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Weeki Wachee Springs inducts its first Hall of Fame class

WEEKI WACHEE — Long before Weeki Wachee Springs became a state park in late 2008, it was a popular Florida roadside attraction, and it has drawn its share of notable visitors over the years — among them Elvis Presley, Esther Williams, Arthur Godfrey and Don Knotts.

At the park's 65th anniversary celebration this summer, however, it was some of the lesser known people who have played an instrumental role in Weeki Wachee's history who were recognized.

Now, they will be remembered permanently in the new Weeki Wachee Springs Hall of Fame.

Granite tiles engraved with the names of the first eight inductees will hang in the park's famous mermaid theater and eventually will serve as the cornerstone for a museum that's been long in the planning.

"There were a lot of individuals who really made an impact on the park," said Weeki Wachee Springs marketing and public relations director John Athanason.

Some are deceased. Some now live elsewhere in Florida. Some held roles as administrators while others dove beneath the cold spring waters and performed as mermaids.

The first hall of fame honorees, with explanations of their significance by Athanason, include:

Newton Perry, a visionary and founder of the attraction 65 years ago. While Perry devoted his career to planning, administering and marketing the endeavor, his daughter, Delee Perry, took to the water, becoming a mermaid. Delee, who operates a swim school in Ocala, represented her late father at the ceremony.

Ricou Browning, a native of Fort Pierce, who helped scout the springs with Perry and did underwater work. Browning went on to plan, choreograph and perform underwater scenes and ultimately direct such movies as Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Flipper (1963) and several of the James Bond films. "He always recognized Weeki Wachee as starting his career," Athanason said.

The Aqua Belles, a synchronized swimming group that Perry bused in from St. Petersburg in 1947 to perform in the springs' theater. The group's choreographed water ballet predated Perry's mermaids. Four members of the original group still live in the Tampa Bay area.

Ginger Stanley, now of Orlando, who arrived on the Weeki Wachee scene early, becoming one of the first mermaids. She played in Creature from the Black Lagoon and went on to do a lot of film work.

Bonnie Georgiadis, currently a resident of the Tarpon Springs area, who worked at Weeki Wachee for 37 years, including 13 years as a mermaid. She produced some of the underwater shows, and later worked with the attraction's birds, part of an enclave of native animals that appeared in the park's nature programs.

Genie Young, a mermaid for 20 years, who served as mermaid manager for a number of years. "She really set a high standard in development of the mermaids," said Athanason. She went on to perform as a stunt double in the television series Route 66 in the early 1960s.

Barbara Wynns of Weeki Wachee, a mermaid in the 1960s and 1970s who, in 2007, spearheaded the monthly performances by retired mermaids.

Kim Burich, a Citrus County resident who was on the staff for about 20 years. She was a mermaid, then operations manager and finally general manager. At one point, she became a part-owner of the attraction. "All the time she worked here, she shaped the program of the '80s and '90s," Athanason said. Her daughter also became a mermaid.

Athanason said that each year, "or when we deem appropriate," a committee will consider inducting other deserving individual into the hall of fame.

"There will be more," he said.

Beth Gray can be contacted at graybethn@earthlink.net.

Weeki Wachee Springs inducts its first Hall of Fame class 09/15/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 15, 2012 11:31am]
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