In 1947, after plucking rusting refrigerator hulks, abandoned cars and other assorted junk from an enormous fresh water spring he had scouted out as a good location for a roadside attraction, Newton Perry built an underwater theater and launched a mermaid show at Weeki Wachee springs on the northwestern coast of Florida.
When it first opened, Weeki Wachee sat on an extremely remote stretch of highway and the mermaids helped recruit visitors by running to the road in their swimsuits when they heard a car approaching. Can you imagine driving down a lonely stretch of highway in remotest Florida in your '47 Packard and suddenly finding yourself surrounded by Betty Grable mermaids, singing their siren song, beckoning you to their lair? Fabulous!
By the 1950s, Weeki Wachee had become one of the most popular tourist destinations in America, attracting the likes of Elvis and Don Knotts to watch gals in one piece swimsuits drink Grapette underwater. Mark and I have a set of Viewmaster reels from that time that we absolutely treasure. Sadly, the popularity of the underwater theater has abated over the years, and Weeki Wachee is now one of the last surviving mermaid shows in America.
Since I feel certain that mermaid shows have constituted an important part of my personality (I still have cherished crayon drawings from my visit to Aquarena Springs in the early 60s), it was important for me to make a pilgrimage to the source. I was the first guest in the theater, eager to witness the spectacle that was about to unfold. The auditorium gradually filled with a modest sized group, including a wide-eyed little girl who sat near me proclaiming that it was her second viewing that afternoon. I'm guessing it was a pretty clear sign that the girl haled from from my home planet.
Finally, the aging vinyl curtain began to rise on the watery proscenium and to my delight, the first sight that greeted me was a mermaid passing directly in front of me. I had naturally taken a seat on the front row and had my nose glued to the glass. Wow. These weren't my Kennedy era mermaids, no sirree! These gals were slim, sophisticated and brandished gleaming Vegas smiles as they lip synced (through the miracle of invisible headsets) the words to the blaring soundtrack - not a single Grapette in sight. After much cavorting about, the mergirls made a giant watery ferris wheel as a grand finale, much to the obvious delight of the audience.
I emerged from the theater revitalized and happy but reminded that our world and our experience of it are ever dynamic. Nostalgia often beckons us but it is through being in the present, without expectation, that the greatest enjoyment can be experienced. That is precisely why I took a moment to lounge upon a giant pink clam shell and have my portrait made by a bemused park attendant before resuming the push toward Miami.
I am reminded here of a wonderful expression that Mark has coined, "It's the irritant that makes the pearl!"
The remainder of the day's journey was somewhat bland and uninteresting since I had chosen to follow the interstate, but the end of my drive became magical as I turned off onto a two lane blacktop that cuts directly through the Everglades west of Miami. It had long ago darkened, but a luscious full moon in a cloudless sky shepherded me through the swampy stretch. I was intrigued by a series of roadside signs noting that the area was a panther crossing and wondered aloud as I passed two signs in quick secession: panther crossing and campground. I had to ask myself, "How popular is the campground at the panther crossing?" I myself have a healthy respect for panthers that makes such a thing wondrous in my mind.