Vintage Roadside’s Mid-Century Mermaids

1 Feb

So there are all kinds of gorgeous mermaidly events happening in the near future, but one of the most exciting has got to be Mid-Century Mermaids: A History, a presentation on Friday, February 24th by roadside historians Jeff Kunkle and Kelly Burg (who together make up Vintage Roadside) on the history of mermaid attractions and other aquatic shows in the U.S. Glamorously, this presentation will take place at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs, California, as part of Modernism Week—where you can also go to retro martini parties and tour Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palms estate from 1947 and partake in many other fabulous and educational activities—AND it will include a live mermaid and fire-eating performance by that most fabulous and retro-loving mermaid herself Marina MeduSirena. Plus yours truly will be in attendance. Click here for more info and to buy tickets, and/or check out the Facebook page for it.

And admire the lovely poster:

Jeff and Kelly have been gathering mermaid knowledge (and paraphernalia) ever since happening upon a brochure for 60s-era mermaid attraction Aquarama at an antique show. Since then, they’ve filled their blog with interviews and by now probably know more about mid-century mermaids than anyone else in the country. I mean really. What is cooler than retro mermaids?

Below, I talk to Jeff and Kelly about how they developed this singular and inimitably glamorous passion.

So what is Vintage Roadside?
This is the question we always find the hardest to answer (quickly) at parties. We do quite a few different things, but they all revolve around history. We produce t-shirts featuring original graphics from roadside businesses of the 1940s-1970s, give presentations on roadside history, produce photography for both commercial and fine art markets, help to promote historic businesses, take road trips along old highways, write road trip articles, help historic businesses research their history, create limited edition t-shirts for organizations & events, and have declared ourselves the world’s greatest fans of the tater tot.

How did you get interested in Mid-Century Mermaids?

Jeff "displaying" the original 1964 Jantzen suit embellished for the "Snowflake" routine at the Aquarama in Missouri

It all started when we were looking for new ideas for our next roadside attraction t-shirt and we found an Aquarama brochure at an antique show here in Portland. We’d never heard of the Aquarama, but loved the graphic, and we’re suckers for any business with a “-rama” at the end of its name.

After clearing the legal hurdles to create the shirt, we began researching the history to tell the story behind the Aquarama. We weren’t having much luck until we received an email from a woman in Missouri (who had recently purchased one of the shirts) letting us know she had been Head Aquamaid for several years at the Aquarama! After a quick victory lap around the dining room table we sent her a reply, which in hindsight probably contained way too many exclamation points, asking if she’d be willing to share some of her history with us. She was kind enough to let us interview her and the door to the history of the Aquarama cracked open. Five years later we’ve been in touch with 27 of the 29 people who performed at the Aquarama from 1964 – 1968 and are honored to count several of them as friends.

Although the Aquarama was a mermaid attraction many people outside of Missouri weren’t familiar with, it was the one that made us want to share the stories of as many mermaids of the 1950s and 1960s we could find. We’ve now been lucky enough to talk with performers from the Aquarama, Weeki Wachee, Aquarena Springs, and more.

I understand you are amassing quite a collection of mermaid paraphernalia. Can you tell me about that?

Kelly & Marina displaying the red tail Marina donated to the Vintage Roadside collection

I’m a collector and luckily Mrs. Roadside is an organizer. Our mermaid collection contains quite a few of the usual vintage postcards and brochures, but the things that mean the very most to us are the items donated to our collection by former mermaids and performers. Some of the highlights of our collection are tails from the Aquarama and the Sip ‘n Dip and an incredible red tail created and worn by Marina, the Fire Eating Mermaid. We’re also huge fans of home movies shot at mermaid shows and props used in 1960s shows. In addition, hearing the words “I have a scrapbook” from a former mermaid is our version of winning the lottery.

Why do you think mermaids were so popular in the mid 20th century (the 60s?)?
The 1950s and into the 1960s was just a great time for all kinds of roadside attractions in general, but I do think the early 1960s were truly the golden age for mermaid attractions. I mean, not only was Weeki Wachee more popular than ever, but you had mermaids at Aquarena Springs in Texas, at the Aquarama in Missouri, at Rainbow Springs, Disneyland mermaids, Marineland mermaids, mermaid shows at hotels in San Francisco, San Diego, Sacramento, and on and on. It’s absolutely incredible just how many places you could go to see live mermaids.

The 1960s just seem to be one of those pop culture moments celebrating creativity and unique attractions that are hard to pin down. We have any number of ideas why the 1960s were the perfect time for mermaids and mermaid attractions to catch the imaginations of people, but we still don’t have a definitive answer after all these years. Rather than feeling frustrated by not yet coming up with a satisfying answer, the fact that we haven’t pinned down the exact reason is one of the mysteries that compels us to keep researching, collecting, and most importantly, gathering as many stories from those that swam in those shows as we can.

Do you think they have a different kind of appeal today, or no?
I think in many ways being a mermaid has the same appeal as it’s always had. One of the coolest things we’ve been told by mermaids from the 1960s as well as those performing today is that it’s simply “the best job in the world” and if that same feeling is being felt 50+ years apart there’s got to be something pretty special about being a mermaid.

How did you guys get hooked up with Medusirena?

Kelly with the Medusirena Pod at the Wreck Bar

You know, it’s funny, but we can’t remember just how we met Marina. She’s one of those great friends that seems like she’s always been there. We share a love for the history of aquatic shows and her performances are an incredible tribute to everyone that ever jumped into a pool to entertain people. She’s one of the hardest working people we know. We’re lucky enough to have had her as our special guest at our Aquarama history presentations in both San Diego and Ft. Lauderdale, and she’ll be joining us once again in Palm Springs for our Modernism Week presentation.

Can you tell me about your Mid-Century Mermaids: A History panel at Modernism Week? What can people expect?
We’re super excited for our Modernism Week presentation. We’ve been lucky enough to share the story of the Aquarama at different events, but the Modernism Week presentation will be different in that for the first time, in an all new presentation, we’ll be sharing stories and some of the history behind almost every aquatic show performed in the last 70 years through interviews we’ve conducted, vintage photos, home movies, and more. Here’s a sample – we’ll be starting with Billy Rose’s Aquacade at the 1939 World’s Fair, a bit of Esther Williams from the 1940s, the performances in 1950s hotel porthole lounges, the heyday of Weeki Wachee in the 1960s, Texas mermaids in the 1970s, and even letting people know where to see a live mermaid show today.

Two original 1966 prop knives from the James Bond-inspired "Thunderball" routine at the Aquarama

We’ll also have a selection of vintage and contemporary mermaid tails on display along with a few vintage swimsuits and costume items used in the Aquarama shows of the 1960s. We’re also working on a few surprises that we’re really excited about.

For our grand finale, the presentation will end with a bang as Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid, making her first ever Palm Springs appearance, delights and amazes attendees with a live performance in the Ace Hotel pool.

Are you working on a book? And/or have any other mermaid projects in the pipeline?

We do have several projects in mind. Some are still in the “How incredible would that be?” category, but hopefully a few of them work out. Here are a few of them:

We’ve now been researching the Aquarama for over five years and have an incredible amount of material which we’d love to see become a book.

We’d like to have a reunion for the former Aquarama performers. Many of them haven’t seen each other in over 40 years. We envision ourselves sitting there with dazed smiles on our faces as they all catch up and share stories.

We’d love to put together a comprehensive book on the history of the aquatic shows of the 1940s and 1950s.

We’d also love to host a “Vintage Roadside Weekend” at one of the current mermaid attractions, to continue sharing the history of mermaid attractions through our presentations, to perform additional interviews with former mermaids, and to add an Aquarena Springs tail to our collection.

Were you interested in mermaids before happening upon Aquarama (or whatever it was that got you into it more recently..)?
For us it really did start with the Aquarama. I think a lot of it has to do with where you grew up. In our case, growing up in Oregon, mermaid attractions just weren’t on our radar. Your biggest hope on a trip to the Oregon coast was that you might get to spend the day at Sea Lion Caves…very cool, but certainly a world away from exotic Weeki Wachee!

Do you have any advice for aspiring mermaids?

We’d give the same advice to an aspiring mermaid as we would to anyone else. If that’s what you really want to do, then by all means give it a shot! The worst thing that could happen is it doesn’t work out and for the rest of your life you’ll still have one of the best stories to tell. How cool will you be when you’re 85 years old and telling the rest of the retirement home residents about the time you packed up your car, drove from North Dakota to Florida and tried out for the job of Weeki Wachee mermaid? Here’s to great stories and even greater memories!

One Response to “Vintage Roadside’s Mid-Century Mermaids”

  1. Marisa February 1, 2012 at 9:40 PM #

    Oh DAAAAANG, I wish I could go!!! Have fun!!!

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