Mar 12, 2023

You Can't Push Willy 'Round... Willy Won't Go

Willie P. Bananas
West Palm Beach Expos (1989-1997)
The video that I wrote about a couple of days ago reminded me of one of the best parts of going to see the West Palm Beach Expos when I was a kid, which was the team mascot.  He was a bright orange dancing gorilla named Willie P. Bananas.

West Palm Beach Expos promotional booklet  (1989)

In the winter before the start of the 1989 season, the West Palm Beach Expos hired a new general manager named Rob Rabenecker.  One of his first decisions with the new franchise was the introduction of a team mascot.  

top left: Palm Beach Daily News  (May 12, 1989)
top right:  Miami Herald  (May 29, 1989)
bottom:  West Palm Beach Expos program  (Summer 1991, pg 38)

Willie P. Bananas got his name from a young Palm Beach Gardens girl named Elizabeth McDonald, with a little help from her dad.  The mascot's initials, WPB, are the same as the initials of the city where the Single A affiliate of the Montreal Expos played their home games.  Willie's bright orange fur matches the hair of the parent club's mascot, Youppi.

top:  Sun Sentinel  (August 30, 1989)
bottom:  The Palm Beach Post  (June 16, 1994)

The person who brought Willie to life at the ballpark was a local 21 year old college sophomore named Marianne Carlisle.  She performed as the orange gorilla from 1989 through the end of the 1992 season before going on to graduate from the Burt Reynolds Institute For Theater Training in 1994.  Below are a few clippings from her work from the first year of Willie P. Bananas at the ballpark.  Click on them to enlarge them to a readable size.

Palm Beach Daily News  (May 12, 1989)
Tampa Bay Times  (June 28, 1989)
The Palm Beach Post  (July 16, 1989)
The Palm Beach Post  (August 1, 1989)
Sun Sentinel  (August 30, 1989)

The original Willie P. Bananas worked in theater for a number of years after moving on from the West Palm Beach Expos.  She is now a speech language pathologist in South Florida.

The Palm Beach Post  (August 14, 1994)

It seems like the team had a hard time filling the mascot's role after the departure of Ms. Carlisle.  The only other person that I found who was connected to Willie P. Bananas was a local 14 year old high school student named Brad Sclater.  In this interview from August 1994 he mentioned that he got the job because a friend of his didn't show up for work, and the article suggests that there were more than one performers who donned the orange gorilla costume over the 1993 and 1994 seasons.

Willie spent the game wandering around the ballpark meeting fans, playing games, and taunting the other team and the umpire, which once led to an ejection.  However, the thing that I'll always remember Willie for is dancing.  The character's trademark dance at every game (or at least every game that I went to) was to the song Little Willy by the 70's British glam rock band The Sweet.  I haven't seen Willie P. Bananas dance around to Little Willy since I was 13 years old until just a couple of days ago when I found a video that Bill Craib and Sue Easler shot on May 25th, 1991 as a part of their tour of every minor league ballpark in the country.  The part of the video with this song is just a few seconds long, but it brought back a flood of memories.

The only other video I found of Willie P. Bananas was shared by the woman behind the mask herself, and I'm pretty sure that it was from a game that I was in attendance for.  My dad and I went to see the West Palm Beach Expos play the Ft. Myers Miracle on August 20th, 1992 when I was 12 years old.  The special attraction during that game was a visit from a traveling mascot who is best known as the San Diego Chicken, but he was performing as The Famous Chicken at the time.

I recorded the news that night and have since uploaded the video to YouTube but the news crew didn't capture the epic dance battle between Willie P. Bananas and The Famous Chicken, so a huge thank you to Ms. Carlisle Salem for allowing me to experience this happy childhood memory again.
1993 Classic Best - WPB Expos Team Set - Card #30

There were a few baseball cards that featured the big orange gorilla from West Palm Beach.  These are the four that I have in my collection, but mascot cards don't tend to get a lot of attention among collectors, so it's possible that there are others out there.

1991 West Palm Beach Expos game program (click here to enlarge the article)

1993 West Palm Beach Expos game program (click image to enlarge)

Willie was front and center of most of the West Palm Beach Expos marketing, including the game programs.  The mascot also made quite a few appearances at festivals, fundraisers, and other community events.

Unfortunately, the reign of Willie P. Bananas was short lived.  He was the team's mascot for just nine seasons before the West Palm Beach Expos moved 15 miles north to the city of Jupiter after the 1997 season.  The franchise was renamed the Jupiter Hammerheads, and the Expos beloved orange gorilla was retired to make room for a new mascot named Hamilton R. Head (Ham R. Head... get it?).  The Hammerheads continued to be the Single A affiliate of the Montreal Expos until the end of the 2001 season.  They became the affiliate of the Florida Marlins in 2002, and they continue to be the Marlins representative in the Florida State League to this day.

Even though the mascot's time was short, it's a character that I'll always think of when I remember the years that I spent in South Florida.  I lived there in the early 90's and haven't been back since 1995, so I've never known a Florida without the cozy little ballpark on Hank Aaron Drive.  It was home to a team of kids who were just getting their baseball careers started, a big fuzzy dancing orange gorilla, and a lot of very happy memories of a time when I had my whole life ahead of me.