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Barefoot Old Boy, with Cheek
Franz Lidz
May 18, 1992
At 77, 'Banana' George Blair is a millionaire and a barefoot water-skiing wonder
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May 18, 1992

Barefoot Old Boy, With Cheek

At 77, 'Banana' George Blair is a millionaire and a barefoot water-skiing wonder

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Aquivering army of white space invaders descends on a black video screen. Jabbing the controls with his thumbs. "Banana" George Blair snipes at the advancing aliens. Just as he wipes out the few remaining invaders, the machine resets with a renascent army, poised one row closer than the last. "These little creatures are a lot like me." Blair says. "You can't wear them out."

Banana George is nothing if not inexhaustible. He turns up unfailingly at the Cypress Gardens water ski show near Winter Haven. Fla., where he astounds audiences by barefooting at nearly 40 mph—with a tow rope held in his teeth. Well, almost unfailingly. Five years ago he broke his back while practicing in the lake behind his home in Winter Haven. It was a full 10 weeks before he could barefoot again, "I don't heal as fast as I used to," he alibis.

It's not a bad excuse. When he broke his back, he was 72.

Today the grand old banana man of barefooting is 77 years old, a small, gristly millionaire with the contented look of a guy who has devoted his life to good works. By force of his slightly idiosyncratic personality and his daredevil antics on water, he has become Cypress Gardens' top banana. One minute he'll slingshot off a 15-foot wall into Lake Eloise. The next he'll stand on a stool perched on top of a ski that resembles a small surfboard. As he leaves the water, he pulls a banana out of his wet suit and takes a bite. "I never water-skied until I was 40," Blair says with a curiously flat little grin. "But I've been eating bananas for as long as I can remember."

Bananas are his calling cards. "There's nothing more perfect than a banana," he says, perfectly serious. Chiquita ships him about two tons a year free of charge, and he dispenses them to anyone with an open hand. "They're my favorite fruit." he says, "my favorite color." When he speaks on the telephone, he prefers to use his banana-shaped desk model. (He invariably signs off with the line "Ski you later!")

Blair's passion for barefooting is rivaled only by his yearning for things yellow. His lemony speedboat has more than 400 gold-plated parts; he starts it with a gold-plated ignition key. His two Cadillacs are yellow, as are his wet suit and the drum set he keeps in his rumpus room. At Christmas most years he dons a yellow Santa suit to play Banana Clans at Cypress Gardens.

He's equally bananas ewer the Roman god Mercury. "My alter ego," Blair calls him. "He was fleet of foot in the air. I'm fleet of foot on water." To visit Blair's Winter Haven home is to risk Mercury poisoning. The rooms overflow with Mercury posters, cartoons, engravings. He has Mercury statuary in alabaster and bronze, marble and terracotta, as well as a 17th-century Belgian tapestry, an 18th-century oil by Giovanni Ferretti and two 20th-century lithographs by Salvador Dali.

Blair can indulge these Mercurial whimsies because he's very wealthy. Besides his lakefront estate in Winter Haven, he owns homes in New York City, Paris and Steamboat Springs, Colo. He is also very generous. He has donated more than $300,000 to the American Water Ski Educational Foundation, which makes him a sort of barefoot boy with check.

Yet for all his flamboyance, Blair is a fairly conservative businessman. "I've voted the GOP line my entire life," he says, which must make him a banana Republican. He made his fortune taking baby pictures as the founder of Hospital Portrait Service. He has also been a banker, an inventor, a country music impresario, an exterminator, a TV pitchman and retired. He didn't like retirement: He couldn't use up his energy. He's apt to bob up and down like a channel buoy to show you how much energy he has. "I feel more vital now than at any time in my life," he says.

He's thumbing through a scrapbook in his home office. He's decked out in a rather amazing yellow blazer and yellow slacks. His socks are a much paler yellow than his cowboy boots. His 10-gallon hat is paler still.

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