The Real Mermaids of San Marcos, Texas

The Real Mermaids of San Marcos, Texas

June 28, 2016

 

 

The springs of the San Marcos River in central Texas have plenty of extraordinary traits: Each day, they release about 100 million gallons of water, forming the life source for one of the longest-inhabited places in North America. They’re also the primary habitat for several endangered species, including a blind salamander found nowhere else on earth. Yet the most magical thing about the San Marcos springs is actually no longer there—its unique submersible theater, or “Aquarena,” which once gave audiences a window into an underwater world of mermaids, clowns, and a swimming pig named Ralph.

My great-aunt, Sue Cregg, was a performer at Aquarena Springs in the 1960s, and its mermaid theater was a major highlight of my childhood in nearby Austin, Texas. As a kid, I was fascinated by the mermaids and their secret language of aquatic gestures, which I attempted to master on every trip to the public pool. Family lore has it that I once watched seven mermaid shows in a row.

“When we weren’t in a show, part of our job was to make balls of frozen dog food.”

But long before this mid-century spectacle was developed, the cold waters of Spring Lake had been a destination in their own right, thanks to their endless supply of fresh water. During the fight over Texas between Mexico and the United States, the land changed hands many times, but was finally purchased by General Edward Burleson in 1845. Burleson, who briefly served as the vice president of the Republic of Texas, dammed the headwaters to run a grist mill and built a two-room cabin overlooking the newly created Spring Lake. The resulting lake inadvertently preserved thousands of artifacts from earlier settlements along the banks, items that wouldn’t be found until an underwater dig began in 1978. These archaeological discoveries suggested that various groups had lived alongside the springs for over 12,000 years.

This colored postcard shows an early view of Spring Lake before Rogers purchased the plot. Image via edwardsaquifer.net.

The site’s tourist destination began to take shape in 1924, when A. B. Rogers bought Burleson’s homestead plot, including his ramshackle log cabin. Rogers constructed a small resort hotel on the lake, and in 1946, added glass-bottom boats to the attraction, which allowed riders to see through the clear waters down to the bubbling springs and aquatic ecosystem some 30 feet below.

Mermaids arrived at Spring Lake via Rogers’s son Paul, who founded Aquarena Springs in 1949, modeling its underwater amusements on the popular Weeki Wachee Springs resort in Florida. Weeki Wachee had opened two years earlier, pioneering the underwater theater with its air hose apparatus that allowed performers to stay submerged without heavy gear.

Left, the boat docks and Spring Lake hotel, circa 1930s, and right, a view inside a glass-bottom boat.

In San Marcos, Paul dredged a portion of the lake and installed a custom-built submarine theater in 1950. The steel auditorium featured one wall of thick glass windows, positioned above water when the audience entered, and slowly descended once everyone was seated, providing a clear view of the underwater stage.

Paul also brought Don and Margaret Russell onboard to help launch his underwater theme park. Don had managed Weeki Wachee, and his wife, Margaret, was one of the attraction’s first mermaids. Margaret’s impressive swimming skills had scored her a stunt-double role for movie star Ann Blyth during the filming of “Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid” in 1948. At Aquarena, Don assisted with business development while Margaret became the lead trainer and choreographer for the theater’s underwater shows.

Eventually, Paul would add other features to make Aquarena one of the most-visited theme parks in Texas, including a Swiss-style gondola ride over the lake, a “Sky Spiral” or panoramic viewing room that rose to the top of a needle-shaped tower, and a kitschy, western-themed “Texana Village.” At one point, the park was even home to a basketball-playing chicken and another that would beat you at a game of tic-tac-toe. But like the fabled sirens, it was the mermaids that really drew people to Spring Lake.

Peggy Sparks holds a photo of herself taken when she worked at Aquarena. Image by Andy Sharp for the Austin American Statesman.

Peggy Sparks was one of the first underwater performers at Aquarena Springs, starting in the summer of 1950 when she was just 20 years old. Sparks had discovered Aquarena while living in Austin: At the time, her next-door neighbor was the artist and naturalist Zarh Pritchard, sometimes called “The Merman” because of his famous oil paintings executed during extended dive sessions. Pritchard wrote of the mysterious oceanic environment, “On reaching bottom, it is as if one were temporarily resting on a dissolving fragment of some far planet.” He captured these ethereal underwater vistas while on the seafloor using a specially prepared easel, canvas, and palette.

“Bream in 25 Feet of Water Off the West Coast of Scotland,” by Zarh Pritchard circa 1910. Image via the Brooklyn Museum.

Already a strong swimmer, Sparks was enchanted by Pritchard’s oceanscapes, which opened her eyes to the possibility of spending longer stretches of time underwater. “When we’re born, we’re used to being underwater from the womb, so I guess a little switchover doesn’t make much difference,” says Sparks.

“I loved swimming and being underwater, everything about it, but it shocked me that people could breathe underwater; I thought that only fish could do that. When I found out there was such a thing as Aquarena, I went down to see it, and I would’ve done anything to work there.” After moving to Buda, Texas, with her parents and young son, Sparks was hired as an aquamaid for the park’s underwater show. (To distinguish themselves, Aquarena’s underwater stars were always officially called aquamaids, never mermaids.)

Eventually, Sparks would learn to hold her breath for around three and a half minutes, enough time to swim the entire perimeter of the giant submersible auditorium and stage. But early in her training, Sparks was still uncomfortable staying under for so long, and using an air hose to breathe. “So I borrowed my boss’s belt,” Sparks explains. “I noticed he had an extra one hanging on his wall, and I went to the back of the show area, 15 feet down, and I belted myself to the iron pipes down there, forcing myself to breathe through an air hose. After the third strangling, I caught on. And here I am today telling you about it.”

A view of the first Aquarena set, which also included an underwater stage and air-filled green room. Image via edwardsaquifer.net.

Like many generations of aquamaids after her, Sparks trained with Margaret Russell, the show’s original director and choreographer, who taught the swimmers dance moves and special tricks, like eating or drinking while submerged. Before a show, actors would first dive down into a backstage area, an underwater green room filled with air. From there, they could communicate with the theater announcer and time their entrances.

“Two of us would come out and position ourselves even with each other, and then take a breath of air, a light one,” explains Sparks. “You didn’t get your lungs too full because then you’d come to the top, so you just take a sip.” Even without taking a full breath, Aquarena’s mermaids often performed 10 or more moves before getting fresh air from the hose. A full performance typically included an underwater picnic, a few clown stunts, and an elegant underwater ballet.

Sue Cregg worked as an aquamaid about a decade after Sparks, in the summer of 1962, but the basic techniques remained the same. “At the end of the air hose, the air spun in a little ball,” says Cregg, “and you would spray that into your mouth, bending the hose with your thumb. The first part of the training was learning how to use the air hoses, trying not to start breathing before we had the ball of air spinning.”

Left, Ralph captured mid-“swine dive.” Right, an early shot of Aquarena’s clown, Glurpo.

The system took a bit of practice to get exactly right. “We had to take in a deep breath and then let out half of it to stay underwater,” says Cregg. “Of course, you could prop your knees underneath the table part of the picnic perch to keep from floating up to the surface.” The perches were made from metal shaped into giant lily pads, and this is where the aquamaids would spread out their table settings, enjoy a snack, and drink a bottle of “Coke.”

“Like the fabled sirens, it was the mermaids that really drew people to Spring Lake.”

“Before we sat down on the picnic perches, we fed the fish frozen dog food,” says Cregg. “When we weren’t in a show, part of our job was to make balls of frozen dog food. Our meal for the picnic was celery with the strings stripped out of it so we wouldn’t choke, sprinkled with this gravel-type stuff. We’d sprinkle that from a shaker like it was salt. We also bottled our own Kool-Aid in Coke bottles. In order to drink underwater, you have to blow into the bottle to force the liquid into your mouth. And we had napkins to put in our laps; it was very elegant.” During Cregg’s time, the aquamaids also had to decorate their own swimsuits, sewing on rhinestones and sequins to resemble glittering scales.

“We would do a suspension demonstration showing how we controlled where we were in the water by the amount of air we took in and let out. It was hard to get three aquamaids to be at the same place at the same time, but we did our best. Then the three clowns would come out and swim their part of the show, and go down to the stationary air hoses on the bottom of the river.”

Mid-century aquamaids practicing ballet moves, left, and underwater table manners, right.

The clowns, with names like Glurpo and Glurpette, would perform gimmicks like singing, smoking, and blowing perfect “smoke rings” or huge, ring-shaped bubbles from the lake bottom. In later years, the show focused on a Polynesian-themed tale of romance between a clown and an aquamaid, with a faux-volcano added to the above-water set in 1967. By the 1960s, the show also included “Ralph the Swimming Pig,” a piglet that was enticed to make his “swine dive” entry with a bottle of milk.

For most of the show, the swimmers wore no face masks, since the water was clear enough to see without them, and using fewer pieces of equipment improved the mermaid effect. In fact, aquamaids didn’t bother with fake fishtails either, putting the focus on their graceful aquatic movements. “My favorite ballet movement was called the reverse dolphin,” says Cregg. “I would cup my hands and sort of shovel the water toward my face but it would make me go backwards, and I would turn a full circle in that position.”

Silent Home Movie Footage of Aquarena in the 1950s

 

But being a mermaid wasn’t always as glamorous as it appeared from inside the Aquarena theater. “One time during the fish feed, a fish started snacking on a mole on my back,” says Cregg. “I kept shooing him away with my air hose, but the announcer said, ‘Miss Gatlin [Cregg’s maiden name], there’s a stream of blood coming up from your back. I think you better go backstage.'”

Even for experienced swimmers, spending so many hours under water could take its toll. “I was in the water one day during a show, and all of a sudden I began to feel panicky,” says Cregg. “I was suddenly aware of all this water around me, heavy and thick, and it seemed so unnatural for me to be breathing underwater. I couldn’t stand it, so I swam as fast as I could back to the underwater green room, and I came up and cried and cried. But there was an aquamaid named Robbie Lou waiting to take my place, and she gave me a quick, little speech. She said, ‘Sue, you’ve got to remember that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’

“Later, I talked to Mrs. Russell about it, and she said that happened to everyone who swam there. I never had that experience again, that massive claustrophobia. But I thought about it a lot in other situations in life, when I felt like I wasn’t going to make it.”

A diagram of the theater featured in “Popular Mechanics” in 1952.

Sparks says she was barely scraping by on her pay of $1.65 an hour. “It was seven hours a day, six days a week, whether you wanted it or not.” Though for Sparks, the toughest part of being an aquamaid was being in the cold water for so long. “Your normal blood temperature is 98.6, and let me tell you, that’s quite different from 65 or 70. The man who worked at the cafe was such a sweetie, and his wife would make a big pot of hot coffee, and he would bring it back to the surface stage where we were in between shows. We would pour it on our feet and legs because we were so cold, and we couldn’t even feel it nearly burning us.”

Since the springs at Aquarena kept the water temperature from dipping dangerously low, swimmers had to perform every day except Christmas, no matter the weather. “One time a little, old man from Chile came to see the show, and it was winter,” says Sparks. “It was sleeting. It was 26 degrees, and this other girl and I, we kept putting it off, but finally the boss said, ‘You can’t do that any longer; that old guy has been here all day long!’ So we did a 5 o’clock show, and decided instead of 55 minutes, we’d give him an hour and a half. He could’ve died at that very moment. He has the sweetest, little, old, scrawny thing, and he didn’t have any idea what the announcer was saying because he couldn’t speak English.

“When Christmas came, somebody gave the staff a huge bag full of rubber balls, and didn’t sign who it was from. But it did say, ‘This is to replace those that froze off.’ We never did know who did that.”

In 1952, Peggy Sparks was chosen to campaign underwater for both presidential candidates.

Despite the odd work environment, the aquamaids had plenty of fun, playing practical jokes on each other and hamming it up for the audience. “My mother was terrified of water,” says Sparks, “but I talked her into coming down to San Marcos and being there at the show. Well, she sat on the front row, with my son and my little brother. And I said to the other girl swimming the show, ‘Let’s give them a real hip-hip-hooray thing. I’ll just take one sip and you hold the air hose, and I’ll act like I’m dropping to the bottom and struggling for air, and you’ll pretend that you’re not going to reach me in time.’ I’ll tell you what, I nearly lost a perfectly good mother. She was terrified, and ran out thinking that we were drowning. But you couldn’t have drowned us for anything.

The submarine theater was featured on the front of “Popular Mechanics” in 1952.

“I just loved the work. For years, sometimes in the night I’d wake up and I’d have one leg up in the air with my toes pointed and I would be doing those moves, the underwater ballet in my sleep. I did it over and over. Many times in my dreams, I’ve gone to Aquarena and said, ‘I came to see the show,’ and they said, ‘Well, the girl that was going to swim today got sick, and she can’t come, so we won’t be able to have the show.’ And I said, ‘Well, my name is so-and-so, and I used to work here, and I know what to do,’ and I ended up performing in the show in my dream. Now, isn’t that strange?”

Though the offbeat attractions at Aquarena might seem podunk by modern standards, in the ’50s and ’60s, the park regularly garnered national media attention. In 1952, the submersible theater made the cover of Popular Mechanics. That same year, Sparks starred in a series publicity stunts, posing as an underwater campaigner for presidential candidates Adlai Stevenson and Dwight D. Eisenhower. The bipartisan event was staged for the press, and its coverage nearly landed Sparks a national modeling contract, though she refused to sign.

Two years later, in between Sparks’s tenure and Cregg’s mermaid days, aquamaid Mary Beth Sanger and underwater clown Bob Smith held their wedding on Aquarena’s underwater stage, and the event was captured for Life Magazine. Johnny Weissmuller, the famous swimmer known for his starring role in Tarzan films, visited in 1965 to film the underwater performance for his television series.

While Cregg was at Aquarena, the senior aquamaid, Barbara Backus, also trained the swimming pigs, and was featured on the television show “What’s My Line?” for her bizarre occupation. Such odd jobs weren’t limited to Aquarena’s performers, either. “We had one man, who wore a lead belt and actually vacuumed—it was an underwater vacuum—the show area to get rid of fish debris,” says Cregg.

A spread from “Life” magazine in 1954 featured the underwater wedding at Aquarena Springs.

In the end, it was the frigid water that derailed Sparks’s mermaid career, as health issues outweighed her love of performing. “I swam with double pneumonia for about two or three weeks,” says Sparks, “and finally I just had to give it up because I kept having to go the hospital.” Even while she was sick, Sparks kept swimming in the show nearly every day. “They’d take me in, give me a penicillin shot, and I’d go in the next show,” she says.

The mermaid show continued long after Sparks and Cregg did their underwater ballets, captivating children and adults alike for more than 40 years. Even though Aquarena had lost a bit of its shine by the time I went in the late 1980s and early ’90s, visitors still loved its home-spun quality, this strange little oasis with a candle-making shop and a caged alligator pit.

Yet eventually, competition from flashier amusements led to dwindling ticket sales, and even after the property was purchased by Texas State University in 1994, the park continued its decline. The university decided to restore Aquarena’s glass-bottom boats, but shuttered its less-educational attractions, converting the site into an environmental preservation and research center. In 2012, the submarine theater was finally removed from Spring Lake in an attempt to return the ecosystem to its natural state.

A 1968 brochure for Aquarena Springs. (click to enlarge)

Today, visitors can learn about the area’s ecology and history, but they won’t get any lessons on underwater eating or convincing a pig to swim. “You know that old maid’s tale that says that don’t ever go swimming until at least an hour after you have eaten because you could get cramps?” asks Sparks. “Well, crud, I’d eat a monstrous hamburger and a malt and a big bunch of French fries and get right back in, and I never had anything happen.”

For many young mermaids like Cregg and Sparks, Aquarena taught them far more than swimming skills. “I was just 17 when I went there,” continues Cregg, “and I had lived a sheltered life. Mrs. Russell was pretty stern with us aquamaids, but she also gave us great advice, like when she told me I had to sew my own ballet slippers. I said, ‘But I don’t know how to sew.’ She said, ‘Well, don’t let that stop you.'”