Mister Mozert and the Mermaids
Published: Wednesday, September 1, 2010 at 8:07 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 1, 2010 at 8:07 p.m.
The noon crowd at Piccadilly's had no way of knowing that the small party in the private dining room were members of a public relations juggernaut that had helped Silver Springs become, at one point at least, Florida's top tourist attraction.
In its heyday, before Disney and long before the Interstate system routed traffic off the Old Dixie Highway, Silver Springs was an international sensation – jam packed with sight-seers and movie makers and shining as a beacon of light on Florida kitsch and culture.
Much of the attraction's success through the early 1970s was due to Bruce Mozert – long renowned as the grandfather of underwater photography – and the “bevy of beauties” who posed for him in the spring's crystalline waters.
And Wednesday, Mister Mozert and his mermaids got together for lunch.
The unassuming gathering was the first reunion of Mozert, 93, and most of his principle underwater models in at least a decade -- possibly the first ever.
Over plates of hot buffet fare, Mozert swapped “remember when” stories with Ginger Stanley Hallowell, Betty Frazee Haskins, Pat McLauchlin Nelson and Arrilla Milby. Also on hand was Jack McEarchern Jr., the lone merman of the reunion group.
Silver Springs is actually a series of seven artesian springs dubbed by the native Ocali, Sua-ile-aha or “sun glinting water.” By the 1920s, when Carl Ray Sr. and W.M. Davidson bought the attraction from Ocala's Ed Carmichael, visitation had slowed to a trickle.
Led by Bill Blue Ray, owner Ray's son, Mozert and the mermaids were part of an aggressive marketing machine that by the 1950s saw annual visitation at the Springs rebound from below 10,000 to more than 800,000.
Mozert's pioneering efforts included the first underwater movie camera and the first underwater lighting system, still used today. Mozert was also the first to shoot color underwater and, when the “Today Show” did a segment on the springs in the 1950s, Mozert built an underwater Polaroid camera for host Hugh Downs to use at Downs' request.
Significantly, Mozert also cranked out thousands of “snazzy” publicity stills, released daily over national news wires, that would grab press and tourists' attention. The photographs featured “good, wholesome country girls” – and guys – performing everyday tasks such as drinking Cokes, grilling steaks, toasting the New Year with champagne, running hurdles, taking office dictation – but all underwater.
As members of the Springs' public relations department, the women had to be “jacks of all trades” clipping and filing newspaper and magazine articles with pictures they first posed for, answering phones, typing letters and stuffing envelopes, fetching coffee, and serving as hostesses and tour guides for visiting executives and dignitaries.
They were only too happy when they got the call from Mozert to pick out one of the 100-plus Jantzen swimsuits and get ready for another assignment.
In addition to the publicity stills, the women were featured on the covers of scores of magazines, in national advertisements and in short films, movies and television programs – all for about $40 a week.
“Well, we allowed them to swim anytime they wanted,” Mozert joked.
Some, like Haskins, also got to wrestle an alligator and had to pose with a dead anaconda wrapped around her body. Nelson got to “kiss” a black bear she was told was tame – it wasn't – and pull the tale of a very toothsome panther.
Because breathing hoses weren't part of the equation, and because the photo shoots were so exacting, there was the occasional bout of the bends and trips to the doctor's office, but nothing serious.
“I had a bad habit of shooting pictures and the hell with the rest of you,” Mozert again joked in response to some lighthearted teasing.
“I Know a Girl”
Ginger Stanley Hallowell, now 78, got her start as a Weeki Wachee mermaid before working at the Springs fulltime in 1953. The cool, elegant blonde famously went on to appear in two “Creature from the Black Lagoon” movies along with Ricou Browning, also of Silver Springs.
Hallowell also held the world's record for swimming the seven-mile length of the Silver River without surfacing – scuba tanks were exchanged during the four-hour swim – and was Esther Williams' body double in Williams' final film, “Jupiter's Darling.”
“We must have done jillions of pictures,” Hallowell recalled, including underwater vignettes featuring Browning on a sleigh as Santa Claus, complete with fully decorated Christmas tree.
At one point, Barbara Walters, then with CBS' Gary Moore, called and invited Hallowell to appear on the program and was featured eating and drinking underwater. When CBS launched its “Morning Show,” and they were casting about for an underwater weather girl for Dick Van Dyke when he guest hosted, Walters said, “I know a girl.” Hallowell spent two weeks in New York during the Thanksgiving holiday and even ate a turkey drumstick, on air, underwater.
When producers for “Creature from the Black Lagoon” needed a body double for actress Julie Adams, Browning also said, “I know a girl” and Hallowell is featured in the iconic underwater ballet scenes.
“It was quite fun and a long-lasting career,” said Hallowell, who now lives in Orlando and is a grandmother six times over. “I went on to have a TV show and got into modeling. I had a 43-year career after I left here, and nobody remembers anything except the swimming.”
Wild Woman from Wonga
Mozert spotted Betty Frazee Haskins, 70 of Ocala, when she performed as a drum majorette at the Springs with the Reddick High School band. At 17, she took a summer job as a “public relations officer” and forgot about plans to go to college.
“My mother wasn't too happy about that,” Haskins said. “But they offered me a full-time job and I took it. … It was fun and glamorous. We never knew what we would be doing from day to day, but it was always fun.”
She swam in the “Sea Hunt” television series with Lloyd Bridges, had a supporting role in the Jerry Lewis movie “Don't Give Up the Ship” and appeared on the “Tonight Show” and the “Today Show” with mascot Fred G. Muggs.
Among her credits is a B movie, the “Wild Woman of Wonga,” in which she wore a leopard skin and red wig.
“I've never seen it,” said Haskins, “but I earned my Screen Actors Guild card because of that and got paid scale. It was the only time I made any money.”
Haskins, who has two children and one grandchild, has been featured on the cover of major magazines and has enough clippings to fill four scrapbooks.
“People now can't realize that was the heyday of tourism at Silver Springs. People were teeming out there. The boats were running the river constantly, the glass bottom boats were full. We were lucky to be there then,” she said.
Baby elephants steps
Pat McLauchlin Nelson, 69, was a year behind Haskins at Reddick, now North Marion High School, and worked at the Springs in 1957 and again in 1959.
“I remember they took me in this room and had me stand still for a mug shot, with my arms stiff at my sides, and then turn, it's a wonder I was ever hired.”
Not so surprising perhaps: Norma Mozert said Nelson looked like a young Natalie Wood, and she was right.
To prove her mettle, even though Nelson had never done any serious diving, she had to retrieve disassembled scuba equipment that had been tossed into the springs, re-assemble it and put it on, all under water, of course.
Early on, she did some work at the Springs for “Seventeen Magazine” and earned $75, which the Gainesville grandmother of nine and great grandmother of one said, “was the most money I'd ever seen.”
But it wasn't all glitz and glamour. There was the bathtub photo shoot with her co-star, a baby elephant. The two were in the tub together when the elephant, as Nelson put it, “decided to poop in the water.”
Tanks for the memories
Arrilla Milby, 68, worked for Mozert from 1960 until 1963. She joked that nearly 50 years had gone by and that her memory is “not as good as yours, Bruce.”
But she'll never forget her first swim. It was with a scuba tank, something she had never used.
“I had no training, no certification; it is amazing I'm still here,” she said.
The photo shoot took place deep in an underwater cave.
“It takes many shots when you're down there. Many, many shots. Pretty soon I couldn't breathe; my tank was empty. But Bruce says, ‘let's take another shot' and another, and another. I learned how to buddy breathe on the way up that day.”
Milby credits Mozert for coming up with mad-cap ideas to photograph. During the course of her time at the Springs, she “baked a cake underwater, hawked the “Saturday Evening Post” magazine, played golf, waited for Santa, partied on New Year's Eve and read underwater magazines, underwater.”
The Daytona Beach grandmother of four says she wouldn't miss the experience for anything.
“You didn't know if you were going to be in the office answering phones and typing, or working with Bruce underwater,” she said. “You always hoped you would end up working with Bruce underwater.”