Thursday, March 15, 2012

Newt Perry, Mermaids, and Glen Springs?


"One whole day at Glen Springs cost a dime and for that dime we were given a wire basket for our sandwich and shoes. Then with the number of your basket pinned to the front of your bathing suit and having waded through a shallow foot bath of bleach, we would fly out into the sunshine and into the cold waters of Glen Springs. Glen Springs is a natural spring of crystal clear water that abundantly fed three large swimming pools all located in an oak hammock. Each pool accommodated a different age group, the "baby" pool, the "middle" or halfway pool, you know, the awkward age, somewhere between a baby and a teenager, and then the "teenyboppers" pool. Under the sidewalks that separated each pool were passageways that allowed the water to flow evenly. We would take a breath, duck and disappear through these tunnels and into the next pool. It was magic. I was nine so I was halfway and never brave enough to cross that sacred line and into the big pool for the "cool" teenagers. My sister, Rodney, was in this group and she said it was a hang out. One day Nanan, my Grandmother, picked me up for the Sunday afternoon water show at Glen Springs. Rodney said Mother and Daddy never went. We sat on temporary stands across from a huge glass underwater exhibition tank. Then here they came, pairs of long legs, choreographed and with pointed toes, the synchronized swimmers appeared. They were magnificent all in white bathing suits. If you were a synchronized swimmer, you got a free Jansen bathing suit. They peeled off, one at a time, diving, circling, and seemingly effortless, sticking a leg high up in the air and with toes still pointed and always with a smile, vanished slowly beneath the water.

What a show! Nanan said nothing. Next came the big event I had been waiting for, Rodney dove into the glass tank, sat gracefully on a stool, sucked a little air from a long hose, and ate a banana and drank an RC cola. Now, you talk about a show. Nanan then asked, "Is that Rodney? What is she doing? and Why?" She just didn't get it. Nanan didn't understand. Rodney was a star, Queen of Glen Spring for a day and I was her little sister. This was about as good as it got and all for a dime."

- Wayne Bishop Jamieson
This was an oral history that artist and activist Margaret Tolbert posted on Facebook. I was surprised to hear of the aquatic show at Gainesville's Glen Springs – it seemed like a strange juxtaposition. Today's Glen Springs is a series of aging pools amid a thickly wooded area flanked by the Elks Lodge on one side and a condo on the other. It's not easy to visualize the spring as a public swimming hole where Gainesvillians in great numbers came to swim, socialize and see underwater mermaids!

Photo from UF Digital Collections

But I found more evidence in a book by Tim Hollis called "Glass Bottom Boats & Mermaid Tails: Florida's Tourist Springs." In a chapter about Weeki Wachee, Hollis describes what the legendary Newt Perry did after creating the mermaid show at the aforementioned spring:

"Perry was always looking for the next big thing, and the tank in which Nancy Tribble had cavorted in had given hm a new idea.

He had an even larger tank constructed: twenty-two feet long, eight feet wide, and deep enough to install an underwater kitchen. Then he loaded this contraption onto a flatbed truck and took it on the road to state fairs, shopping center openings, and other such venues, basically re-creating his established underwater stunts for the masses.

'Breakfast with the Neptune's' eventually left the nomadic life and settled at Florida's Glen(n) Springs, where the audience was seated on one side of the springs and the giant tank was set up on the opposite bank so tourists could watch the performance."

Newt Perry carrying Nancy Tribble wearing her tail to the tank in Tampa

The tank used for the promotion of "Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid"
may have been the inspiration for the underwater show
that visited Glen Springs

So is it possible that the mermaid tank at Glen Springs was Perry's traveling aquatic show? I asked Tim Hollis and he didn't recall where that information had come from, as "Mermaid Tails" was published in 2006. I could find nothing online to connect the two, but I did find an image in the Florida State Archives of "Newt Perry's Aquatic Theatre" outside the Matanzas Theater in St. Augustine. Is it possible a similar tank was used at the Gainesville spring?

This 1951 image shows Newt Perry's Aquatic Theatre at the St. Augustine
premier of Distant Drums, a movie filmed in Florida

Newt Perry was an icon in underwater performing in Florida. Perry started his aquatic career teaching swimming at Silver Springs in Ocala. According to Lu Vickers in "Weeki Wachee: City of Mermaids", it was Perry who invited a young Ross Allen to move to Ocala and start his reptile Institute at Silver Springs. While at Silver Springs, Perry perfected the art of the underwater photo op. By re-creating everyday scenes while underwater, such as eating bananas, he soon caught the attention of filmmaker Grantland Rice. Soon Silver Springs became known as a mecca for underwater photography and it became the location for several Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weismuller. Perry and Allen often acted as stunt doubles for Weissmuller.

16-year old Newt Perry swimming underwater for Grantland Rice's
first underwater film at Silver Springs

Newt Perry, Johnny Sheffield, and Johnny Weissmuller
during filming of "Tarzan Finds a Son" at Silver Springs


Ross Allen wrestles an alligator at Silver Springs

From Silver Springs Perry went to Wakulla Springs near Tallahasee, which was then owned by Ed Ball, one of the most powerful men in Florida at the time. At Wakulla, Perry honed his underwater performance techniques, including using a breathing hose to stay submerged for longer periods of time.

Next Perry teamed with Walton Hall Smith and leased the property surrounding an obscure spring in Hernando County from the City of St. Petersburg. Building an underwater seating area that looked directly into the deepest part of the spring, Newton trained synchronized swimmers from St. Petersburg to be his performers. Those performers eventually became the legendary mermaids of Weeki Wachee.

Perry fishing from an underwater air trap at Wakulla Springs

Perry with mermaids in training at Weeki Wachee

Mermaids perform the underwater banana-eating trick made famous by Perry

Perry coaching Ann Blyth during filming of "Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid" at Weeki Wachee

Mermaids at Aquarena Springs in Texas from aquarenaandralph.com

After the traveling "Breakfast with the Neptunes" Perry created an underwater show at a spring-based attraction called Aquarena in Texas. In 1951 he returned to Florida where he resumed his original occupation as a swimming instructor. Perry, a member of the Florida Hall of Fame, died in Ocala in 1987 at the age of 79.

For me, Perry was a pioneer who helped create the fascinating tourist landscape of Florida in the mid-twentieth century. His influence continues to this day at Weeki Wachee where employees of what is now a state park, carry on the tradition of underwater performance. The possibility that his traveling aquatic show may have stopped in my hometown at the little spring near where I went to high school, is extremely exciting to me. Was there greatness at Glen Springs? Perhaps...


Unless otherwise noted all images are from the State Archives of Florida

4 comments:

  1. Great post (Hi Eartha!). Newt's daughter still runs a swimming pool out of his house in Downtown Ocala, Florida to this day. It's a small affair and I don't believe she gets much business, but it is indeed Newt's house and I've swam in his pool on quite a few occasions (mostly birthday parties at Mrs Perry's Swim School pool).

    The changing rooms and bathroom are in the basement of the house where some of Newt's personal effects are located...just sitting there to be looked at since this is an actual home. Kind of neat how un-suspecting it is, but for a Floridiana enthusiast, it's a must-see!

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  2. Hey Rick, this is great information and I love seeing the pictures!
    -Amy Grossman

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  3. Check out Perry Swim School on FB she has her own page, or google It. I am a very close friend of the family. Delee loves telling stories of her father. her business line # is 352-732-5540

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