Frogmen Trainer Becomes Prince to Little Mermaids

The true tale of a dream that could only happen in Florida.

In a certain well-known story playing at The Straz this July, a certain red-headed mermaid desperately wants to become human. In Florida, however, there are certain humans who desperately want to become mermaids.

And, because this is Florida, they can.

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“Mermaid Taylor” image courtesy of Andrew Brusso.*

One hour north of Morsani Hall burbles and gurgles one of the greatest, most famous natural wonders in all of Florida, the glorious Weeki Wachee springs. That’s saying something considering this state also harbors the Everglades, one of the largest wetland ecosystems in the world, as well as supports the motley assortment of wild panthers, bear, boar, alligators, pythons, manatees, crocodiles, sawfish and bison in the same state. Yet, Weeki Wachee resides, funneling 117 million gallons of cool spring water every day from depths so extreme the bottom has never been found.

So, it should feel somewhat appropriate that, in 1949, a former U.S. Navy man who trained Frogmen to swim underwater in World War II looked out across the evocative, blue expanse of Weeki Wachee springs and said something like, “hey, I bet I can build an underwater theater and have a mermaid show.”

This man, Newton Perry, cleared the rusted refrigerators and abandoned cars from the spring, built an 18-seat theater in the lime rock six feet underwater, then launched what would become one of the hottest tourist spots in the nation only a few years later, thanks to the corps of pretty girls in bikini tops and shimmering, half-body tails. In the 1950s, Florida was miles upon miles of expansive wilderness threaded with a handful of dirt roads – almost the opposite of what we see today – but the allure of a teenager in a bullet-bra bathing costume eating a banana underwater drew carloads of curious tourists to the underwater marvel.

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Mermaids took ballet classes to improve their performance in the water in 1960 (L) and Elvis Presley’s visit to the park in 1961 (R). Check out more historical photos on Weeki Wachee’s Instagram: @weekiwacheesprings.

Perry figured out how to hide slender breathing tubes amid the underwater scenery so the performers could have access to air during the run of their shows and stunts. The mermaids did not (and do not) have an easy job despite appearances and air tubes. In a current sometimes strong enough to knock off a cinched SCUBA mask, holding their own and holding their breath while creating the illusion of gliding and floating gently through enchanting waters requires the strength, stamina and skill of a competitive athlete.

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Susan Backlinie, known for her role as Chrissie Watkins, the first victim in Jaws, is a former Weeki Wachee mermaid. (Photo from Instagram: @weekiwacheesprings)

In the sixties, American Broadcast Company (ABC) bought the spring, tipping the scales toward international fame. They upgraded to a 400-seat theater and made the attraction a bonafide springs-and-mermaids theme park. Whereas the Weeki Wachee mermaids had been local gals, under the ABC banner women from around the world auditioned for the show of a lifetime as a swirling, twirling mermaid performing eight sold out shows a day. During this heyday, Weeki Wachee boasted 35 mermaids on the payroll, with many of them living in special mermaid cottages on site. They were, and some argue still are, Florida royalty.

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Buccaneer Bay Waterpark, located inside Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. (Photo from Instagram: @weekiwacheesprings)

Today, Weeki Wachee springs exist as a state park, full of family-friendly activities – including the beloved, often sold-out daily mermaid shows. They have a full roster of mermaids and two princes that you can read about online if you want current information. If you have a little starfish who needs to practice writing and penmanship skills, the mermaids and princes are happy to receive Tail Mail letters from fans and the mer-curious (under 17 years old only, though). Weeki Wachee holds junior mermaid camps, too, and even a “Sirens of the Deep” adult mermaid camp for those people who want to unleash their inner merperson. That’s the upside. The downside is that the camps for both little and big humans are sold out through October 2017.

After 70 years, Newton Perry’s post-war Florida mermaid dream still ignites the imagination and affirms a more uplifting, charmingly literal interpretation of “swimming with the fishes.”

Thus, common Jamaican crab wisdom holds: it is better, down where it’s wetter.

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*New York-based photographer Andrew Brusso grew up on Anna Maria Island. His images have appeared in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Surfer, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, Golf Digest and other notable publications. He joined the 2008 effort to save Weeki Wachee springs by photographing the mermaids pro bono for a fundraising calendar. He’s been photographing them for the annual calendar ever since. To see his extraordinary work, visit andrewbrusso.com.