Banana George Blair: Water-skiing legend

JoAnne Blair met her husband in the Yellow Pages. She tried water skiing once, but failed miserably. So she looked up water skiing instruction in the Manhattan Yellow Pages, and that's how she met Banana George.

Banana George Blair made a name for himself in Central Florida. He performed for years at Cypress Gardens, dressed in a yellow wetsuit, skiing barefoot and holding the tow rope in his teeth. He handed out bananas with abandon and owned a yellow house on Lake Florence in Winter Haven.

Blair would go from Winter Haven into the Guinness Book of Records for having skied on all seven continents. He was inducted in 1991 into the U.S. Water Ski Hall of Fame in Polk City and the Florida Sports Hall of Fame in 2003.

In New York, it was one of Blair's instructors who tried to teach JoAnne how to ski, but again she failed. She was dressed and ready to leave when Blair asked her how it went.

"Not well," she said. "I just don't have any ability with this sport."

Blair felt the same way once himself. He was 40 years old and recovering from back surgery when a ski instructor in Fort Lauderdale told him that if he would walk, he could water ski.

Banana George convinced JoAnne of the same thing.

"He talked me into trying it again. We went out on the river and he got me up on the skis, so I was very impressed with him," said JoAnne Blair, 80, his wife of 40 years.

George A. Blair, formerly of Winter Haven, died Oct. 17 in New York City after a long illness. He was 98.

Blair was a showman who made yellow his personal trademark: yellow cars, yellow boats, yellow bikes, yellow suits, yellow ties, yellow wallets.

But he was also a shrewd and successful businessman who became a millionaire with a business that took baby portraits at hospitals. He started a bank in New Jersey and attended board meetings dressed in yellow.

Blair had homes New York, Paris, Steamboat Springs, Colo., and, until a few years ago, Florida. He appeared in Sports Illustrated and on David Letterman. He starred in car wax commercials and became the personal ambassador for Chiquita bananas.

His wealth came from his business smarts, but his fame came from athleticism and strong teeth.

"My trademark is to barefoot with the rope in my teeth," Blair said in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel at age 88. "No one has ever done as many or for as long a time as I have."

In his 50 years of barefoot water skiing, he suffered four broken backs and 11 broken ribs. He broke his back at 72 slamming into a barefoot ski jump. He recovered and continued skiing, earning the record for being the oldest barefoot skier in America at 91.

He gave up water skiing in 2008 at the age of 92.

In business and sport, spotlight and shadow, Blair was consistently the same person, his wife said.

"He didn't hide his personality," she said. "He wanted to make people happy, so he did all these things and made everybody happy."

In addition to his wife, Blair is survived by his daughters, Donna Blair, of Forsyth, Ga., Carrie Blair, of Middleburg, Va., Georgia Blair and Robin Blair, both of Shrewsbury, N.J., four grandsons, two great-grandsons and two great-granddaughters.

Day Funeral Home, Red Bank, N.J., is handling arrangements. or 407-420-5392

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