“Cocktails & Fishtails – The Untold Story of the Porthole Cocktail Lounge,” a symposium at The Hukilau in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday, June 14. Held at the Bahia Mar Beach Resort, the presentation was hosted by Vintage Roadside and Medusirena, aka Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid.
* The Atomic Grog at The Hukilau 2014
Guest review by Tom Duncan (TikiTomD)
If you’ve ever wondered about the origins of the porthole lounge, or where you can still find one inhabited by live mermaids, then “Cocktails & Fishtails” was a must-see among The Hukilau’s 2014 symposiums.
The audience was treated to an entertaining event, as might be expected anytime the effervescent Marina is part of the act. Underlying the fun of this presentation, however, was the serious work of Vintage Roadside’s Jeff Kunkle. He spent nearly a decade sifting through the flotsam and jetsam of history to make the connections with people, places and events that enlivened the story.
Jeff kicked things off by tracing the inspiration for the porthole lounge back to Billy Rose’s Aquacade, a music, dance and swimming show in the late 1930s. Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, who also played Tarzan in the movies, was a star in the version of the show that played at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. [See video] The success of Aquacade at the World’s Fair spawned similar shows across the country over the next decade.
The pinnacle of these was the mermaid show created in 1947 in the natural beauty of Weeki Wachee Springs in central Florida by stunt swimmer Newt Perry. According to Jeff, practically every aquatic show since has some connection to Weeki Wachee. A number of Hollywood movies, including Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948), were filmed there. Weeki Wachee, now a Florida state park, remains a must-see attraction nearly 70 years later.
The world’s first porthole cocktail lounge debuted in January 1953, when the Marlin Beach Hotel opened in Fort Lauderdale, Jeff said. The Two Fathoms Down Lounge was the first of its kind, offering views of the hotel pool via portholes. Donna Jean, one of women who performed as a mermaid at Weeki Wachee Springs, heard about the unique bar and approached the Marlin Beach management about doing a regular underwater show.
They wisely said yes, and were rewarded as people flocked to the Two Fathoms Down, bolstering its food and drink sales. Years later, the Two Fathoms Down Lounge became the Jules Verne Room, well-known to many for its vintage color postcards. (The Marlin Beach became a famous gay resort in the 1970s, closed in 1992 and was later replaced by a Marriott and the massive Beach Place complex on State Road A1A.)
Farther south, the 1958 renovation of downtown Miami’s Everglades Hotel (circa 1926) included a rooftop porthole lounge. Donna Jean was hired to create and produce an aquatic show, so naturally she started a school for mermaids. Among her students was her future partner in the Marlin Beach show, Sharon. (Unfortunately, the historic Everglades was imploded in 2005 to make way for modern condo towers.)
The presentation paused as Jeff pointed out a familiar face in a photograph of Donna Jean’s mermaids-in-training. It was one of The Hukilau’s special guests, the legendary Nani Maka, an original Mai-Kai Mystery Girl, former Bunny Yeager model and star performer at the Yankee Clipper’s Polynesian Room. Nani seemed to be a ubiquitous part of South Florida’s mid-century entertainment scene. Donna Jean later hired her to be a Marlin Beach mermaid.
The audience was thrilled to see Nani Maka, but Jeff had another surprise: The original porthole lounge mermaids, Donna Jean and Sharon, traveled from South Carolina to take part in The Hukilau. It was moving to see them reunited with Nani at this historic event.
Marina and Jeff then took us on a porthole lounge road trip, pointing out the places that followed the Marlin Beach. There was the Reef Lounge at the Stardust Hotel in San Diego, the Valhalla Inn in Toronto, the Fort Montagu Beach Hotel in Nassau, the list goes on. The most familiar, of course, is the legendary Wreck Bar at the Yankee Clipper (now the Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel). Designed to resemble a sunken Spanish galleon, the bar opened in July 1956 in the center of the nautical themed hotel, desiged by influential architect M. Tony Sherman to look like an ocean liner.
While the hotel was modernized over the years, its vintage facade and Wreck Bar miraculously remained virtually untouched. After a hiatus of more than 40 years, Marina convinced the hotel’s management to restore the mermaid shows there. Then, like Donna Jean, she created and produced her own show, and has been continually performing at The Wreck Bar since 2006. On the night before the symposium, she and her Aquaticats wowed The Hukilau attendees with a special performance at The Wreck Bar, Marina’s eighth such appearance for The Hukilau (see photos below).
So, aside from The Wreck Bar, where can one go today to enjoy a cocktail and view a live mermaid show? One unlikely answer offered by Jeff is the Sip ‘n Dip Lounge at the O’Haire Motor Inn in Great Falls, Montana. If you’re in California, try the Dive Bar in Sacramento.
The symposium ended with an invitation for the audience to meet, greet and take photographs with live mermaids spanning from mid-century to contemporary times, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Mahalo nui loa to The Hukilau, Vintage Roadside and Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid for such an amazing experience.
Tom Duncan (aka TikiTomD) is a Polynesian Pop historian from Florida’s Space Coast, and a writer for Tiki Magazine & More. You can reach him via e-mail at [email protected].
Marina’s show at The Wreck Bar during The Hukilau 2014
(Photos by Pat Duncan)
Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid’s performance at The Hukilau 2011
Official video: MeduSirena’s underwater swimshow at The Wreck Bar
* The Hukilau | Facebook: Page | Group | Photos
* Vintage Roadside | Facebook | Flickr
* Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid | Facebook | Twitter
* The Wreck Bar | Facebook
* Sip ‘n Dip Lounge | Facebook
* Dive Bar | Facebook
Past Atomic Grog coverage
* A Tiki Top 10: Photos and memories from The Hukilau 2013
* Mermaids are alive and well after 65 years at Weeki Wachee Springs
* Hukilau rewind: A whirlwind weekend of tropical delights