Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Weeki Wachee opened in 1947

Florida State Archives
The Aquabelles in 1947.  Newt Perry taught the girls to do aquatic ballets. Watch them eat and drink underwater in the video below made from a 16-mm movie shot in 1952.

This picture by fashion photographer
Toni Frissell was published in Harper's
Bazaar in 1947.
Weeki Wachee Springs, the famous Florida roadside attraction that became known as the home of the live mermaids, opened on this day in 1947.

Newton Perry, an ex-Navy frogman, created the attraction but he had to remove rusted junk from the spring first. Locals had used it as a dumping ground. Perry invented a way to breathe underwater from a free-flowing air hose supplying oxygen from an air compressor.  He had an 18-seat theater built and submerged six feet below the surface of the spring.

Perry trained young women to use the air hoses so they could stay underwater seemingly effortlessly to do the shows. He taught them how to smile underwater, and to drink and eat and do aquatic ballets there, too. The air hoses were hidden behind scenery.

Then he put a sign out on U.S. 19. In those days, U.S. 19 was not heavily traveled. It was paved but none of the other nearby road were, and there were few amenities. You could drive for miles without seeing a gas station or grocery store. And convenience stores hadn't been invented yet.

It was a pretty desolate place, and it's a wonder anybody came. There were so few cars that the performers ran out to the highway when they heard a car coming and waved travelers into the parking lot. Then they jumped into the spring to perform.

A couple of months after the attraction opened, Harper's Bazaar magazine published a photograph of a woman wearing a long evening gown floating in the spring. The photograph was by Toni Frissell, a well known fashion and portrait photographer in New York.

ABC bought the attraction in 1959, and then it really took off. ABC promoted it heavily on television. Arthur Godfrey, Don Knotts, Esther Williams and Elvis Presley all visited the attraction.

Today Weeki Wachee is a Florida State Park. Its general manager is former mermaid Robyn Anderson.

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