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A Mermaid's Tale
This is the first of two Floridiana articles highlighting the Nancy Tribble Benda Collection (N2016-1) available at the State Archives of Florida. Benda was one of the first mermaids to perform at Weeki Wachee Springs when it opened in 1947. She later went on to star in WFSU-TV’s educational children’s television show “Miss Nancy’s Store” from 1966-1967 before working for the Florida Department of Education.
Many young children play dress up and fantasize about becoming a mermaid, a movie star, or a queen. But what if you really could be a mermaid, act in a movie, and be treated like Hollywood royalty? In 1947, teenager Nancy Tribble would become one of the first “mermaids” to work at Weeki Wachee Springs, landing a role on the big screen in Universal Pictures’ Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid.
Nancy Tribble was born in DeLand, Florida, in 1930 to Lewis and Hillis Tribble. The family moved to Tallahassee in 1940, where she would go on to attend Leon High School and Florida State University. As a young woman, her hobbies included swimming in the local rivers and springs, spending time with friends, and competing in local beauty pageants, such as the Miss Underwater contest.
In 1947, Nancy would accept an unusual position as one of the first underwater performers at nascent tourist attraction Weeki Wachee Springs, situated along US 19 near the small and remote town of Brooksville. A year prior, park founder and former U.S. Navy swim coach, Newton Perry, had recognized Weeki Wachee as a good location for his new underwater theater business. In preparing the site for tourism, Perry first cleared the spring of the abandoned cars and rusted home appliances that had been sunk there by area residents. He then experimented with underwater breathing hoses, eventually creating a method of breathing underwater via a hose supplying oxygen from an air compressor. Taking occasional breaths from this hose, the “mermaids” could perform 20 feet underwater for extended periods of time, rather than being encumbered by wearing an oxygen tank.
Six feet below the water’s surface, Perry built an 18-seat theater so that visitors could view performances and experience the beauty of the blue spring. Perry recruited young women from all over Florida and trained them to perform synchronized ballet moves and host underwater picnics while breathing through air hoses hidden throughout the scenery.
On October 13, 1947, the first underwater show at the Weeki Wachee Springs theater opened. In a few short years, Weeki Wachee would become one of America’s most popular tourist attractions. Movies began to be filmed at the spring–notably, Universal Pictures’ Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid in 1948. Nancy tried out for the role of the lead actress in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, but that part was given to Ann Blyth. Instead, Nancy was cast as Blyth’s underwater body double and performed the swimming parts for the film. Journal entries left in Nancy’s scrapbook detail her experience of flying to Hollywood to meet the cast and crew.
Upon arriving in Hollywood, Nancy was immediately fitted for her mermaid costume by having a plaster mold made from her body. The tail in question, originally budgeted at $500, ultimately cost $18,000 to fabricate. In her first journal entry documenting her trip, Nancy comically illustrates the plastering process as if describing a scene from a horror film:
In the center of the room was a white, pillow-covered operating table with fluorescent lights lowered over it. That was for me! Golly. I turned to run but the door was barred…one of the big fellows grabbed me, while the women, who [were] by no means tiny, greased me from head to foot. Then I was thrown face down on the torture table and “plastered.” The stuff was cold and damp but with no sympathy whatsoever, the tyrants covered me from my neck down to my toes with plaster.
Following this plaster incident, Nancy was fitted for her mermaid wig by two makeup artists, who she described as “beautiful witches with long fingernails”:
What pain, what agony, why, it was awful! Have you ever had anyone drive nails straight into your head? That’s what they did to me, or at least, it felt like it…jabbing in a hairpin here, driving home a bobbypin there…when at last their fiendish thirst was quenched, I was told to go swimming.
Hollywood wasn’t a complete terror, however. Nancy also wrote of the luxuries afforded to movie stars:
Have you ever felt like a queen or wanted to feel like one? Well, I have pinched myself until I am black and blue and my dream still doesn’t fade; I feel like a queen. I live in a hotel room with my mother and what a room it is. We have everything from a radio and Kleenex to clean sheets every night. When I wake up, a merry voice says, “Good morning and what would you like for breakfast this morning?”…After eating, free of charge…I go out the front door to a waiting Cadillac or Lincoln…everyplace I go there is always a happy, cheerful voice greeting me or asking if there is anything he can do to make me more comfortable.
Nancy returned to Weeki Wachee to film the swimming sequences of Mr. Peabody and Mermaid. To promote the film, she toured across Florida in full mermaid garb, ushered around inside of a large aquarium.
As shooting for the film wrapped up, and Nancy’s stint as a mermaid winded down, her adventure was actually just beginning. She would soon enter Florida State University, beginning a long and significant career in education and communications.
Nancy Tribble Benda’s Obituary on Tallahassee Democrat. Retrieved May 11, 2017, from http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/tallahassee/obituary.aspx?pid=175400455
Weeki Wachee’s History. (n.d.). Retrieved May 11, 2017, from http://weekiwachee.com/about-us/history/