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John Eby: Weeki Wachee mermaids a fond Cassopolis memory

Published 12:05am Thursday, April 14, 2011

Bobiks went to Florida and blessed me with a fat Sunday newspaper bulging with memories.

ebyThe Daytona Beach News-Journal was what I read every morning when we spent spring break 2003 in that vicinity.

We took the kids to Universal Studios in Orlando and looked high and low for manatee, stumbling along a back road upon the campground where my dad’s car and Gary Battani’s Batmobile delivered our college crowd for spring break 1977.

We happened to be in New Smyrna Beach during the Shock and Awe invasion of Iraq, which the U.S. celebrated eight years later with a no-fly zone in Libya orchestrated by Maj. Gen. Maggie Woodward from Germany.

I had a lot of free time that week to follow the sandy slog into Baghdad with embedded troops. It seems eons ago.

My attention was also riveted for an entirely different reason by a piece in the March 27 Sunday magazine on Old Florida.

These roadside attractions from the “golden age of tourism” landed central Florida on the map before Disney World remade it.

I cannot see a Weeki Wachee mermaid without being reminded of Cassopolis.

My Grandma and Grandpa Eby’s specifically, where I spent many a Saturday morning while my dad practiced law because his office closed on Wednesday.

His sister, my only aunt, Ann Kallewaard, at whose house in Niles I watched The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, turned 94 April 11.

My grandpa, for whom I am partially named, took me to my first Tigers game in 1966, taught me to play chess — though not well enough to beat either of my sons — and enabled my comic book habit with an occasional quarter, which I could trot down Fulton Street to Harding’s and cash in for two 12-cent Marvels and a piece of penny candy.

I whiled away many a morning banging balls around their terraced backyard, glancing off  sturdy birdbaths, but a constant threat to the silver globes which you could look at yourself in like funhouse mirrors.

If I really walloped the ball with a bigger-than-me wooden bat I found in the garage it might go into Gebhard’s meadow beyond the walnut tree or across the lawn at Arden Withers’.

By then it was probably time for one of my grandma’s memorable lunches.

Nobody made goulash like her, and she always served a chunk of cheddar with apple pie.

My grandpa, his hands gnarled by arthritis, owned a Viewmaster and I loved looking at those 3-D discs.

Three I remember. One was Major League baseball greats.

One was flowers, maybe in Hawaii. And one was the Weeki Wachee mermaid show, which dates to 1947. Its actual history is news to me.

It was the brainchild of Newton Perry, a champion swimmer and double for movie Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller, whom I used to watch on WGN along with Bomba the Jungle Boy, Three Stooges and Bozo the Clown at my other grandma’s in Hammond, Ind.

She had a little table where I ate bologna sandwiches.

We’d walk over to Shorty’s and get the meat, which he tied in butcher paper with string.

Promoters created all manner of Florida attractions, from glass-bottom boats to a purported Fountain of Youth.

Perry created his underwater theater by erecting a glass wall on one side of a natural spring.

Then he introduced mermaids, training women to stay underwater for extended periods of time aided by an underwater tubing system used for breathing. They performed stunts and ballet. By the 1950s, the City of Mermaids was a hot ticket.

A school of 35 mermaids performed eight shows daily.

I’m surprised something so kitschy survives, but it was helped by the springs becoming a state park.

Today, park rangers conduct wilderness boat rides and animal demonstrations included with the $13 admission price.

Other activities include diving, kayaking and canoeing, and Buccaneer Bay Water Park, all requiring extra fees.

Wish we’d run across the Weeki Wachee theme park in 2003.

Or, when we spent our honeymoon at Walt Disney World in October 1985.

Somewhere around Kissimmee we went to a place where they feed alligators.

You enter through a big open gator jaw lined with teeth.

In Orlando, we dined without utensils on medieval grub served by wenches. Our family went to Disney World the spring break after it opened, which seemed like a really long way to go to talk to classmate David Metalski and WDOW sports announcer Dean Bussler. Dean, who I would later know better as a county commissioner, we ran into in the Magic Kingdom toy shop.

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