Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Mid-century mermaids in Florida

I am a big fan of the folks at Vintage Roadside, because they work tirelessly to preserve the memories of small mom-and-pop roadside businesses that would otherwise be lost. For instance, I'd never heard of The Atomic Tunnel in Daytona Beach until I saw Vintage Roadside's colorful shirt of the short-lived roadside attraction. In addition to creating fantastic t-shirts and wonderful roadside photography, they have delved into some of the topics they are passionate about to the extent that they have become experts. Last year I attended a packed presentation at Hukilau on Aquarama, a mermaid themed attraction near the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri.

Jeff and Kelly's thorough work investigating Aquarama, led them down the path to researching the origins of the mid-century fad of mermaid performances, which in turn led them to learning about other underwater performances. Their knowledge of this fascinating, obscure bit of Americana has led to an upcoming presentation called "Mid-Century Mermaids: A History" to be given this month at Palm Springs' Modernism Week in California. Because so much of the history of mermaid and underwater performances is linked to Florida, I decided to try to glean some knowledge from Vintage Roadside's Jeff Kunkle to try to gain more understanding about this interesting aspect of our state's past. Jeff kindly responded to my questions and even provided some images to boot!

Jeff Kunkle, left, at last year's Hukilau

Q. Do you now who the first underwater mermaid performer was? Or what is the history of underwater mermaid performance (in a nutshell)?

We've spent quite a bit of time researching the history behind the mermaid shows and it's really interesting to see how they evolved over the years. In the early 1940s there were surface shows such as Billy Rose's Aquacade and Sam Snyder's Water Follies which led to the underwater ballets of the early 1950s at places like the Marlin Beach Hotel and the New Everglades, and finally in the 1960s the mermaid shows of Weeki Wachee and Aquarena Springs boomed.

For the 1950s you almost need a flow chart as many of the Florida performers would bounce between underwater shows at one of the hotels, to performing at Weeki Wachee, or even appearing in one of the diving and swim shows put on by the big hotels in Miami for their guests.

Publicity photo for Sam Snyder's Water Follies from Vintage Roadside

Archival Weeki Wachee image from the State Archives of Florida

Q. Other than Weeki Wachee, what other places might you have seen mermaid performances or water shows in mid-century Florida?

Florida had so many fantastic places to see not only mermaid shows, but also water shows of all types. You could catch the Bahama Belles at Rainbow Springs, go upscale at the Eden Roc, the Fontainebleau, or the New Everglades, put on your own underwater show at the Craft Motel, the El Sombrero, or the Holiday Inn - all of which offered porthole views into their pools, or head up to the 4th floor and talk with the mermaids at Webb's City. If you were drawing a treasure map for underwater performances, Florida would have had a big "X" on it!

Poolside at Miami's Eden Roc Hotel, image from the State Archives of Florida

Vintage postcard from Webb's City in St. Pete

Q. Last year I enjoyed my first trip to see Marina perform at the Wreck Bar, are there any other porthole bars like that left?

There are still a few, but sadly not nearly the number there were in the 1960s. We're actually working on a "Five Favorites" for the SCA where we'll list our tips on places to still see a mermaid show. If you'd like to enjoy a cocktail with your mermaid show you can't beat Marina and her pod at the Wreck Bar in Ft. Lauderdale on Friday nights, you'll find the mermaids swimming at the Sip 'n Dip in Great Falls, MT Wednesday through Saturday, and in Sacramento, CA, you can catch mermaids several nights a week at the Dive Bar.

Kelly (Mrs. Roadside), far left, with Marina & her pod from Vintage Roadside

Marina performing in the Wreck Bar from Vintage Roadside

Members of Marina's pod at Ft. Lauderdale's Wreck Bar

Q. Why do you think mermaid performers in the 20th century were do popular? Why do you think mermaid performances captivate us today? Is it the kitsch factor?

The 1960s just seem to be one of those pop culture moments that are hard to pin down. So many of the things we personally love seemed to reach their peak in the 1960s - bowling alleys, drive in theaters, roadside attractions of every type, etc. We have several theories why the 1960s were the perfect time for mermaids and mermaid attractions to catch the imaginations of people, but we still don’t have what we'd consider a definitive answer after all these years. Rather than feeling frustrated by not yet coming up with a satisfying answer, the fact that we haven’t pinned down the exact reason is one of the mysteries that compels us to keep researching, collecting, and most importantly, gathering as many stories from those that swam in the shows as we can.

One of the things that we find fascinating about mermaid performances is that you've got someone whose job is just so completely unique we can't help but wonder what that must be like. There aren't many out there that can list "mermaid" on their resume! Talking with many of the gals that performed in the 1950s and 1960s they still consider it the best job they ever had. That's pretty amazing when you can look back to one of your first jobs and still remember it as the best. Thinking back to our first jobs, they pretty much stunk. :-)

Vintage Florida mermaid brochure

Q. How did you get involved with this project?

We've always loved hearing people's stories and it's become a bit of a quest to get in touch with as many former aquatic performers as we can. For most of the people we talk with it's been 50 or so years since they performed, and many times they were just high school kids, but it's amazing how the memories tend to come rushing right back when we talk with them. Sometimes it's been decades since they talked about those days, and it's always so cool to call them and be the first one to ask about the show after all these years. Usually there's a long pause and then you can almost hear the smile over the phone line as everything comes back.

Q. What was your biggest discovery?

It probably sounds like such a little thing, but it's the old 1964 Aquarama brochure we found several years ago. It was one of those pieces that for whatever reason we found at just the right time to really catch our curiosity and it started us down the path of researching old mermaid and aquatic shows. Here we are years later (and 1000's of hours worth or research later) and we've heard some incredible stories, met so many wonderful people, and best of all, made some great friends. We can't wait to see who we find next!

1964 Aquarama brochure from Vintage Roadside

Q. What was your source for most of your images?

We love old ephemera and photos and have been collecting for several years now. So, we always start with our own archive and go from there. In the last few years several local newspapers have decided to do away with their physical photo archives. It's a shame to see these archives broken up, but the one silver lining seems to be these photos now tend to show up for sale online, where as in the past they may have just been thrown out. We're always watching to see if anything from the old mermaid shows or hotels pop up.

For our upcoming Modernism Week presentation we started with around 500 images and edited down to fit the time allowance. We also were provided with some great vintage and contemporary images from several of the people and places we'll be talking about in our presentation.

We're thrilled that we were able to work with the State of Florida and Weeki Wachee to present a couple of actual items used in their 1960s shows on display. It's an incredible and unique opportunity to see a piece of Weeki Wachee history outside of the park.

1967 Weeki Wachee tail from Vintage Roadside

Q. What is your favorite piece of mermaid ephemera?

That's a tough question - kind of like picking a favorite relative! But, we'd probably say it's the original 1964 mermaid tail from the Aquarama in Missouri. Although as soon as we figure out how to get it from Missouri to Oregon, one of the original Aquarama clam shells used by the mermaids in the shows might become the current favorite!

Aquarama tail, top, contrasted with one of Marina's contemporary tails, bottom

Q. I hadn't realized they had mermaids at Rainbow Springs- how come the performance were so short-lived?

We've just gotten started researching the history of Rainbow Springs, but have run across some great promotional photos produced in 1956 featuring a live mermaid. They may have been using some of the other Florida attractions (the mermaids of Weeki Wachee and the Silver Springs underwater photography of Bruce Mozert) as inspiration. The one thing about researching these old attractions is that there's always a "new" mystery to dig in to!

Mermaid, top, and Bahama Belles, bottom, at Rainbow Springs
From the State Archives of Florida

Q. What do you think the future is for underwater mermaid performances?

There's been a bit of a renewed interest in mermaid shows and we'd love to see them continue to gain popularity. We'll probably never match the number of shows offered in the late 1960s, but it's fantastic to know there are still people out there willing to give it a shot. Marina's shows at the Wreck Bar are more popular than ever, the Sip 'n Dip continues rolling along, Weeki Wachee seems to have finally reached stability now that they're a state park, the Dive Bar just celebrated their 1st anniversary, Ripley's Aquarium in Myrtle Beach has hired their own mermaids after the success of the performances by Weeki Wachee guest mermaids, the "former" mermaids at Weeki Wachee put on a show once a month or so, and there's even a wonderful synchronized troupe in Los Angeles called the Aqualillies whose aquatic performances are inspired in part by Esther Williams.

Weeki Wachee mermaid

We hope to see some of you at our all-new Modernism Week presentation on February 24th! We'll be sharing the history behind the mermaid shows of the 1960s, as well as the Aquacade-type shows of the 1940s, the porthole lounges and hotels of the 1950s, and capping the evening off, a fire eating and mermaid performance by none other than Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid! You can learn more about the event at our Facebook page here.

Also, if you've got any stories, photos, or anything else from an old underwater show we'd love to hear from you! You can always reach us through our contact form on our website located here.

Thanks Jeff and good luck!


  1. Positively inspirational! Thanks for sharing their story, and for the cool folks at Vintage Roadside for doing the tireless research. Future generations will thank you both!

  2. Thanks Beth- Jeff has done an amazing job of researching this topic. He has the assets to do much more. I wish I could see the presentation in Palm Springs!

  3. Just so you know, I have shared your blog with friends here:

  4. I've searched for photos of the Fontainbleau bar where "The Bellboy" was filmed. What was the name of that hotel bar? In the film, a "Stan Laurel" actor swims by. Sorry, it's not a mermaid! The Starz TV series "Magic City" pays homage to that bar with its porthole views of the pool. Know where I can find the image of "Stan Laurel" in the pool as seen from that bar?

  5. Thanks for this! My mom was one of the original mermaids at the Marlin Beach and she is thrilled to know people are still interested in these shows!

  6. I too, was a mermaid at the Marlin Beach hotel as well as the Everglades Hoel rooftop underwater show . Thank you for the memories.


  8. Hello, I was a mermaid at the Everglades Hotel for their nightly banquets. I was always the new year and Santa’s helpers too back in the late 50’s early 60’s. Most fun in my life. We worked weekie wachie & all the underwater parks. Gay Erlanger Davis, Aldo known for the Coppertone ad with a group of youngsters....Great Days!