Born to Be a Mermaid
by Bonnie Georgiadis
Inspired by mythical sirens, the beloved Ariel, and a yearning for the magical, mermaiding has become an occupation as well as a hobby. Those who have taken to the idea of becoming “real-life mermaids” are getting a lot of press. Linden Wolbert, profiled by the Daily Mail, dons a tail to help promote ocean conservation. Eric Ducharme, the “Mertailor” was featured on an episode of TLC’s “My Crazy Obsession,” where he talked about his life as an underwater performer and a supplier of handmade, sequined tails. Even Vanessa Hudgens appears to be channeling her inner mermaid lately. But before synthetic tails were something you could special order for your own pool party or lakeside productions, Weeki Wachee springs was the place to go to see mermaids, and the place to work if wanted to be one. Recently featured in The New York Times, Weeki Wachee Springs “is both a very small ‘city’ (population: 4) and a 538-acre state park. It is also ‘the world’s only city of live mermaids.'”
Bonnie Georgiadis dived into mermaiding at Weeki Wachee Springs in 1953. She held her breath and stayed wet for 15 years, then produced/choreographed seven underwater shows before drying out. She is now retired in Tarpon Springs, not far from water, and is co-author of Weeki Wachee Mermaids: Thirty Years of Underwater Photography. Here, she talks about what it was like to perform at the park and some of the tricks used to make the shows so memorable:
I was eleven years old in 1947 when the underwater mermaid shows started at Weeki Wachee Spring. I knew that’s what I wanted to be the minute I saw them perform. The fact that Esther Williams movies were popular at that time didn’t hurt either. We lived in Tarpon Springs on the West coast of Florida which is 30 miles from Tampa, Saint Petersburg and Weeki Wachee Spring. Marti, my older sister was classmates with several of the original teenagers who were weekend volunteers.
When I was 17 and old enough to apply, I made an appointment for a try-out. I was told to bring a suit and towel because I was going to get wet. During the water test I was asked to dive into the spring and smile with my eyes open. Some people squint and screw up their faces but I’d been practicing my look at the local pool so I did it easily.
Next I had to do a ‘knee back dolphin’ arching back and pulling with my arms in a circle. I’d been practicing that move too so I did well on the trial. I was told I could start training the following week.
I was in heaven!
The show we performed at that time was a combination of demonstrations of various skills that can be done underwater, plus ballet, culminating with a dramatic descent into the depths of the underwater ‘Grand Canyon’. One of the performers swam down until she or he (we did have mermen around) disappeared from sight, after she reached her goal, about 50 feet down into the mouth of the spring, the air hose was pulled away from her and she was left down there holding her breath. The average ‘deep dive’ breath holding exhibition was from two to three minutes but a few girls were clocked at up to five minutes!
After staying down for a while, she would slowly drift up into sight of the audience and perform underwater ballet until she finally swam to get a breath of air! We ascended slowly while exhaling to prevent ourselves from suffering an air embolism.
We performed these type of shows in the silence of the spring until 1960 when the attraction was purchased by the American Broadcasting Company. Our underwater theater that looked like a railroad boxcar and that contained three rows of wooden benches was moved to the South bank of the spring so we could continue to put on shows while the new million dollar theater was being constructed.
During that move we performed for the tourists underneath the glass bottom river boat. We would wear mermaid tails and would show how to do a mermaid ‘crawl’. Eat and drink, feed the fish and generally smile and wave for the cameras.
ABC placed underwater speakers in the spring so we could synchronize our movements to music. A choreographer, a costume designer, and a prop maker were hired. Our first Broadway style production was “Underwater Circus” and for this show we used a variety of banners, underwater battery powered scooters, tightrope walking act, strongman act, we even had an enormous underwater dragon, “Wiley Willy”.
We were moving up in the world but every new show still contained the elements of the original show.
These were: feeding the fish bread from our hands, demonstrating how we stayed underwater using breath control, not weights; eating (generally a banana) and drinking soda pop from a bottle. Grapette was carbonated and we consumed it on one breath of air. As a joke for the audience we’d feign a burp afterward although at times, those burps were real.
Up to that time we hadn’t used a mermaid tail in the show. We had one in the house though. It had been used by Ann Blyth in the movie, “Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid”. Our first mermaid tails were made of a rather heavy, non-stretch fabric with blue and green sequins hand sewn over all. Each sequin was tacked with three stitches to prevent anything from getting tangled underneath. Like our hair! (Ouch) They were very expensive to make and swimming in them was hard work. It didn’t take too long for us to switch to stretch lamé. This material worked much better because it was lighter, durable and came in many colors.
Another change ABC made was to ramp up publicity using newspapers. Photographers were added to the staff. Ted Lagerberg was first, then came Sparky Schumacher and Claude Long.
The subjects for pictures came from many sources…the calendar for one, with holidays from George Washington’s birthday to Ragweed Week! The photographers invented scenarios with our ideas added to the stew and built the props to go along with them like a giant hot dog for “Hot Dog Week” or the giant camera we used for “Smile Week”.
Most props had to be weighted down. Some props such as metal patio tables and chairs were easy to keep down but keeping them level was another problem. Bricks were wrapped and used as presents for Christmas. Milk was used for smoke. Smoke was needed for fireworks, bar-be-ques and ….smoking! Inserting a small chain in the hem of a skirt held it down. (Unless you were up-side-down.) If you wanted to use something buoyant it could be attached to an anchor by monofilament line.
Lead fishing weights were indispensable. Holding down a grass hula skirt requires so much time to add weights you’d wish you’d never thought of wearing one underwater.
Then there was the need for air while posing for pictures. We are mammals for heaven’s sake and the desire to breath is rather compelling. When you look at our pictures you would never suspect that our stomachs might be fanning for want of air. We were pros, but we also knew the surface was only a breath away if we couldn’t get to an air hose.
I started as a mermaid at Weeki Wachee in 1953, swam for 15 years, became mermaid supervisor, then directed and choreographed seven shows. My favorites were “Mermaids On The Moon”, “Peter Pan” and “The Best of Everything.”
My daughter, Tasula Murray became a mermaid and we swam shows together. People ask me if I miss the Spring.
I tell them that I can’t miss it because I keep going back. You see, once a mermaid, always a mermaid.
Today the spring has become a Florida State Park and the mermaids are still performing. They are still spectacular!