The Postcard Time Machine: The Mermaids of Weeki Wachee
Mermaids have captured the hearts of men, women and children worldwide for thousands of years, from the first stories in 1000 B.C. to the animated version of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.”
Mermaids are very sought-after by postcard collectors, and some of the most interesting ones are those from Weeki Wachee Spring, Fla. Although the tourist attraction opened in 1947, Weeki Wachee didn’t become an incorporated town until 1966. It was then that its name became two words, to fit better on signage and bumper stickers.
Mysterious aquatic creatures, with the upper body of a beautiful woman and the tail of a fish, mermaids are the stuff of romantic legends. And where better to see them than Florida’s Weekiwachee Spring?
Where else can you see a lovely mermaid, relaxing at the water’s edge? Her reflection in the Weekiwachee River shows how clear the water was. Standard size chrome postcard from the 1960s, valued at $3-$5.
That was the dream of Newton Perry, known as “The Human Fish.” Newt was quite the guy himself—he trained Navy frogmen, wrestled alligators and in his later years, was a high school principal in Ocala, Fla. Everyone who knew him said that he was just as comfortable under the water as he was above it. He was an excellent trainer and was loved by those who worked for him, as well as by his family.
When Newt first dove into the Spring in the 1930s, it was a magical experience. Its clarity and depth created a magnifying effect. You could drop a coin into the water, watch it fall 100 feet, and it looked close enough to touch. The features of the deep spring inspired the moniker, “Florida’s underwater Grand Canyon.” Weekiwachee’s cold water stayed 74 degrees year-round, and exotic fish and turtles were plentiful. What a perfect place for mermaids and mermen!
After developing the air-hose method that enabled the mermaids to breathe underwater while performing, Newt Perry opened the famous attraction in 1947. Weekiwachee: The City of Mermaids was born, its billboards brightening U.S. 19 (Florida’s Gulf Coast Scenic Highway) in Hernando County. Local teenagers were recruited and trained to perform in the Underwater Theater.
This original Underwater Theatre was used from the park’s opening in 1947 until 1960 when the new theater was built. Visitors sat in comfort beneath the Spring. This 1949 linen postcard can be found in the $2-$5 range.
have long hair, because instead of just looking wet, it flows. They also had to have great athletic ability and strong constitutions. Since they performed more than 20 feet underwater, they eventually were required to earn diving credentials for safety. Hazards included being chased by huge catfish (and the occasional water moccasin), constant shivering from the cold water (body temperatures drop one degree for every 15 minutes in the water) and ear infections.
This was hard work for the young men and women, who often stayed in the Mermaid Villas behind the Spring. They had no expenses, received free hot dogs, hamburgers and bathing suits, and earned a little spending money—but the best part was the fun and the fame: they appeared in advertisements, on billboards, souvenir items, brochures and postcards was exciting.
An additional perk was meeting celebrities, such as Elvis Presley, Mickey Spillane, Bob Hope, Howard Hughes, Tony Randall, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, who were among the too many more to mention who visited the Spring. “Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid” was filmed at the Spring in 1948, as was 1964’s, “The Incredible Mr. Limpet,” starring Don Knotts. In 2004, Paris Hilton filmed an episode of “Simple Life 2” at Weeki Wachee.
Nancy Tribble Benda and Theresa “Sis” Meyers perform the famous underwater Adagio, a hallmark of the early underwater ballet poses at Weeki Wachee. Nancy was an early mermaid trainer. Real photo postcard, photo by Ted Lagerberg, early 1950s. Valued at $10-$15.
In October of 1960, when ABC owned Weeki Wachee, the Million Dollar Theater opened. Its distinctive clamshell roof was the scene of many mermaid photos.
The theater could seat 500, and visitors watched the live mermaids perform through large glass windows, which looked right into the Spring at a depth of 15-20 feet. While the outdoor scene can be found in the $1-$2 range, the indoor deckled-edge postcard sells for $5-$8.
The live mermaids didn’t always have tails. That innovation came in the mid-1960s, when an attractive design was perfected that worked with flippers and allowed the mermaids and mermen to move easily in the water. The tails were so striking that they attracted the attention of Stirling Silliphant, a writer for television’s “Route 66,” and an episode was filmed at Weeki Wachee.
Shirley Walls performs in 1961 in the “Underwater Circus” show. Her tail was made from a canvas-type cloth with metallic sequins hand-stitched into it. These tails were quite expensive, and lasted only about a month. When out of the water for publicity stunts, the mermaids had to be carried from place to place. $3-$5.
The natural beauty of the Weekiwachee River and Spring area was also an integral part of this roadside tourist attraction. Locals had used the spring as a swimming hole long before it was purchased and privatized. The Congo Belle (and later, Congo Belle 2) sightseeing boats introduced visitors to the bucolic Florida waterway.
St. Petersburg, FL sculptor Gene Eley created a series of Princess Wonderous mermaid statues in the mid-1960s. It took several tries before he perfected a topless mermaid that was family-friendly.
Although the Spring was well promoted, making ends meet financially was always difficult. And when Disney World opened in the 1970s, many Floridians feared that Weeki Wachee would fall by the wayside, like so many of the state’s natural attractions. To add insult to injury, the development of nearby housing subdivisions brought nitrates and brown algae, clogs in the underground river and milky white water.
To survive the times, Weeki Wachee Spring added a Birds of Prey Show, an Exotic Bird Show and the Buccaneer Bay Water Park (which is still open today). The park changed hands many times, and so did the tone of the underwater shows. From their beginning as underwater ballets, the shows evolved to include the hallmark feats of eating bananas and drinking soda pop underwater, then to themed productions, complete with intricate props and theatrical costumes.
One of the earliest feats that amazed visitors was eating bananas and drinking soda under water. Grapette was the brand sipped until RC Cola took over the franchise and became the beverage of choice. These mermaids are wearing Alix bathing suits, one of the sponsoring brands – along with Catalina and Jantzen. $4-6.
Thanks to the efforts of many of the mermaids and local fans, many of the old props, brochures and photographs still survive the “clean-ups” of each new park owner. In the mid-2000s, workers discovered much of the vintage tile work, and the clamshell roof of the Undersea Theater, and the park began moving toward a retro theme. Robyn Anderson, former mermaid, park manager and mayor, began a “Save Our Tails” campaign, and the resulting national media from publications as diverse as National Geographic and the National Examiner brought funds and assistance in making badly needed repairs.
Since 1960, mermaid reunions have been an important part of Weeki Wachee Spring, often hosting close to 200 women and men. The job has always had high turnover, as young people left for marriage and other careers. In 1997, the 50th anniversary of the City of Mermaids, 25 former performers, ages 45-70, staged “Unforgettable,” a 40-minute underwater show. An exhilarating, nostalgic and bonding experience, the show continues to be staged several times each year.
In the 1960s, a new show was premiered every October and ran throughout the season. They alternated between “story shows” like Alice in Waterland, and “best of everything” revues. 25 mermaids learned 5 separate parts in the Alice show, changing costumes while hanging onto their water hoses. 1964, $4-7.
Today the famous attraction is part of the Florida State Park system. Weeki Wachee Spring still features its mermaid show and also offers animal shows and wildlife viewing, a boat tour, kayaking, canoeing and scuba diving, and Buccaneer Bay for swimming, water slides and snorkeling.
Postcards are increasingly sought after. Those from the late 1940s and 1950s, particularly real photo postcards, have come into their own and have been seen recently selling in the $10-$25 range. While the later chrome cards from the 1960s and 1970s are still inexpensive ($1-$3 at postcard shows and $4-$6 in Internet auctions and sales), prices are increasing.
Related collectibles, including advertising, brochures and souvenir items are increasingly difficult to find, and their prices have gone up accordingly. Interest in “mom and pop” and natural roadside attractions are rising, and the Weeki Wachee mermaids are of special interest. The definitive book, “Weeki Wachee: City of Mermaids” by Lu Vickers and Sara Dionne (2007, University Press of Florida), contains many illustrations of Weeki Wachee postcards, and preserves the names of numerous mermaids and mermen who performed there over the years.
Groups of posed mermaids were memorialized by Head Photographer Sparky Schumacher. He was a master at dreaming up publicity events for the mermaids, such as National Hot Dog Week and the New York Yankees Spring Training. Weeki Wachee remains the undisputed Mermaid Capitol of the World. 1960s, $4-$7
Bonnie Wilpon, the author of “Postcard History of Sarasota and Bradenton, FL,” and “Postcard History of Hollywood, FL.” (published by Arcadia Books), is a Worthologist who specializes in postcards.
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