “I Am the Walrus.” “That’s the Pretty Part of You” is the love child of Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds and the Classics IV. How “The Very First Kid on My Block” missed becoming a radio hit, I can’t imagine. As it was, the Splits’ only chart entry was “The Tra-La-La Song,” the show’s theme song, which did a single week at Number 96 in February 1969.
Here’s the show’s original opening from 1968.
Every source I can find on the music is vague about precisely who’s on the records. Gene Pitney, Al Kooper, and even Barry White wrote songs released under the Splits’ name, but I don’t think they appear on them. (That can’t be White on “Doin’ the Banana Split,” but whoever performs it sounds like a cross between Joe Tex and Wilson Pickett.) Many of the songs were written and recorded by Mark Barkan, who also wrote songs for the Archies and the Monkees, as well as Manfred Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo.”
Splits fans have been hoping for a DVD release of the show, but that’s not going to happen. Although the show was syndicated in the 1970s after its original network run ended, the masters of some of the show’s various elements have been either lost or damaged.
Coming tomorrow: Another lost show from the golden age of animated pop music TV.
This stuff is out of print, although it was available for a while in the mid 90s, and is available now here, if you’re willing to pay for it.