by Nathan Bechtold
Long ago—when The Clown was the best waterfront restaurant around, the Ozark Opry was roaring, and Tan Tar A had a ski resort—at Lake of the Ozarks had a mermaid show. The Lake’s tourism “golden age” produced plenty of zany attractions, but Aquarama stands as one of the quirkiest, most fascinating pieces of the era.
Where the Osage Commons shopping center (home of Hobby Lobby) now stands in Osage Beach, Aquarama once promised visitors a glimpse of “real” mermaids. Opened in 1964 and in operation for about a decade, Aquarama was owned by Wally and Nola Johl. After seeing a mermaid show at Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs, they created their own version at Lake of the Ozarks.
Billed as a “Musical Underwater Revue for Young and Old,” an ad for Aquarama called it “The World’s Most Beautiful and Novel Underwater Show!” Luring audiences with promises of “Beautiful Girls that live like fish” and Aqualads battling in underwater monster fights, the show was a perfect product of its time: sensational, exaggerated, hammy, and wildly novel.
It featured an underwater Beatles concert and underwater bullfight, among other vignettes. Mermaids and aqualads danced and performed in a sea of bubbles: tubes placed throughout the tank provided a constant flow of air for performers to grab a breath, meaning they never had to actually surface. Mermaids emerged dramatically from giant clamshells.
After several years, the Johls sold Aquarama, and it was reinvented and rebranded as a Cabaret in the 1970s.
That spot seemed destined for iconic locations. Briefly operated as Mr. Jack’s (evidenced by this rare photo), later the site was the home of The Happy Fisherman, a restaurant especially popular among anglers, who stayed next door at the Golden Door Motel. Those old places are long-gone, but are held fondly in the memories of those who remember when mermaids swam at Lake of the Ozarks.
Jeff Kunkle and Kelly Burg, founders of Vintage Roadside, collect strange, interesting, and (unsurprisingly) vintage items and stories from bygone days. So when Jeff learned about Aquarama, he dove in. Incredibly, they located nearly all of the mermaids from the Aquarama days, interviewed them for his blog, and organized multiple mermaid reunions, which took place at Lake of the Ozarks in 2013 and 2020.
Here are some snippets from those fascinating interviews, which can be found online at vintageroadtrip.blogspot.com.
VR: Any memories of things not going exactly as planned in the performance?
Marion: We liked to pinch the air hose and cut off oxygen and watch each other squirm.
VR: Ah, practical jokes! Any others you remember?
Marion: If I remember correctly, we used to place small buckets of water on top of the door so they would fall over and get you all wet after the show. If memory serves me correctly we did something to Mary one night. Mary was very pretty and always looked perfect before she left the show. One night we got her all wet. She was pretty mad because she had a date that night.
Wardrobe Malfunctions… (Claudia)
VR: Any memories of things not going quite as planned that first season?
Claudia: The costumes were all weighted, but often we would jump in the pool at practice only to have them “malfunction.” Then it would be back to the drawing board, and Mrs. Johl would have to add more weights, etc. I remember the first time I tried on my Beatle costume as being pretty funny. I pulled on the black bathing cap and put the black tee shirt on over my suit. I then jumped in the water and puffed up like a marshmallow! I didn’t make sure the cap was pulled down well, so it puffed up with air, and then the tee shirt didn’t have enough weights and it ballooned up with the shirt tail floating up under my arms.
A Shell Of Her Own… (Marlen & Dian)
Vintage Roadside: Were you one of the lucky ones with your own clam shell?
Marlen: Yes. If you were looking at the stage I was in the one on the right.
Vintage Roadside: Any memories of your former shell?
Marlen: It was so dark in the shell and you had to use your air hose to open the shell. If it didn’t open fast enough you would have to squeeze out so you were in time with the music.
Odd — The clamshells were plastic, made from modified molds of Shell (gas station) signs.
Dian: Yes, I maintained residency in many a clam shell! I remember we would climb down a ladder in the dressing room into the darkened tank, hold our breath and swim down a dark tunnel and then out into the main tank and find “our” clam shell. When you were curled up in the lower part of the shell you would grab the strap and pull to lower the shell top then just lay there curled up in the shell patiently waiting for the lights to come on and the music to begin!! Actually with the weight of the water the opening of the clam shell could be difficult as they were heavy. A little trick was to grab your air hose and put it inside the shell as you were raising the “lid” and the force of the air bubbles would assist in the lifting of the shell.
VR: Any other memories of the clam shells?
Dian: They introduced live fish that summer – not sure if they lasted long term? They were the large goldfish that were yellow but also they had icky black ones with bulging eyes. Sometimes you could feel something inside the shell with you and I always hated it when I had to share the interior of my clam shell with a fish friend waiting in the dark for the lights and music to begin!!!
The Underwater Trapeze… (Quinetta)
VR: In the photo above you’re shown performing on the trapeze. That must have been something to learn how to perform on a trapeze underwater?
Quinetta: It was difficult at first. Breath control is the secret. I had to inhale just enough to swing back and exhale while swinging forward.
VR: What was your favorite act?
Marion: Eating the banana underwater – it was a challenge! I also liked the clown outfit.
VR: Was there an act you always wanted to perform?
Marlen: Janie had a single act where she drank from a cocktail glass – one show she could not make it and I got to do the act.
The Green Hair… (Janie & Claudia)
VR: So the Aquamaids were recognized around town?
Claudia: I was the only redhead in the cast so my hair didn’t turn green, but the daily contact with the water really dried my hair. I remember doing hot oil treatments each week to try (not too successfully) to minimize the frizz.
Janie: Because we spent so much time underwater, the hair of all the girls turned green by late summer from the chlorine. (Most were blondes to begin with.) Locals would always recognize us as “Aquamaids” from that.
(Editor’s Note: Thanks to Todd Franklin, of Camdenton, Mo. for access to his archives of vintage Lake of the Ozarks images, and thanks to Jeff and Kelly at Vintage Roadside for access to their incredible archive of conversations with real-life mermaids.)