Fountain of Youth | Scuba Diving

Fountain of Youth

Barbara Wynns performs in "The Tails of Yesteryear."

March 2004

By Vicki Glembocki

Photography by Tim Calver

|| |---| | | People have been coming to see the mermaids of Weeki Wachee since 1947. In the early days, they drove 50 miles north from Tampa, 80 miles west from Orlando, navigating the narrow two-lane Route 19 into remote Hernando County, to Weeki Wachee River, which winds into the gulf. Weeki Wachee was one of Florida's 137 famed roadside attractions, an all-weekend family adventure, complete with a Seminole village, glass-bottom boats, a pig that could count. But it was the mermaids who called them--up to a million people each year.

Celebrities came--James Darren, Danny Thomas, Don Knotts, Arthur Godfrey, John Davidson. Even Elvis came. When Disney World opened in 1971, the cars started driving to Orlando instead. But the mermaids held on. Owners changed and changed again, making money but rarely putting any back into the park. Attractions closed. Buildings fell into disrepair. But the mermaids kept swimming, though their spring was growing algae, their audiences were shriveling, and their park was barely pulling in enough money to pay its staff. Finally, this year, the park's landlord decided enough was enough--spend $2 million and fix Weeki Wachee or we'll close it down. The mermaids launched a fund-raising campaign--"Save Our Tails." They're praying they can raise enough.

Today, though, on a Saturday morning in October, people have come. Lots of people--most of them retired, most with gray hair. They're not here for the mermaids; they're here for the big crafts show at the park this weekend. But, at 11 a.m., they pack the theater, 15 feet under the water. And what a day to come. Not only can they see the regular show, "The Little Mermaid," at 11 and 3, they can also catch a special performance in between. A group of former mermaids--ages 49 to 73!--are putting on a show of their own, "The Tails of Yesteryear."

Once a month, former mermaids, ranging in age from 49 to 73, relive a portion of their youth in the show, "The Tails of Yesteryear."

|| |---| | | | Two mermaids perform the "Ferris wheel."| Upstairs, above the underwater theater, in the big rehearsal room in the Mermaid Villa, Crystal Robson digs through the refrigerator, hunting for something to eat. Dottie Meares is supposed to bring the bananas--it's part of their act, eating a banana and drinking a Coke under water. But Dottie is late. Their show starts in 45 minutes. Crystal pulls out the only edible item in the fridge--an apple so wrinkled it's probably been in there since Crystal first performed here in 1970.

The "Mermaids Only" door to the villa squeals open. All five mermaids, waiting in their costumes--full-piece blue lycra swimsuits with a blue plastic amulet around their necks--turn toward the door. It's not Dottie. It's Susie Pennoyer; she swam from 1971 to 1973. She turns 50 next month. And she doesn't even have her mermaid make-up on yet.

"Hurry. Hurrrrrry," yells Lynn Columbo, the group's choreographer, who just turned 50 herself, but is so tall and so thin that she must look the same as she did when she first put on the tail in 1973. "We have to practice our spacing.""I'm hurrying, I'm hurrying," Susie says, scuttling past the mermaid's time clock, past the Santa suit hanging from a hook on the wall, past the green ballet bar, up the short flight of stairs and through the door to the dressing room where a sign is posted: "Today is a great day to be a mermaid."

Today, however, is not a great day to be Dottie.

"She's always late," huffs Lynn, cuing the music on the boombox to their opening song, "NeverEnding Story." The mermaids take their places in a V formation in front of the wall of mirrors. Susie runs in, her costume on, her long brown hair hanging straight down her back. They all have long hair. Mermaids are supposed to have long hair.

"Do you want DuWop on your lips?" Lynn asks Susie. So far, Lynn's convinced half the girls to try this lip gloss that's supposed to swell lips and make wrinkles disappear. Mermaids are not supposed to have wrinkles.

Barbara Wynns always wanted to be a mermaid. Her dream came true at 17, and then again in 1997, after being off the air hose for 22 years.

"It burns," warns Beverly Sutton, who swam from 1969 to 1972. "There's cayenne in that stuff."

"They look better than they did," Lynn says, pointing to her face in the mirror.

"Do you think it works on your boobs?" asks Susie.

"Or on the wrinkles around your eyes?" asks Lynn.

"Or on the cellulite under your arms?" asks Barbara Wynns, grabbing the skin under her upper arm and shaking it. Barbara has been at the park since 10 this morning, arriving all gussied up in her "young outfit," blue-jean pedal pushers and a denim vest with "Mermaid Barbara" embroidered on the front and on the back "Weeki Wachee Mermaid: 1967-1969 and 1973-1975." She wore the silver medallion necklace she received when she was promoted to mermaid. She also wore a wig that made her brown curly hair look more shiny and full. The patch sewn on her vest from the park's 50th anniversary in 1997 means a lot to Barbara. That's when everything changed, when her dream finally came true, when she got on the air hose again.When other little girls were aspiring to be teachers and ballerinas, Barbara wanted to be a mermaid. When she was 13, her father took the family on a tour of the state, stopping at a bunch of roadside attractions--St. Augustine, Sunken Gardens, the Ringling Brothers Museum, Weeki Wachee Springs. Barbara sat in the underwater theater, mesmerized. They ate under water. They danced under water. They rode bikes under water. The mermaids weren't even wearing tails back then, but Barbara figured it out quick: These girls were getting paid to play in the water.

On Thanksgiving Day during her senior year in high school, Barbara came back to the park, waiting in the line that snaked all the way across the parking lot. She was 17--a year too young to get hired, she knew--but hell if she wasn't going to try. Jeannie, the mermaid supervisor, gave Barbara the test--hold your breath under water for 30 seconds, swim across the spring and back, look up from the water and smile. Barbara passed. From then until she turned 19, Barbara could come down on the weekends to train.

The biggest challenge was learning the air hose. Each of the nine hoses attached to its own compressor. The mermaids held the hoses in their mouths, clenching their teeth on the tip to start and stop the airflow. When Barbara wasn't announcing the show or posing for pictures or selling Cokes, she was in the water, figuring out how to get buoyant with the air hose, how to equalize her ears, submerged in the 72-degree spring for a solid hour at a time. {mospagebreak}

|| |---| | | | A mermaid welcomes a young visitor.| Barbara was always wet, always cold, and always there, every weekend except for the few that her mother forced her to miss--for prom, for the class trip to Washington, D.C. On the day she graduated from high school, she drove directly to Weeki Wachee and moved into one of the cottages on the grounds where most of the 32 mermaids lived. The theater was always packed, and the mermaids couldn't go anywhere without being recognized. Tupperware and Windex and Clairol filmed commercials starring them. Part of Route 66 was shot in the spring. It seemed like everyone in the country knew about the Weeki Wachee mermaids.

Barbara had no idea that when she left the job for good in 1975, she'd spend the next two decades longing to come back. She got married three times, divorced twice. She designed eyeglasses, certified scuba divers, became a nutritionist, and settled in D.C., where she and her husband Bobby now have one home; the other is a few miles away, right on Weeki Wachee River. But, during all those years, when someone asked her what she did, she always gave the same answer: "I'm a mermaid." In 1997, when she received the letter about a mermaid reunion and show to celebrate the park's 50th anniversary, she felt like John Glenn must have when he was invited to go back into space. She just had a bit part--feeding the fish and flipping back behind a rock--but she was there. On the air hose. Living her dream. Ever since, one weekend each month, she and a small group of former mermaids perform the "Tails of Yesteryear." Barbara never misses a show.

It's 20 minutes to showtime, and the mermaids are just finishing up the ballet to their finale, "My Heart Will Go On," when Dottie bursts through the door. She's wearing a miniskirt and two-inch-high beige mules. She is 73. And she has the bananas.

"Oh, thank God," Lynn says."We can never explain to you the joy of life as a mermaid ..." The taped voice-over plays as the curtain inches up. "... this is our fantasy dream, our never-ending story." The music starts. And there they are, tails and everything, wrinkles and everything, 50-plus years and everything, performing all the classic moves they did when they were 19--the dolphin backflips, the pinwheel turns, even the "Ferris wheel" where they hold on to each other's ankles and rotate in a perfect circle. At the end of the song, the girls clasp hands, lift them above their heads and float to the surface in a fountain of bubbles. They look so natural there, as if they truly haven't aged, as if the waters of Weeki Wachee are as magical as they say they are.

Barbara, Susie and Crystal order salads, and Bev gets Cajun chicken. They're famished; the show takes a lot out of them. This weekend, they decided to check out the new Ruby Tuesday. It just opened a few miles from Weeki Wachee. So did Johnny Carino's. And Red Lobster. And Saint Sebastian's Belgian Brewery. And the second Super Wal-Mart. And the third Wendy's--all bolstered by the development that's sprawling north from Tampa, spreading out from the new Suncoast Expressway that runs along Florida's lifeline, the aquifer.

|| |---| | | | A potential future mermaid strikes the pose.| That's exactly why Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as Swiftmud, bought Weeki Wachee and its 442 acres from the City of St. Petersburg in June 2001. All of Florida's springs flow into the aquifer, and with the droughts and the development, the water levels are shrinking fast. With the park in such bad shape and in such serious debt--last year, it was $173,000 in the red--and with its sewage system dating back to the '70s and threatening contamination of the precious river water, Swiftmud the landlord had to do something. Last summer, the private investors running the park quickly handed over the management of the 30-year lease to the City of Weeki Wachee--the park, the Hampton Inn across the highway, a shopping center, and nine residents, led by Mayor Robyn Anderson, a 30-year-old former mermaid and general manager of the park. Robyn may be young, and her beautiful waist-length blond waves may be the envy of every mermaid in Hernando County, but she knew what to do. Saving the park was a good cause and all--important enough to double the city's property taxes--but saving the mermaids would make much better PR. So much better, in fact, that it landed the "Save Our Tails" campaign on the front page of the New York Times, on the Reuters wire, on the Today show, on NBC Nightly News, on CBS News Sunday Morning. And, wouldn't you know it, those mermaids--both former and current--raised $5,000 in a few short weeks. Home Depot donated wood. Locals donated time. They knocked down a termite-infested building, built new boardwalks. Now, all that's left is the big kahuna--the $200,000 sewage system. If they fix that, the mermaids might get to keep mermaiding after all--preserving their jobs, preserving the park, preserving the fantasy that sustains the ladies sitting around the table at Ruby Tuesday, digging into the restaurant's signature Chocolate Tallcake with layer upon layer of mousse, Oreos, caramel, fudge, vanilla ice cream and whipped cream.The check comes and the girls head to their cars--Susie's burgundy Dodge Caravan for carting around her two teenagers, and Barbara's massive white Ford Expedition with her vanity plate: WKI WCHE. On the way to Barbara's house, they make a quick pit stop at Bealls department store. The mermaids want to buy shoes.

Barbara's headlights shine into the carport and illuminate a life-sized mannequin bolted to her house. The mannequin is dressed in a bikini top and a green tail. Inside, on the basement level, next to the closet where Barbara stores all of Weeki Wachee's mermaid memorabilia--videotapes, black and white photos, every newspaper article ever written--there's a poster-sized photo of her from the glory days hanging on the wall. She's 19, with thick brown hair swirling around her head, bubbles escaping from her wide smile, her iridescent turquoise tail glistening and new. She still has that tail. It's hanging on the wall in her spare bedroom.

Upstairs, Susie lights every candle in the place, Bev mixes a few strong rum and Cokes, and they all gather on the deck out back, looking onto Weeki Wachee River as the sun sets into twilight. There's another mermaid mannequin here, reclining, her torso skewered on an iron post, her arm outstretched as if she's calling to the trawling boat inching its way toward a nearby dock. Barbara pulls out the sequined purse with a mermaid on it. It's the purse she'll be carrying this Tuesday when she goes to Bartow for Weeki Wachee's next meeting with Swiftmud. They need to convince the district to extend the deadline for fixing the sewage system--they'd never be able to get it done in two months. Already, Barbara's organized a busload of her Red Hat Ladies to make the two-hour trip with her, all of them wearing the purple shirts Barbara had made with "Save Our Tails" silkscreened on the front.

|| |---| | | "Tuesday's big," Barbara says. She bets the district scheduled the meeting in another county so no Weeki Wachee supporters would come. "Last time the Red Hatters went, we got a lot of press."

The girls retreat to Bobby's bedroom, passing under the antique wooden mermaid hanging from the living room ceiling, breezing down the hallway lined with mermaid photos and clippings that tell the story of Barbara's life. They angle for space on Bobby's waterbed to watch videos Barbara has brought up from the closet downstairs. Barbara is the star in all of them, the unofficial Weeki Wachee spokesperson, in her wetsuit at 7 a.m. for the live Today show broadcast, translated on the program from the Chinese station that came to film the park last month.

"Look at my wrinkles," Barbara moans.

"They must be drawing them on, Barbara, because we can't see them," Bev says.

"I look like I'm rotting."The phone rings. It's Barbara's mother. There's a mermaid movie on PAX. Barbara rushes to the TV and flips off the VCR. She surfs the channels with the remote until she finds it. It's more than a half-hour into the flick, but the plot's easy to piece together. Three mermaids are trying to avenge their father's death.

"This one's good," Bev says. "Lynn once caught one in the middle of the night where the mermaids were eating people."

"They always make mermaids evil," Crystal says.

These mermaids are not evil. They're young and thin. They have long hair. They know exactly what they need to do to survive. And nothing will stop them.