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The Weeki Wachee mermaid historian who “never touched water”

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Hernando County residents know Jan Knowles as a historian and tour guide, one who has led festive and informative tours, sometimes in costume and by carriage, showcasing the history and spectacle of the homes, businesses, landmarks, and the art of Brooksville. Yet, not everyone knows that Knowles herself is a shining part of local history. So, in honor of the 75th anniversary of Weeki Wachee Springs, she has expressed a gracious willingness to share her story. “I was the only Weeki Wachee Mermaid that never touched water,” she declared.

Knowles was a featured performer at Webb’s City: World’s Most Unusual Drug Store. The business that started out as a small pharmacy in 1925, by the 1950s and 1960s, under the ownership of James Earl Doc Webb, had morphed into a megastore featuring 77 departments offering clothes, furnishings, hardware, and gifts, along with a beauty salon, travel agency, soda fountains, and coffee shops, an Arthur Murray dance studio and a butcher shop.
Furthermore, Webb’s was also something of a theme park, featuring novelty attractions such as chimp-acts, ducks that played baseball, and dancing chickens.

Also very true to its tropical setting, Webb’s also featured a mermaid attraction. At this time is where non-swimming mermaid Jan Knowles came into the proverbial picture. “I was 14 years old when I came to the United States, being an Air force brat, and lived my 14 years overseas, growing up in Japan, France, and most of my education was in England,” said Knowles. “So, I was a very shy girl and not too savvy about the United States yet. My parents bought a home in the new subdivision of Meadowlawn in St. Petersburg, Fla, and we soon met our new neighbors, one of which, Mrs. Moore, was the person that hired employees for the famous ‘World’s Most Unusual Drug Store’ in downtown St. Petersburg.”

As a budding historian, Knowles found the World’s Most Unusual Drugstore to be a source of endless fascination. She shared, “The store started out in the 1920s as a small 476 square foot drugstore that was transformed into a four-story merchandising wonder of 240,139 square feet building with 1500 employees. It had 50 different stores under one roof, and it took up ten blocks in the downtown area.”

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Soon, Knowles became a part of Webb’s story and phenomenon. “I knew I wanted to work there when I became of age to work, and in the early sixties, I turned 16, working age, so… my next-door neighbor hired me in April of 1961,” stated Knowles. Knowles found employment in the store’s most fanciful, entertaining aisles. “I worked on the fourth floor, which consisted of children’s clothes, a toy department, and a fun area for all,” she said, “that consisted of an arcade, dancing chickens, soda fountain, and a deep sea cave with mermaids.”

Soon, Knowles got her shot at becoming a ‘mermagical’ Webb’s performer. “I worked in all the above departments for about two months when my neighbor, Mrs. Moore, who had hired me originally and asked if I would be interested in receiving more pay, from $.25 per hour to $1.00 per hour in the mermaid cave,” she said. “Not a hard decision for someone who was 16 years old.”

So, Knowles set to work in a lush aquatic wonderland. “The cave in which I was to work was a walk-up view of a ship with portholes, of which people would come and peek through and see statues of mermaids and a film running which was a movie of the live mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs attraction,” she explained. “My job was to be up in the air in a little closet with a microphone and a two-way mirror and talk to the people looking through the porthole. They could not see me.”

Knowles voiced the role of Loralee, the mermaid. “My name was Loralee, and my baby’s name was Susie Seashell (both manikins in the porthole),” she said. “People who knew I was there, for whatever reason, could leave someone’s name with me, and I would greet them when they walked up and looked through the porthole, like ‘Hey Fred, how are you doing today?’ she said. “They would be so surprised that I knew their name. Mostly I just talked about being a mermaid in Weeki Wachee Springs. On their way out, they would see a curtain, and some of them would open it and see me. And some did not.” “By the way, my paycheck came from Doc Webb,” she added. “Even though I represented Weeki Wachee Springs.”

Artist Jonathan Morrill captured the mystique of Webb’s mermaid show in his painting “Webb’s City Mermaids.” https://tinyurl.com/yc5nzvds.
He also prepared a description of the mermaid cove experience to accompany the portrait. “The famous talking Mermaids, one of the most different and outstanding of many attractions at the World’s Most Unusual Drug Store,” the description read. “The mermaids were modified mannequins set in a diorama depicting their seaside retreat in an ocean cave, complete with a treasure chest. Off to one side, for knowing parents, and grandparents, was a little booth, in which names of the children could be given to the person inside the booth, who would read the names of the children, much to their amazement, as it appeared to the children that these mermaids knew them.”

Knowles worked at Webb’s City until 1964 when she left to start a family. “In 1979, Webb’s City closed its doors,” she said. “Later on, it got torn down to make way for high risers.”

Knowles has fond memories of her time as a Webb’s mermaid. “It was a neat experience, and I had a lot of fun and got over my shyness quickly. So, I love telling this story, and it’s amazing that I ended up living in Brooksville, in the county of mermaids. Some older people who live here remember me there. The only thing that would bother me at times: even though “The Mermaids Of Weeki Wachee Cave” was a great attraction, I was always upstaged by the Dancing Chicken, which was more popular, Doc Webb used to say.”

“So that is why I say I was the only mermaid that never touched water.”

Megan Hussey
Megan Hussey
Megan Hussey is a features journalist and author who is the winner of Florida Press Association honors and a certificate of appreciation from LINCS (Family Support Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention Task Force) and Sunrise Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Center for her newspaper coverage of these issues. She graduated cum laude from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., with a journalism major and English/sociology minor, and previously wrote for publications that include the Pasco editions of The Tampa Tribune and Tampa Bay Times. A native of Indiana, she lives in Florida.
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