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My House

She was a teen mermaid in 1956

By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
Published October 9, 2004

LUTZ - The moon-yellow house with the deep-sea green trim serves Barbara Wishart well.

"Besides being a house, it's a home," says Wishart, her German accent crisp and elegant. "It's got memories. And memories keep us happy and healthy."

On the walls, the artwork of her 100-year-old father, a former mapmaker and painter who brought his family to the United States from Berlin in 1956.

In the family room, books on art, music and painting. Around the Danish modern sofa, puzzle and word games played after long family dinners. In the office, a scrapbook.

Wishart, now 65, opens it on her dining room table and reveals a past that touched the American dream.

More precisely, the Florida dream.

During the mid 1950s, Wishart and her sister, Johanna, performed as mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs. They swam simply, without tails or stage sets, their youthful beauty and athleticism enough to draw curious tourists from U.S. 19 in those wondrous days before Walt Disney World. The springs' unique underwater theater, designed by Florida's own celebrity stunt swimmer, Newt Perry, had opened less than a decade earlier, in 1947.

"Oh, look at those figures," she says a little wistfully. Nearly a half-century later she is still fit in a lavender shirt and khakis, a vegetarian who enjoys walking and swimming.

A Truman-era, prefeminism novelty at the Hernando County attraction, Wishart and her sister were dubbed "The Little German Girls," and their exotic calling card earned them a full-page seven-photo spread in a local newspaper.

The scrapbook tells the story of the beautiful German sisters who sang Winston cigarette jingles on radio station WDAE in Tampa, posed underwater in their flippers, masks and tutus, and otherwise basked in the glow of publicity.

Wishart was as at home under water as she was on land: For tourists watching from the underwater theater, she could drink a Grapette soda, feed the fish, kneel on the spring's sandy bottom, smiling as if she never needed another breath of air. "To me, it was a very glamorous experience, something I wasn't able to do in Germany," recalls Wishart. "To this day, I still love to swim underwater," says Wishart, a Weeki Wachee mermaid from 1956 to 1957, who perfected her swim strokes in the old Olympic Stadium Pool in Berlin.

"Our mother used to take us there for our swimming lessons," Wishart recalls. "Sometimes we walked, sometimes we took the streetcar or bus."

Wishart remains tightly linked to her German past: Snapshots of family still living in Germany decorate the house. And, next week she's throwing an all-German Mary Kay Cosmetics party.

Still, few people know of Wishart's history. Her neighbors, a closely bonded group who helped each other out during recent hurricanes ("The man across the street patched my roof," she says) learned accidentally after a couple of them mentioned they were going to Weeki Wachee Springs.

Wishart lives alone with her white Maltese dog, Suesseli (German for Sweetie Pie). Her three grandchildren, ages 18, 16 and 11, keep her young. They call her "Oma," and her glitzy mermaid past is simply family lore. She rarely digs out the scrapbook except on rare occasions: "My grandson was doing a school report on immigration recently, and he interviewed me," Wishart says.

The only visible reminder of that time is the framed newspaper clipping that hangs in a back hallway of her three-bedroom, two-bath house in the Foxwood subdivision off County Line Road. She moved here with her three children in 1980, and over time transformed it into a welcoming retreat.

Her decor combines Danish modern with a touch of traditional. Family photos, many from her native Germany, quilt one wall. An antique tapestry from Belgium hangs in the living room she has made cozy with accent pillows and throws. Wishart's sister, Vita, a ballerina in Germany, painted a small landscape that hangs in the study. A cobalt-blue glass bowl filled with papier mache lemons creates its own still life in the corner of the living room. Everything here seems familiar and accessible, and beckons further looking or touching.

"The key," she explains, "is organization and order. I don't like clutter. I like more of a classic design. If I could have anything I wanted, it would all be Danish modern because it's timeless and never goes out of style."

She's done it all on a budget, too. Long widowed, Wishart works as a certified nursing assistant and a home health care giver. She also cares for her father, whom she still calls "Papa" and who lives in a nearby nursing center. Her small, but pretty back yard was designed by a Swedish landscape architect whom her father befriended years ago while in another nursing facility.

Wishart loves her home so much that she recently bought a pair of earrings in the shape of tiny red houses.

"After a long day with a lot of different clients, I like to come home to a place that's comfy and cozy," she says. "In fact, I love to come home. It's hard to get me to leave. It's the place where I'm at peace."

[Last modified October 9, 2004, 01:03:23]


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