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WTSP-Channel 10 News

Date: August 2, 2017
Category: News

Tampa Bay Area Treasure: Weeki Wachee mermaids focus of new documentary, Vogue spread

With a new documentary and magazine spread, the iconic Weeki Wachee mermaids are in the national spotlight this summer.

Starting decades before Walt Disney World opened, Hernando County has provided a home to “the only city of live mermaids.” Since their first show on Oct. 13, 1947, the mermaids have performed for Elvis Presley, swimming legend Esther Williams and “Andy Griffith Show” actor Don Knotts. Florida’s own Jimmy Buffett featured them in his live show.

Buffett’s daughter Delaney is behind that short documentary, which premiered in April at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

The intrigue surrounding this “Old Florida” show is nothing new. In 1971 Clairol featured the mermaids in an advertisement. Decades later Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie auditioned to become mermaids for an episode of “The Simple Life.” Vogue, the New York Times and National Geographic have profiled this Tampa Bay area treasure.

The mermaids have performed throughout the US and the world. “We get to go to aquariums. We’re traveling,” Kristy Madden said. “We’re meeting people.”

The show’s origins

Navy Veteran Newton Perry created the mermaid show in 1946. During World War II Perry taught Navy frogmen how to swim underwater. He later trained the mermaids to use the air hoses while smiling. The performers also learned to dance and flip, drink Grapette and eat bananas – all while underwater.

In the early years, the mermaids would run to US 19 – in their bathing suits – to wave down drivers. They’d then jump in the spring and perform. In 1959 the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) bought the spring, and the mermaids performed eight shows per day. This is considered the mermaid show’s heyday.

ABC built the current 400-seat submerged auditorium. The company later sold the spring.

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