Authentically Fake

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 American original who had wrestled alligators and anacondas, starred in Pathé Newsreels and Grantland Rice Sportlight Films (Rice bestowed on him the indelible nickname “The Human Fish”), trained Navy frogmen, set a world record by free diving 185 feet, and demonstrated an anomalous proficiency for eating bananas underwater. Browning, his very-nearly-as-icthyophilic partner, would go on to star as the monster in Creature from the Black Lagoon, write the screenplay for Flipper, and direct the surreal underwater battle scenes in that coolest of all the James Bond movies, Thunderball. These gentlemen were hardly lightweights.

But they certainly were hucksters-pioneers of what the Chicago Sun-Times writer Joel Achenbach calls “the Authentically Fake Florida.” As Vickers and Dionne put it,

Cockatoos pedaled miniature bicycles in Vero Beach; Seminole Indians wrestled alligators over in St. Augustine, and monkeys played pianos down in Miami. Weeki Wachee Spring might as well feature mermaids, and the mermaids might as well eat bananas and perform ballet. Banking on thousands of years of mermaid mania, Newt Perry knew that if he stocked his natural spring with aquababes, the curious crowds would pour in.

Weeki Wachee was a hauntingly beautiful crystalline natural spring in West Florida, the sort of place Ponce de León was looking for when he was searching for the Fountain of Youth. Its discovery and exploration by Perry and Browning began the weirdest chapter of its evolution from backwater Eden to cracker amusement park to national tourist destination to American Broadcasting Company asset to...well, to Authentically Fake Florida relic perhaps.

The pioneers of Weeki Wachee faced problems unique to the frontier between nature and popular culture. When the 1948 film Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid was being shot there, resourceful cameramen anointed the mermaid tails with fish roe, hoping to attract a few bass and bluegill to enhance the photographic background. (According to a producer, “No mermaid would look authentic unless fish were swimming alongside her.”) Instead, local black bears, too crazed by the delicious aroma to distinguish rubber from fish, emerged from the woods to scatter the film crew and feast on the wardrobe accessories.

If you’ve ever wondered-and haven’t we all?-what would happen if Rupert Murdoch were allowed to purchase Jacques Cousteau, this may be the book for you. True, the authors have felt obligated to include a prim and tedious survey of mermaid lore (because this is a university-press book after all), but that is only a minor defect in an otherwise delightful volume lavishly appointed with intriguing photographs of sirens clad in bikini tops and fish-fin bottoms; of pretty girls drinking orange soda and eating hamburgers at an underwater picnic; of Arthur Godfrey performing a subaqueous “Gurgle Along with Godfrey” ukulele serenade; of a somewhat portly and aging mermaid swimming companionably with a manatee; of two mermaids out-of-water at a 1975 Miami Dolphins football game. This is great stuff.

The question is worth pondering: What, really, do we go out in the Floridian wilderness to see? If it is true that the young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God, what is the true object of a gawking American vulgarian’s quest? Sentimentality parodies, but can sometimes jump-start, genuine love; superstition assails, but can sometimes ricochet toward, true faith. The slack-jawed masses (and if you consider yourself altogether independent of them you might also consider dismounting your high horse) who visit Weeki Wachee or watch American Idol are starving for signs and wonders and groping for the tassel of a cloak. Like those poor deranged black bears, or perhaps even like that poor young man ringing the brothel bell, they may be cruelly deceived and disappointed, but God help them if they lose such a crucial, if disfigured, instinct.

Published in the 2007-09-14 issue: 
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Michael O. Garvey works in public relations at the University of Notre Dame.

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