Mermaids' last splash? Debt imperils 60-year-old Weeki Wachee
The mermaids of Weeki Wachee Spring, both current and past, join together for the July reunion show finale. Click here to see more photos from Weeki Wachee. (GEORGE SKENE, ORLANDO SENTINEL / July 20, 2007)
But this weekend, concerns for the future will be set aside as hundreds of mermaids flood the fabled roadside attraction to celebrate its 60th anniversary with a reunion and four different underwater shows -- including a grand finale featuring 16 current and former mermaids performing together for the first time.
Mermaids greeting visitors to the park will include Central Floridians Ginger Stanley Hallowell, 75, who doubled for Julie Adams in Creature From the Black Lagoon and for Esther Williams in Jupiter's Darling; Mary Dwight Rose, 72, longtime coach of Orlando's Loreleis synchronized swim team; and identical twins 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 Mermaid Theater on July 18, as past and present mermaids gathered to rehearse. Ashley Furlong, 17, is the youngest. Dottie Meares, who will be 77 in September, is the oldest. She first swam at Weeki Wachee in 1951.
"I'll keep swimming till they kick me out," said Meares, whose first stint as a mermaid continued three years. "I adore it. I can't wait to get into the water. It's a magical place."
She is one of a group of former mermaids who put on a show during their 50th reunion. It was such a hit, they have been performing monthly ever since as the Mermaids of Yesteryear.
"Once a mermaid, always a mermaid," Meares said. "Once you've been down in that 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 Little Mermaid, the current mermaids will debut Dream Girls, a mesmerizing sequence of undulations, pinwheels and slow-motion back flips.
The former mermaids will reprise some of their greatest hits, including scenes 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 Creature From the Black Lagoon and two sequels, recalled those early days:
"Newt Perry told me his idea for an underwater show," said Browning, now president of Ivan Tors Studios near Fort Lauderdale. "I went with him to see this fabulous spring. It looked like a little duck pond off the side of the road. But I went into the water anyway, and it was beautiful -- except there was everything but the kitchen sink down there: fridges, tires, mattress springs."
Browning helped clean out the junk and build the first underwater theater -- a structure rather like a sunken boxcar with windows looking into the spring. He also helped train the first mermaids, teaching them underwater ballet using air hoses invented by Perry.
"Underwater, you're like astronauts in space, free-moving and almost weightless," said Browning. "It's like being in a different world."
Mary Darlington Fletcher performed in the inaugural show. A petite 15-year-old, she donned a mask and flippers and dived into the spring, bewitching audiences with her underwater antics. Taking occasional sips from her air hose, she cavorted with the fish, nibbled bananas and glugged Grapette sodas.
"We didn't wear tails back then," said Fletcher, now 75. "We supplied our own bathing suits. Mine was a two-piece, lime-green. A very covered-up two-piece."
She performed on weekends and holidays all through high school, and was one of three doubles for actress Ann Blythe when Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid was filmed at Weeki Wachee.