Whoever thought mermaids were things of fairy-tales and Disney movies would be wrong. In the 1960s and 70s mermaids were alive and well in the Ozarks.
Instead of waitressing or working a boat dock, some lucky lake teens spent their summers performing as aqua-maids and aqua-lads in Osage Beach.
While on vacation in Weeki Wachee, Florida, the Johl family watched a show full of mermaids, which sparked an idea.
"We watched the show and all looked at each other and said, 'We could do this. It doesn't have to be in a natural spring. You can build a pool with windows in it and it could be a show. That's where it started," Marc Johl said.
Soon the idea became a reality and Aquarama was born.
The Johls ran the show for five years. Cast members memorized choreography, trained in just a few months and performed inside a pool through windows to a captive audience. The show was put to music and was narrated by Mrs. Johl. After four years of the original Aquarama, the Johls decided to turn it into a night club. The Johls ran the Cabaret Aquarama for a year before new ownership took over.
Six years ago and what seemed like a lifetime later to many, a couple from Portland, Ore. discovered an Aquarama brochure miles away from Osage Beach.
Jeff and Kelly Kunkle own Vintage Roadside, a company that creates t-shirts about old roadside attractions and sells them online. When they found Aquarama's brochure, they decided to do some research and create an Aquarama t-shirt. With each shirt, they create they a history tag, which became difficult with Aquarama.
"When we started putting together the history for this one, we weren't finding much. About a week later, we got an order from someone in Osage Beach. We thought, 'Wow, maybe they know something about it.' So we shipped the order out and about two weeks later, we get an email from this gal that said, 'Would you like to know more about it? I worked there for six years.' And so at that point, we did a happy dance around the dining room table," Kunkle said.
Not long after Kunkle made contact with Aquamaid Janie, he received another email. This one was from Pam Davis of St. Louis. Davis remembers being eight years old and visiting Aquarama, but for her this wasn't just another roadside attraction. For Davis, this was a part of her family history.
Davis' grandparents, the Johls, owned Aquarama. She helped the Kunkles connect with her uncle Marc who played a huge role in Aquarama.
"For us, that was sort of cracking the door open. I still can't to this day explain why we have spent six years now working on this one. We have done other shirts and other research projects where we found some history, it's been great stuff, we re-introduced it to people. At first we found three of the aquamaids, then we found four then we found Mark, whose family started the whole thing. He still had original costumes and things like that. We thought, wow, there is still a lot out there even though a lot of people at the lake didn't remember it because it has been gone since 1973," Kunkle said. "Here we are six years later, we determined there were 39 girls and boys who ever performed in the show. Just last month, we got in touch with number 39. We have been in touch now with all 39 people that ever swam in the show. Still I can't explain why--- everybody had such great fond memories of it. To be in high school and be a mermaid was just one of the coolest jobs ever. It's a really select group that can say they did that, outside of Florida. They've all grown up, married, had families, jobs and forgotten all about that."
Page 2 of 3 - Johl was the original Aqua lad and even created the show's choreography in the later years.
"I wasn't originally supposed to be in the show, but I knew all the numbers. I knew all the moves. I recorded all the music, helped my mom record all the commentary. I was an integral part up to that point. Barbara saw I could do it, so she worked me into the show," Johl said.
Barbara Hodgson, now Bretko, was 19 years old when she left her job in Weeki Wachee, to help the Johls create Aquarama. She trained the high school aged maids and watched Aquarama become a thriving show.
"I was swimming at Weeki Wachee in Florida, which is a natural spring. Then, the Johls had this brilliant idea to do a water show down here. They came and found me. I took the job and came and trained all the girls. We worked really hard for three months then opened up. It was great," Hodgson said.
After the first year of the show, Hodgson got married and moved away. She became a mother of three and grandmother of three and simply moved past her Aquarama days. When she was contacted out of the blue two years ago, she was shocked.
A few years ago, Kunkle had a dream of organizing a reunion. Since he found all the cast members. He knew it was time — the weekend of May 3 and 4. As many that could make it, made their way to Lake of the Ozarks. Friday night, they enjoyed a three-hour dinner and were able to catch up with old friends. The next day, they gathered at Tan-Tar-A and reminisced about the old days.
"It feels wonderful to come back and see the people and their faces. It's been a wonderful weekend," Hodgson said. "It's just been a super opportunity to get with everybody and get back to the area. I'm really grateful for Kelly and Jeff for everything they have done."
Since the idea came about in 1963 and progress on the building began that same year, Johl considers this year to be Aquarama's 50th anniversary.
"It's amazing. Think about a 50th year reunion," Johl said.
Davis was able to come to the reunion and meet the men and women that her grandparents impacted.
"It's interesting. As a little girl, you don't think your grandmother has relationships with all these people. She is just your grandmother. People have come up to me and told me how sweet she is and that she has made an impression on their lives," Davis said. "I'd come and visit and they would take me up to the restaurant. I was eight and I'd meet some of the mermaids. I was just a little kid in awe looking up to everybody," she said."This business, I think both of them got a big kick out of it."
Page 3 of 3 - For the Kunkles, Aquarama has held a special place in their hearts and watching the reunion become a reality, was just icing on the cake.
"It's just been so rewarding for us," Kunkle said. "It's been incredible. They have told us that it was some of the best times of their life. They've talked about what a great time they've had. They've laughed pointed themselves out in the photos. They've talked about how 'I still recognize you. You still have the same smile.' That sort of thing."
For Kunkle, Vintage Roadside, is about much more than selling t-shirts.
"I think we can all think back to a time in our lives where you were taking a family road trip and you remember the places along the way. It wasn't getting somewhere, it was along the way you stopped and you saw this or you begged mom and dad to stop at the dinosaurs along the highway or in this case, you got to see mermaids in Missouri. Things have changed, now it's about the destination. You get in a plane and fly to Disney Land. You get there, vacation and come home. You aren't seeing all these great things along the way. I think everybody has a fond memory of that type of thing," Kunkle said.
Vintage Roadside is interested in any photos or home movies of Aquarama. If anyone has any, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.