Growing up in a large family, I missed out on some of the things in our proverbial backyard here in the Sunshine State. While other families went to theme parks and tourist traps, my parents took their tribe of five to state parks and historic and cultural exhibits, which were both less expensive and presumably more valuable in terms of the experiences. Sometimes my inner brat still feels like it got gypped. I worked out my issues on a recent Friday night. My childhood longings and adult habits got equal treatment with a free mermaid show at a lounge designed to look like a submerged ship.
I went alone, feeling equal parts silly and excited, to the Wreck Bar in the Sheraton Yankee Clipper Hotel, whose builder, George W. Gill Jr., took the term ship-shape to heart. The wedge-shaped building even has flags flying from the upper deck of its "bow." After it became a Sheraton in 2005, the place was spiffed up to tourist-era grandeur. Regardless of the place's popularity during Fort Lauderdale's heyday, I had never heard of it until one day I got scene exhaustion and Googled for something new. "Friday night, Fort Lauderdale" delivered a You Tube video of the mermaid show, which seemed to be off the radar of both locals and hotel patrons alike.
When I arrived at 5 p.m., I was one of only four patrons, so my bartender, Tom, a Jersey transplant with five years behind this bar, mixed me up a tangy planter's punch. While he mixed, he chatted me up with some hotel history both documented (that the place had once provided the New York Yankees their spring training accommodations) and legendary (that a pre-sobriety Alice Cooper had jammed with the house band) while I looked around and waited for the show.
I'll give the place its props: It looked like a topnotch Disney-fied shipwreck. Dark wood beams overhead made the room seem like the hull of an ancient ship. To suggest that we were sunk, planks across the ceiling were cracked and backlit in blue, and fish tanks lined two walls. But it wasn't all illusion we weren't exactly under water, but the windows behind the bar were actually in the hotel's outdoor pool.
For the moment, there were no mermaids; the entertainment was the guy who wouldn't release my hand when he introduced himself.
"Can I have my hand back?" I asked Jonathan.
"See, you'll remember me though, won't you?" he asked, waiting a moment before finally letting me go.
I stifled the urge to clue him in that some memories are better than others. Spotting the USA dive logo on his shirt, I wondered aloud if he were part of the international competition that was taking place at the Swimming Hall of Fame over the weekend.
"With this beer gut?" he said, patting his stomach. "But you got two Olympic gold winners over there." The kid gestured toward a couple across the room.
Right Jonathan was. Sue Gossick and Bernie Wrightson, who had both medaled in the three-meter dive in Mexico City in 1968, sat together, in town for the competition. Jonathan distinguished himself by being Sue's son.
"It's a whole different world," Sue told me when I asked her about the diving scene.
"Things are very different," Bernie said. "Back then, if you won the Olympics, they gave you a little money, a diving board, and a trampoline, which really isn't very useful. These days, they have dollar incentives."
"We were truly amateurs," Sue said. "You did it for the love of it."
So how had winning the gold changed their lives?
"When it was over, it was over," said Sue, who, after her victory, went on to become a dental hygienist.
Bernie went back to the Navy, which gave him the time to train and compete. I wondered if financial troubles had ever tempted them: "Ever think of selling the medal for its weight in gold?"
"It's just plated with 1/32 of an inch," Bernie rejoined.
One illusion dispelled. Might as well get back to the bar to see the show. Besides, two blond women had just claimed seats next to mine, and Tom was now providing his historical spiel on a loop, with a few new tidbits thrown in for variety.
"Spring breakers carved their initials in here for 30 or 35 years," the barkeep said, explaining the damaged bar rail.
The women introduced themselves as Shari and Amy, half a group from Cincinnati who were staying in the hotel on a Mother's Day retreat. Having come down just for a few beers, they were just in time for...
"A mermaid?" Amy asked.
"Well, it was less messy than a unicorn show," I joked.
While the women got ready over beers and as aquatic vegetation magically appeared in the pool, I decided to try Tom's special invention, a Hang 10. A banana-blackberry-flavored rum spritzer, something Tom had concocted for a bartending competition, the drink was the color of the pool's water but, thankfully, tasted nothing like it. As I sipped, a slender fish-woman with a clam-shell bra swam past the windows, propelled by a large red fishtail, her long dark hair trailing behind her.
Amy quickly got into the spirit of the show, providing an improvised narration. "So every Friday, she put on waterproof makeup..." The piscine beauty stopped to blow a kiss at the kids, her makeup perfectly in place. Then she swam out of sight, presumably to surface for air after her languid journey from one side of the pool to the other. After many passes, some with waves and kisses, and a perfect somersault in which her large tail touched her head as she spun, the show took an unexpected turn.
"Oh, that's not a mermaid!" Shari suddenly exclaimed. An aging, dimpled body trundled toward us, a woman in goggles who had dived down to investigate the underwater windows, looking more like a bespectacled manatee than any sort of siren. When she discovered a barside audience howling with laughter, she shot to the surface and exited the pool.
"It's only funny because it's not us," I said, suddenly sorry for the woman.
Meanwhile, another couple had just arrived. They handed me their camera for a photo, and I managed to squeeze off one shot of them as the mermaid made her last pass by the window.
This woman's name was Diana.
"Oh, the goddess of the hunt," I said to her, employing an associative trick I've learned for name recall.
"And I'm Rick, conqueror of the goddess of the hunt," her escort said, extending his hand. "From God's Country."
"Orlando," Diana translated.
While Diana and I got to know each other, Rick made nice with the Cincinnati moms.
"Looks like Rick the Conqueror is off to conquer other women," Diana shrugged, as I listened to her man refer to Orlando in the same manner.
"What makes it 'God's Country'?" I had to know.
Juli, a fourth of the Mother's Day posse, who had been listening to Rick's rap, was quick with an answer: "He thinks he's God!"
That settled, it was a perfect time for the mermaid performer to emerge with "waterlogged hair" and a very different costume, one that included floral hair chopsticks and tiger-striped pants. This outfit she had donned, she said, for her next show.
"I've gotta go lie on a bed of nails and eat fire out at the Hard Rock," she said, handing me a card that introduced her as Marina Duran-Anderson her real name, she insisted.
Everyone sang her praises until I interrupted with a thoughtful observation: "Wow, it's harder than stripping, and you don't even get tips!"
Marina laughed. "I never thought of it that way. But it's true."
How does one get into this unusual line of work?
"I've done it all my life," she said. As a kid growing up in the West Indies, her father had taught her to dive for shells and to put on a fake accent to wheedle money from tourists. She grew up and became a fan of "retro and mid-century pop culture," so this sort of performance just made sense.
"When I first came in here, my jaw just dropped," she said. "It's perfect for a mermaid show."
Perfect indeed. Our little mermaid room staged underwater shows until 1962, and Marina is the first since then.
"My performance is theatrically motivated," she said. "The biggest challenge is looking like a fish just swimming around in a tank. I have to act like I'm relaxed, but I'm not that hydrodynamic with all this hair and the weights." Marina, a self-professed "marine biology nerd," found inspiration in nature. "I wanted to be a slow-moving fish, like an oscar," she says. "Like a Siamese fighting fish: large impractical fins, beautiful, colorful, graceful."
She even shared some of her costume and makeup secrets. She sews in her colored hair extensions, uses Revlon Colorstay makeup, and weights her tail because, after taking a deep breath, she's too buoyant.
Her submarine antics are G-rated. Sometimes kids will jump in the pool and swim with her, which is probably a lot cuter, though less laugh-inducing, than her unsuspecting middle-aged accomplice.
Marina says she's motivated by the desire "to preserve the old Florida, the places that are iconic."
She adds: "As long as I can come in here when I'm 80 and order a Tom Collins and watch mermaids, I'll be happy."
It works for me.
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