George Ballas dies; Weed Eater inventor was 85

July 3, 2011

While driving through an automatic carwash in 1971, George Ballas watched the whirling nylon bristles glide around the contour of his vehicle and wondered whether he could adapt the technology to remove the weeds around trees in his yard.

At home, he punched holes in a tin can, threaded it with wire and fishing line, and bolted it to a rotating lawn edger. He called it the Weed Eater, and when he couldn’t sell the concept, he founded a company and built it into a $40-million-a-year business.

Mr. Ballas was 85 when he died June 25 at a Houston hospital. The cause of death was not reported.

“He was laughed at by major corporations, who told him to take his idea and take a hike,” his son Corky said. “He started making it anyway, and it caught on like wildfire.”

Within months of inventing the Weed Eater at his Houston home, Mr. Ballas had streamlined the design into a single strand of fishing line spun around by a lightweight motor.

“Simplicity of design was the key to its phenomenal success,” Mechanix Illustrated magazine said in 1983.

Net sales rose from about $570,000 in 1972 to $41 million in 1976. The next year, Mr. Ballas sold the business to Emerson Electric for an undisclosed amount.

“It has remained confidential all these years,” his son said, “but it was a happy sum.”

George Charles Ballas was born June 28, 1925, in Ruston, La., to Greek immigrants. His father owned a restaurant.

During World War II, Mr. Ballas was a bombardier in the Army Air Forces. He also served in the Korean War.

He met his future wife, Maria Louisa Marulanda, when he saw her perform the flamenco, and they married in 1952.

Mr. Ballas worked in dance studios, managing Arthur Murray and Fred Astaire locations and trouble-shooting for franchises.

“I found out it was a big business,” Mr. Ballas told the Los Angeles Times in 1977. It involved a lot more “than just waltzing around the floor.”

His son Corky became a professional dancer, as did his grandson, Mark Ballas, who is a regular on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.” Corky also has performed on the show.

In the 1960s, Mr. Ballas opened Dance City U.S.A., a 43,000-square-foot Houston venue that he later called “a supermarket of dancing with babes and booze and big bands all under one roof.”

After he sold it around 1970, Mr. Ballas went into commercial real estate.

Ever the inventor, Mr. Ballas helped develop other lawn-care devices and tiny engines for leaf blowers, his son said. But his reclining typewriter table never made it to market.

In addition to his wife and his son, Ballas is survived by another son, George “Buck” Ballas Jr.; daughters Michelle Pritchard, Winkie Jamail and Lillian Miles; and seven grandchildren.

— Los Angeles Times