Newton Perry was known as ‘the Human Fish’. He could stay under water for over three minutes.
After a stint training SEALs in the US Navy during World War II, Perry decided to set up shop in Weekiwachee, a spring in Florida so named by long-ousted Native Americans (‘winding river’) said to be so deep no-one had ever found the bottom.
When Perry took over its management, it was full of debris and junk, a long way from the holiday paradise Perry was planning to create. But that didn’t matter. Perry was planning mermaids, and there was a film in the offing.
The Underwater Theatre
In October 1947, Newton Perry opened Weeki Wachee Springs, and with them, his ‘Underwater Theatre’, an auditorium built into the stone, looking onto a glass window into the Springs themselves. Early audiences, for whom there was insufficient lighting, were forced to press their faces to the glass to see properly, lending an unintended spice of authenticity to this holiday safari.
On the other side of the glass, a bevy of attractive young women – carefully selected by Perry – swam and performed tricks under the water. Guests could see them swimming in sequence, performing ‘underwater ballets’ and – Perry’s own party trick – eating and drinking under the water. They were billed as the Weeki Wachee Mermaids – something that extended even to their publicity strategy, by which, siren-style, they would wait for the sound of passing cars, run out to the passengers, and entice them in to see the show.
These ‘mermaids’ had been trained to smile, swim and breathe underwater, using Perry’s Navy experience and a radical new invention – an air hose that could be concealed in scenery or around the costume, with no need for a tank. They were portrayed in every way as magical beings, something that fitted in well with the prevalent post-war desire for escapism and fantastical, glamorous women. Soon girls were flying in from all over the world, in the hopes of becoming one of the Weeki Wachee mermaids themselves, so they too could join in singing:
‘We’re not like other women,
We don’t have to clean an oven
And we never will grow old,
We’ve got the world by the tail!’
There had, of course, been a growing trend for specifically water-women since the arrival of ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’ Esther Williams at MGM in 1941. But when filming for Nunnally Johnson Productions’ Mr Peabody and the Mermaid began on-site at the Springs – with Perry’s expertise for the swimming scenes – the Weeki Wachee marketing machine – and the mermaids it represented – really started coming into its own.
Mr Peabody was the lightweight tale of a middle-aged man experiencing a mid-life crisis and meeting a mermaid (with hilarious results), and Perry used it as a launch pad to rebrand the springs from the Native American ‘Weekiwachee’ to the obviously more comprehensible Weeki Wachee – in the process shifting most people’s pronunciation from the more authentic ‘Wicky-washee’ to the phonetic form favoured today. On the film’s release, Perry brought an enormous water tank to the premiere and had his mermaids perform inside it – Weekie Wachee, he so declared, was the place for mermaids.
Working with Ann Blyth
The star of the film was Oscar nominee Ann Blyth – now best remembered as the malevolent Veda, daughter to Joan Crawford in the Oscar-winning Mildred Pierce (1945). She actually had some small success in Mr Peabody, though today the most striking thing about her appearance in this role is how clearly it, like the mermaid theme more generally, was a product of the Forties. The micro-fringe and immaculate make-up are clearly rooted in their time (though, ironically, the look might now be mistaken as uber-modern retro) – almost as if the escapism of the post-war era needed to be ironically set within its own time.
Here is Ann Blyth with Perry, getting her webbed feet on:
This picture dates from Blyth’s training with Perry, during which she learned all the techniques his usual mermaids employed – though most of them actually preferred not to wear tails in performance, as they impeded free movement. Although Blyth was said to be a quick learner, she still had a ‘real’ Weeki Wachee mermaid as her stunt double for many of the more elaborate swimming scenes – though, of course, she had to wear a tail. Here she is being helped into it, by two men in full suit and tie:
Blyth is apparently sitting on something, rather than leaning all her weight on the two men either side of her – but it’s not entirely clear who these men are. They are probably not from the wardrobe department, but they don’t look like technicians either – perhaps this is simply a created scene for the public, with no pretence at real-life accuracy.
Poised as she is, semi-naked, between two fully dressed men, Blyth’s physical immobility is striking, although the effect of the tail is to make her appear taller, and more fantastical. In some ways, it’s the perfect representation of the 1940s mermaid who, though most obviously represented by Blyth in Mr Peabody, finds a truer embodiment in Hollywood star Esther Williams.
A competitive swimmer, Williams’ roles throughout the Forties were water-themed, and her consequently frequent appearances in publicity shots clad only in bathing suits made her a pin-up (particularly in Perry’s native US Navy). She was a regular visitor to Weeki Wachee Springs, and Perry worked with her on Neptune’s Daughter in 1949 – also largely filmed on-site, just after Mr Peabody.
Just like Perry’s own mermaids, Williams was also ‘not like other women’ – there is an Esther Williams Trophy meme that persists in Navy parlance to this day. But it wasn’t all positive: Williams’ autobiography claims that Van Johnson, her co-star in Thrill of a Romance (1945) told the papers he wouldn’t consider dating her ‘because I’m afraid she can’t get her webbed feet into a pair of evening sandals’, suggesting equal parts desire and suspicion – even the sense that this female athlete might not be fully human.
The implication that Williams might almost have no legs at all – that she could be a melusine-like figure only seeming to be a woman – is doubly telling since her legs formed the main part of Williams’ sex appeal in all those publicity stills of the Forties – as they do in so many films of mid-century America, and in the publicity shot of Perry with his ‘mermaids in training’, above – the outdoorsy, healthy, all-American look that so permeates mid-century advertising and film. Perry’s mermaids in training – as in all the photos in this piece – have webbed feet too.
So there’s a strange ambiguity to the Mermaids’ pronouncement that ‘we’ve got the world by the tail’, when that tail, in fact, turns out to be their own.