By Stacey Federoff| Wednesday, July 10, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Long a proponent of Latrobe as the official birthplace of the banana split, “Ice Cream Joe” Gruebel will preside over a weekend-long festival, hosted by Dole Fresh Fruit, in conjunction with National Banana Split Day on Aug. 25.
Gruebel will act as honorary co-chair of the event along with Dole's Bobby Banana, a 6-foot walk-around character, from the dedication of the state historical marker on Friday, Aug. 23, to do-it-yourself banana split bars at St. Vincent College in Unity on the afternoon of Aug. 25.
“I haven't met Bobby Banana yet, but I'm sure he's very ‘appealing.' We should have fun together,” Gruebel said about the honor.
Planning for the Great American Banana Split Festival has been underway since April, when the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission approved Latrobe's application for the marker, which commemorates the soda fountain dessert created by David E. Strickler in 1904 at Tassel Pharmacy — later Strickler's Drug Store.
The California-based company has partnered with the college, the City of Latrobe and other community organizations to plan the festival, said Bob Ochsner, Dole Fresh Fruit spokesman.
“Dole is delighted to partner with Latrobe and St. Vincent College to offer banana lovers with the ultimate homecoming event,” he said in an email. “Dole has been promoting a healthier National Banana Split Day on Aug. 25 for several years now, and we're excited to take this year's celebration to a whole new level with the City of Latrobe and St. Vincent College. We're hoping to get hundreds, even thousands of banana lovers, to celebrate with us.”
As the story goes, Strickler, a 23-year-old apprentice pharmacist, made the three-scoop ice cream treat at the Ligonier Street store, and its popularity quickly spread with help from out-of-town students from the nearby college.
To honor that legacy, St. Vincent is planning to have as many members of the 500-student freshman class present at the dedication on the morning of Aug. 23, said spokesman Don Orlando.
“One hundred years ago, they were among the first to eat the banana split,” and the event will coincide with students' return to campus from summer break, he said.
On the afternoon of Aug. 25, students and members of the public will gather at Chuck Noll Field on the college campus to participate in a banana-peeling flash mob, which Orlando describes as “a group that does something unusually unexpected.”
Orlando said he hopes to have at least 1,000 participants on the football field raise a banana in a “torch-like” fashion and, in unison after a countdown, peel the yellow fruit.
“The birthplace of the banana split is just one more facet that makes the Latrobe area a great place to live and work,” Orlando said.
Including students in the celebration was one consideration among the many partnering organizations to get the entire community involved, said Nick Felice, executive director of Latrobe Community Revitalization Program.
“There's just been nothing but enthusiasm,” he said, adding that as more people were involved and volunteered, more ideas came to fruition, like the Dole Banana Daiquiri Cocktail Hour and Yellow Tie Gala hosted by the Latrobe Art Center.
“It's going to be a really fun-filled weekend — for adults on Friday night and for kids and families Saturday and Sunday,” said Gabrielle Nastuck, director of the art center.
Art on display in the center that evening will feature the famous sundae with 93 gallery members contributing paintings and sculptures, children's art club papier-mache creations surrounding a giant banana split and ice cream clouds suspended from the ceiling.
Nastuck said she is honored the center will feature the original soda fountain from Strickler's Drug Store, where the bananas were split for the first time.
“I love that we have a part of the real thing still here in town,” she said. “It's a shame that we don't have the building, but we still have a part of it.”
Gruebel, board chairman of Valley Dairy restaurants, commissioned the artist and St. Vincent graduate to paint a large banana split mural that will be installed on the side of the downtown Latrobe location on Jefferson Street.
During August, all 11 Valley Dairy restaurants will feature a special lapel pin commemorating the sundae for 75 cents — in honor of the restaurants' 75th anniversary — with the purchase of a banana split.
A festival, sock hop, car cruise and “Dole Family Stroll” fun walk/run, are also slated for Saturday's activities.
Latrobe city manager Alex Graziani said all of the activities, including many free and open to the public, add up to a “good, old-fashioned, American small-town festival” and he hopes to make the commemoration an annual event.
“We're thrilled,” he said. “We're hoping this is the first of years to come.”
Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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