It was Lynn Colombo’s first time out as a mermaid, an enchanting sea nymph gliding through the crystal springs at the headwaters of the Weeki Wachee River.
Except the veteran mermaids forgot to warn her to sew up that zipper down the front of her bathing suit. It came apart as she swam to the window of the underwater stage, lunged toward the audience and arched her back.
“By the ending, I was topless,” she said.
“All I heard was laughing. I looked down and thought: ‘That’s it. I’m quitting.”’
Instead, she put in 13 years at the City of Mermaids. And she will spend more time underwater this weekend, as hundreds of former mermaids put on their sequined tails to celebrate the 50th anniversary of an attraction that was built decades before Mickey Mouse came to Florida and is still going strong.
“Every one of us who has left that place has not stopped dreaming about it,” said Crystal Robson, who was 19 when she visited Florida from her little Pennsylvania hometown and stayed to wear a sea-tail.
She planned to be among the 22 women swimming in the reunion show but ended up with an ear infection after a few rehearsals. She will still join about 400 ex-mermaids expected to attend today.
Now 45, Robson owns a swimwear shop in nearby Holiday. During her three years as a mermaid, she mingled with visiting movie stars and starred in a commercial for Clairol shampoo featuring five mermaids underwater and in the shower.
“It was quite glamorous,” she said. “When you tell people you were a mermaid, people who haven’t been to Weeki Wachee can’t believe it. And people who have been there, they treat you like a star. They want your autograph.”
The life of a sea maiden at the City of Mermaids has changed considerably since former Navy frogman Newton Perry built an underwater theater in this central Florida town and put on a show on Oct. 13, 1947.
At the time, the mermaids didn’t have the underwater breathing tubes they use now. They simply held their breath as long as they could and emerged from the spring via a long rope when they needed more air.
The first mermaids also sold hot dogs, directed traffic and washed the theater windows.
Over the years, about 1,500 mermaids and the occasional merman have performed at the City of Mermaids. The oldest to perform in Saturday’s show will be 67-year-old Dottie Mears, a mermaid from 1951 to 1954.
For the reunion performers, said Dawn Douglas, who is coordinating today’s show, the toughest part has been relearning how to maintain the buoyancy needed to get that graceful, weightless look. The mermaids have to control their air intake and hold exactly the right amount in their lungs to perform their choreographed moves before taking another “sip” from the long air hoses.
“But we’re not doing anything easier because we’re old,” said Douglas, 45, who owns a financial brokering company. “We all feel like we’re 25 again.”
Despite the lure of nearby Disney World and Universal Studios, the mermaids created a fantasy strong enough to compel 6-year-old Ashley Sloan and her 4-year-old sister, Tiffany, to crawl up to the stage to peek beneath the curtain before a mermaid show began this week.
Ashley, who is from Lexington, Ky., would like to be a mermaid because “they have tails and get to swim around like fish.”
That aura of magic and glamour is exactly what the former mermaids want to recapture at the reunion.
“Have you ever had a day where it was so perfect and magical you would just love to be able to go back and live that day over?” asked Colombo, who performed from 1973 to 1986 and now runs her own aerobics business.
“That’s what this is like for us. It’s almost like a fountain of youth,” she said. “In my reincarnation, I want to be a mermaid. Or at least a dolphin.”
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