Authentically Fake

Weeki Wachee, City of Mermaids
A History of One of Florida’s Oldest Roadside Attractions
Lu Vickers and Sara Dionne
University Press of Florida, $34.95, 320 pp.

The late Hunter S. Thompson once arrestingly remarked that crack cocaine had ruined the drug culture. Television and corporate capitalism have similarly affected American vulgarity, which has become so depressingly homogenized that dwarf-tossing contests can find franchises and even the tattoos all seem to be copyrighted. American yokeldom has gone to the dogs. And to the reality TV shows.

Lu Vickers and Sara Dionne here present a kinder, gentler specimen of American barbarianism from a happier time. The epicures who first thronged to the natural spring of Florida’s Weeki Wachee in the 1940s and ’50s did not learn of its wonders from McDonald’s Happy Meal boxes, nor was its allure imprinted in their cerebra by the narcotizing repetition of network commercials.

No, they were drawn off Florida’s two-lane Highway 19 by a sign emblazoned with an invitation that only the most hopelessly high-horse rider could pass up: “Welcome to Weeki Wachee, World Famous Spring of the Live Mermaids.” There was one other gimmick in those early days, according to Ricou Browning. “We had about fifteen employees,” Browning said, “and Newt would ask them to park their cars out front so that the tourists going by would see the cars and park too. His old saying was, ‘People go where people know people go.’”

He of the old saying was Newt Perry, the visionary and founder of Weeki Wachee’s Underwater Theater. Perry was an...

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About the Author

Michael O. Garvey works in public relations at the University of Notre Dame.