Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Tiki Heads and Mermaid Tales

Back in the days before the world wide web, (how did we function?), my brother and I were such tiki heads that we searched both coasts of Florida looking for Tiki Gardens never realizing it had closed a decade earlier. He had an enormous tiki bar in his Daytona Beach apartment and brought back real tikis from both Hawaii and Tahiti. Had the Hukilau been going on back then, we would have thought we had died and gone to heaven. The tiki scene was just beginning to blossom when my brother and I turned our interests elsewhere, and since then tiki culture has really taken off. Even downtown Orlando has a contemporary South Pacific themed bar called the Monkey Bar decorated with images from tiki artists like Shag.

Hukilau 2011 group shot

Hukilau has been going on for a decade or so in Ft. Lauderdale, and after seeing pictures of it last year, I wanted to go. There are bands, programs, room crawls, rum competitions, seminars and lots of great stuff for sale. While heavy partying is a thing of the past for me, the real draw was an opportunity to see a presentation about a short-lived roadside attraction called Aquarama by my friends Jeff and Kelly from Vintage Roadside.

When Jeff and Kelly create a shirt based on a mom-and-pop mid-century roadside business, they do painstaking research to learn about the history of the place. They have three Florida designs: Casper's Alligator and Ostrich Farm near St. Augustine, the Atomic Tunnel from Daytona and Tiki Gardens from Indian Rocks Beach. When researching the roots of Aquarama, a mermaid themed attraction from the Lake of the Ozarks region of Missouri, they were able to make a deep connection with the owner's son, Marc Johl. And that opened up the floodgates to a treasure trove of information and one really great story.

Vintage postcard showing the entrance to Aquarama

The tale begins with Marc's father Wally Johl, a 1940s crooner who for a time sang in nightclubs in the Miami area and even launched his own club from a former gas station. Wally later created Aquarama in Missouri and with the help of Barbara, a Weeki Wachee trained mermaid, the attraction flourished in the mid-sixties. In addition to dozens of rare images, Jeff and Kelly presented rare film footage, audio recordings and even the actual costumes from this fascinating bit of roadside history. They have tracked down most of the "Aquamaids" and "Aqualads" and gleaned amazing stories about what it was like to work at Aquarama. For example, all the blond Aquamaids' hair tuned green from prolonged periods in the chlorinated water. And the underwater props – large clam shells – were actually cast from an iconic shell oil gas station sign. Those same fiberglass shells are all that remain from the attraction at the Aquarama site today.

The depth and thoroughness of the presentation shows Jeff and Kelly's commitment to keeping memories of this delicious bit of Americana from falling into oblivion and as a result of their work, a reunion of the former employees is planned for next year. They have made the presentation previously at the West coast's large tiki gathering, Tiki Oasis in San Diego and have plans to give it at a conference next year. At both Tiki Oasis and Hukilau their talk was capped off with a Q&A from a live mermaid, none other than Marina herself. Marina described how her aquatic talents began when she learned to free dive at the age of three in the Caribbean. As an adult after seeing the mermaids perform at Weeki Wachee, she saw a way to combine her love of the water with her passion for dance, (she was a performer at the Mai Kai), and that's when she began to develop her underwater artistry now seen at the Wreck Bar.

After the presentation folks lined up to see the Aquarama costumes and talk to Marina. The energetic crowd surrounding the presenters was a testament to the success of the program. A bit of mid-century mermaid magic was just passed to the next generation.

Always a good sport, Jeff shows off the Aquamaid costumes

A mermaid tail from Aquarama contrasted with one of Marina's early tails

Your truly with Marina

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