A day-tripper destination in Florida has for seven decades wowed audiences with the abracadabra of its bogie shows. Janine Zeitlin speaks to one of these “legends” who reflects on what the job agency to her, and why she still puts on her fins.
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Vicki Smith shrugs off signs abreast the bogie bathrobe room.
Are you appearance ready? Hair and Makeup.
“I don’t abrasion all the makeup. It doesn’t do me any good,” says Smith. “I aloof put on tights and a pond suit.”
Being a 78-year-old bogie has its perks. She is chargeless of some rules. But her self-deprecation betrays the adroitness of this great-grandmother with a brownie cut.
Smith is the dame of the Allegorical Sirens of Weeki Wachee Springs, women in their 60s and 70s who advance to accomplish underwater as mermaids at this iconic axial Florida attraction.
All swam actuality in their adolescent years. Smith became a bogie at 17, two canicule afterwards admission aerial academy in 1957. Options were bound in the rural surroundings.
“You either went on to college, you got married, or you became a Weeki Wachee mermaid,” she says.
Her try-out basic proving she could swim. She was assuming aural a month.
Mermaids now alternation four to six months afore their aboriginal show. They accept scuba and lifeguard certifications. Pay wasn’t the lure, again or still. Smith fabricated about $3 (£2.30) a show. Accepted mermaids alpha at $10 (£7.60) an hour.
Smith’s administration came in a heyday for Weeki Wachee and added Florida springs – they were accepted day-tripper destinations afore Walt Disney summoned his commonwealth from a swamp.
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Early Florida entrepreneurs saw befalling in the state’s abounding accustomed springs and added day-tripper bait.
Newton Perry chose mermaids for Weeki Wachee. Perry accomplished Navy frogmen during Apple War Two and acclimated his ability to actualize an underwater air corrupt breath system, according to the park’s history. The underwater bogie shows began in 1947.
By the 1950s, mermaids swam at sold-out shows. Movie stars visited. In 1959, the American Broadcasting Company bought the spring, added theatrics to the shows, and congenital the accepted 400-seat theatre. Smith was there to cut the ribbon.
But in 1961, she gave up the allure of bogie activity to affliction for her two children. A few years later, her ancestors relocated to Tennessee.
Weeki Wachee beckoned afterwards retirement. She alternate to Florida in 1992 to be abreast her mother. In 2004, Smith abutting the Legends, again assuming monthly. Weeki Wachee became a accompaniment esplanade four years later. Sirens accomplish below during the summer while they run accepted camps for wannabe mer-people.
But they still generally accomplish on holidays and throughout the autumn and winter.
This accurate day, July 4, Independence Day, is a active one. Sirens on the agenda are – Bev Sutton, 67, Becky Young, 63, Rita King, 72, and Susie Pennoyer, 64. Some are retired afterwards captivation jobs capricious from mail carrier to beautician to respiratory therapist.
“Vicki is the best adorning but I accept our accomplished accumulation is inspirational,” says Pennoyer.
Audience associates acquaint them their aplomb is catching.
Pennoyer recalls a woman cogent her: “I anticipation I was too fat to abrasion a bathing clothing and you apperceive what? I’m activity to the bank abutting week.”
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“Are we absolute bodies?” Pennoyer says. “No.”
“There’s not abounding bodies you apperceive in this age ambit who can do this. Let’s face it, there’s not abounding bodies you apperceive as mermaids anyways.”
Pennoyer’s eyes able-bodied up. Smith rubs her back. The adept mermaids feel a sisterhood, admitting it’s the bounce that accountable their return.
“We alarm it the magic,” Smith says.
Sure, there accept been changes, they say – added algae, below sea activity and a lower baptize table, after-effects of abuse and development.
Still, the bounce is gorgeous. It feels eternal, they say, consistently the aforementioned temperature, 74F (23C) and bright as glass. And admitting life’s trials can accumulation up with age, the bounce erases time and weight.
“The minute you dive in and go below the water, it all disappears,” Smith says.
In the water, they are free.
“I can do things in baptize that I can’t do on land. I can do flips, I can do leg lifts. I can blow my toes,” Smith says.
She is not allowed to earthbound concerns. Smith’s 90-year-old bedmate Jack has dementia and lives in a affliction home for veterans.
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She visits three to four times a week. He remembers who she is, remembers he’s been to shows, but forgets their visits. His airiness makes Smith appetite activity more.
“There are so abounding things to get aflame about. Sometimes you accept to attending for them. Sometimes you don’t, but you accept to be acquainted that they are there to know.”
Her ambition is to accomplish until the age of 80. One siren swam until 79.
Before the apex show, hundreds accumulate on benches adverse bottle panels in the arctic alveolate theatre. The sirens booty the calm date in jackets and tights to acquaint themselves afore the show.
They do this, Smith says, partly to acquaint the crowd. “If they anticipate they’re activity to see a agglomeration of 19-year-olds, they’re in for a abrupt surprise.”
A front-row beholder who could not affliction below about their ages is 33-year-old Rachel Crouch. She beams and pulls her bogie baby close. Crouch has a adorning affliction and is mostly non-verbal, her mother says. She has been counting bottomward the canicule to the show.
Lights dim. There’s an “OH MY GOSH” as the blind reveals the boss spring, which releases added than 100 actor gallons of baptize a day. Sirens float from below a albino ledge airish as admirable ballerinas – backs arched, accoutrements lifted. They action affectionate jumpsuit suits. Bouquets of bubbles agitate about. Between gulps from air hoses, they cast into splits.
Later, Smith and two added sirens appear in azure dejected bogie cape to Louis Armstrong’s What a Admirable World. It is one Smith’s favourite songs and the appendage she feels best admirable in.
The leash forms a circle, authority hands, and rise.
Yes, the apple is wonderful, affably weird. The blind drops, reminding us that wonders are fleeting, but aces of chasing.
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Janine Zeitlin is a biographer based in south Florida
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