Mermaids' last splash? Debt imperils 60-year-old Weeki Wachee

Legend has it that mermaids live forever. That may not be true for themermaids of Weeki Wachee, the quirky Florida attraction whose glory days havebeen eclipsed by newer, grander theme parks.

But this weekend, concerns for the future will be set aside as hundreds ofmermaids flood the fabled roadside attraction to celebrate its 60thanniversary with a reunion and four different underwater shows -- including agrand finale featuring 16 current and former mermaids performing together forthe first time.

Mermaids greeting visitors to the park will include Central FloridiansGinger Stanley Hallowell, 75, who doubled for Julie Adams in Creature From theBlack Lagoon and for Esther Williams in Jupiter's Darling; Mary Dwight Rose,72, longtime coach of Orlando's Loreleis synchronized swim team; and identicaltwins Holly Harris Hall and Dolly Harris Heltsley, 57, owners of Holly &Dolly's sports bar in Casselberry.

Nervous excitement rippled through the backstage section of the MermaidTheater on July 18, as past and present mermaids gathered to rehearse.Ashley Furlong, 17, is the youngest. Dottie Meares, who will be 77 inSeptember, is the oldest. She first swam at Weeki Wachee in 1951.

"I'll keep swimming till they kick me out," said Meares, whose first stintas a mermaid continued three years. "I adore it. I can't wait to get into thewater. It's a magical place."

She is one of a group of former mermaids who put on a show during their50th reunion. It was such a hit, they have been performing monthly ever sinceas the Mermaids of Yesteryear.

"Once a mermaid, always a mermaid," Meares said. "Once you've been down inthat spring, you never get over it."

Being a mermaid "is an experience only a select few have," said Lu Vickers,author of Weeki Wachee, City of Mermaids. "They cherish that."

This weekend, in addition to their regular performance of The LittleMermaid, the current mermaids will debut Dream Girls, a mesmerizing sequenceof undulations, pinwheels and slow-motion back flips.

The former mermaids will reprise some of their greatest hits, includingscenes from Peter Pan, Cinderella and The Wizard of Oz.

Idea arose in 1947

The original Weeki Wachee mermaids were dreamed up in 1947 by Newton Perry,a champion swimmer, movie stuntman and trainer of World War II frogmen.

Ricou Browning, a swimmer who later doubled as the Creature in CreatureFrom the Black Lagoon and two sequels, recalled those early days:

"Newt Perry told me his idea for an underwater show," said Browning, nowpresident of Ivan Tors Studios near Fort Lauderdale. "I went with him to seethis fabulous spring. It looked like a little duck pond off the side of theroad. But I went into the water anyway, and it was beautiful -- except therewas everything but the kitchen sink down there: fridges, tires, mattresssprings."

Browning helped clean out the junk and build the first underwater theater-- a structure rather like a sunken boxcar with windows looking into thespring. He also helped train the first mermaids, teaching them underwaterballet using air hoses invented by Perry.

"Underwater, you're like astronauts in space, free-moving and almostweightless," said Browning. "It's like being in a different world."

Mary Darlington Fletcher performed in the inaugural show. A petite15-year-old, she donned a mask and flippers and dived into the spring,bewitching audiences with her underwater antics. Taking occasional sips fromher air hose, she cavorted with the fish, nibbled bananas and glugged Grapettesodas.

"We didn't wear tails back then," said Fletcher, now 75. "We supplied ourown bathing suits. Mine was a two-piece, lime-green. A very covered-uptwo-piece."

She performed on weekends and holidays all through high school, and was oneof three doubles for actress Ann Blythe when Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid wasfilmed at Weeki Wachee.

In 1950, Fletcher moved on to the University of Florida in Gainesville,where she still lives. Almost a half-century later, she returned to performwith the Mermaids of Yesteryear for three years.

"It was bliss being in that cold, clear water again," said Fletcher, whowill attend this weekend's reunion.

In Weeki Wachee's early days, there was not much traffic on U.S. Highway19, Fletcher said. "When we heard a car coming, we would run out in ourbathing suits and beckon them to come in. All it took was one car and oneperson to put on a show."

A decade later, Weeki Wachee was on every Florida tourist's map, said VickiVergara Smith, who swam with the show in the early 1960s -- the start of theattraction's golden age.

The spring had been purchased by the American Broadcasting Co. -- ABC -- in1959. Amid much fanfare, a new 500-seat theater was built into the side of thespring, and elaborate shows were choreographed with costumes, props and music.Mermaids performed eight shows a day to sold-out crowds. Visiting celebritiesincluded Esther Williams, Arthur Godfrey and Elvis Presley.

"I swam the show for Elvis," said Smith, 67, now a Mermaid of Yesteryear."Afterwards he came into the Mermaid Villa and signed autographs. He was atrue Southern boy, a gentleman to the core, real soft-spoken and polite. Andhe wore loads of pancake makeup."

The Harris twins also were mermaids during Weeki Wachee's heyday.

"It was like living a fantasy," Holly Harris Hall said. "We lived in alittle cottage behind the spring and swam three or four shows a day. We neverwent to bed with dry hair."

They earned about $250 a week, her sister added. "That was pretty good foryoung girls back then. We bought our first car together, a 1967 pink Mustang.It was probably the happiest time of my life."

Disney led to decline

The twins hung up their mermaid tails in 1971 -- the year Walt Disney Worldopened in Orlando, diverting tourists away from Weeki Wachee.

Soon after, ABC sold the park. It slowly became shabby and forlorn.

In 2001, the Southwest Florida Water Management District bought the springand surrounding 442 acres. The 27-acre park was leased back to its operator,Weeki Wachee Springs LLC -- which later donated the lease to the tiny city ofWeeki Wachee.

"We took over the attraction in order to save it," said John Athanason, thepark's marketing director. "It's part of Florida's history. We don't want tosee it disappear."

Despite the city's efforts to upgrade the park and pay off debts of almost$1 million, the owner has filed suit to terminate the lease. The case likelywill come before a judge in August.

Some Weeki Wachee fans fear the park's 60th-anniversary celebration will beits swan song. Others can't imagine a time when the mermaids' siren call nolonger lures tourists to the legendary spring.

Jean Patteson can be reached at jpatteson@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5158. Jean Patteson can be reached at jpatteson@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5158.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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