In Analyze This, Paul Vitti (Robert De Niro) is telling therapist Dr. Ben Sobel (Billy Crystal) about his inability to maintain an erection. They're sitting at an empty bar, and behind the top-shelf liquor, "mermaids" seductively tease the two men with pouty f-me faces and sensual underwater acrobatics. But behind that veil of underwater eroticism, there's a glimpse into Florida history: the aquatic spectacle.
In the '50s and '60s, Florida was full of dive shows and underwater theaters, which tiptoed a fine line between kitschy roadside tourist trap and extraordinary performance art.
"I call it aquatic performance, or water ballet," says Marina Anderson, a
long-time practitioner of underwater theater, and star of the Wreck Bar at the Sheraton Fort Lauderdale's weekly mermaid show.
(Coincidentally, Wreck Bar is the same watering hole that appears in Analyze This.) "I'm sure some people can see eroticism in just about anything," Anderson says, "but (that) certainly wasn't my motivation."
Before most of us even learned to wade in the kiddy pool, Anderson was free diving in the Caribbean Sea. Her father, a keen aquarist, boater, and free-diver taught her how to dive at the young age of three, and the family would spend several hours each weekend perfecting their talent in the crystal waters surrounding the Caribbean islands which they called home.
"We would spend hours out diving. My brother's probably one of the best free divers I ever knew, (but) we never did it competitively; our motivation was to stay down long enough to catch a fish with a Hawaiian sling, or something like that."
When she wasn't diving, Anderson was developing a passion for vintage Hollywood cinema, particularly the works of Esther Williams and other aquatically centered productions. Naturally, her interest in the world of underwater spectacle multiplied when she visited Florida for the first time as young girl, and discovered the vast array of roadside dive shows popular during what she calls "Florida's Golden Age."
"My mom exposed me to Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, and Esther Williams' movies, and the first time I came to Florida, I was blown away by all these dive shows. Cypress Gardens had some amazing stuff, Silver Springs had amazing shows, and of course, Weeki Wachee. I (also) remember going to hotels and seeing dive shows-- the Fontainebleau had one and the Eden Roc."
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Anderson was hooked and convinced that a pool was more than just a chlorinated, concrete swimming hole. The pool became her stage, an outlet for her to creatively express herself for audiences both young and old. However, she did not develop a mermaid complex.
She says, "Sometimes parents will enthusiastically try to fool kids into thinking that I'm a real mermaid. I'll tell them, 'no, I'm not. I'm an aquatic performer.' Their perception then becomes 'I can do this,' rather than this fantasy that's completely unattainable."