Mermaids can have a spot on your bookshelf

Published May 19, 2007

The first time I visited the Weeki Wachee "Spring of the Mermaids" was in 1964, just four years after the big, 500-seat underwater theater had opened, replacing a small one that had been in place since Oct. 12, 1947.

The attraction sat along a sandy, two-lane road lined with scrub oaks, sandy hills and dense woods on its way down Florida's west coast.

This was a decade before Spring Hill, of course. Going south, the next wide spot in the road that I recall was Tarpon Springs, where our family boarded the St. Nicholas Boat Line for a 30-minute cruise down the Anclote River to watch the sponge divers, jaunts that had started all the way back in 1924.

Weeki Wachee's fame spread when a Hollywood movie company arrived in 1948 to film the fantasy film, Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, with Ann Blyth and William Powell. The movie showed up on Turner Classic Movies a while back and was as delightful as the first time I saw it.

The quirky roadside attraction's colorful history includes visits by Elvis Presley, Arthur Godfrey, Esther Williams and a host of other notables.

Now, just in time for the 60th anniversary celebration July 27-29, writer Lu Vickers and photo editor Sara Dionne have come out with a gorgeous and fascinating 295-page history of the unusual tourist spot, Weeki Wachee City of Mermaids, a History of One of Florida's Oldest Roadside Attractions. It's put out by University Press of Florida, the same folks who published Gary Monroe's excellent The Highwaymen: Florida's African-American Landscape Painters in 2001.

It's $34.95 through University Press, but Amazon.com has it on sale for $23.07, with free shipping if your order is more than $25.

Check out Page 272, a full- page color photo of Crystal Barlow Robson, the owner of B. Risque Swimwear in Holiday, who started her mermaid career in the 1970s, still practices at the spring every Wednesday and performs one weekend a month with other mermaids of a certain age. (That's her grandson Hunter looking through the window at her.)

In fact, since many mermaids and mermen are recruited locally and those who aren't move here, the book is filled with faces we see at local grocery stores, restaurants or movies.

The book starts when Florida was the bottom of the gulf, goes through the era when mastodons roamed the area, and brings the story right up to the present, with side trips to Silver Springs and Wakulla Springs.

Ms. Vickers' writing is lively and easy to read. She interviewed former and current mermaids, employees and residents, and did tons of research. The more than 200 photographs are totally fascinating.

In early years, young women and men in swimsuits did beautiful ballets, Broadway-type shows, drank little 6-ounce Grapette sodas and ate bananas under water. The fishtails came along later, but the graceful choreography remained until recently, when nonballet skits replaced it.

But the story of Weeki Wachee isn't all happiness and fun. Ms. Vickers tells about the time some Spring Hill developers fiddled around with a couple of ponds, and a boxcar-sized chunk of white clay fell into the water and turned it a turbid, milky white that temporarily stopped the show.

The worst years started in 1989, when a group of investors bought it, fired key longtime employees and, perhaps as damaging and outrageous, burned boxes full of irreplaceable photos and memorabilia and bulldozed the old Star Garden, where the unused props were set up so visitors could have their pictures made on them.

Rumors flew that the money boys wanted to bulldoze the attraction and build a raft of -what else? - condos around the headwaters and along the river.

Since then, Southwest Florida Water Management District has bought the park and the land around it, and the condo plans are dead. But there is ongoing litigation between Swiftmud and the city about who is responsible for what and what to do about it.

Even so, the community has rallied around the beloved tourist attraction. Volunteers and employees are working to restore the place to its former glory, removing ugly "improvements" and polishing up the old stuff.

Hopes are high that the mermaids will be around for a long time to come.