Thursday, December 29, 2011

Vintage Roadside Visits: Aquarena Springs documentarian Bob Phillips - Part 1

When we heard a documentary on the history of Aquarena Springs was being created by a former employee we couldn't wait to see the finished project. After spending the past few years researching the history of the Aquarama in Missouri it felt like we had discovered a kindred spirit out there somewhere in the (relatively narrow) field of "people who devote years to the research of defunct mermaid attractions." We'd check online every few months to see if there were any updates on the completion of the film and this fall we saw an announcement for the screening of the film is San Marcos, Texas. Not being able to make it down to Texas for the screening we were pleased to see the film was also being released on DVD.

Cover of Aquarena brochure

We immediately ordered our copy and sent an email to Mr. Phillips congratulating him on his film. We've been lucky enough to share research with each other and Bob has generously spent time answering our questions. Here's Part 1 of our in-depth conversation with Bob about his project.

Vintage Roadside: For those not familiar with Aquarena Springs can you give us an overview of some of the different things visitors to the park could enjoy?

Bob: Aquarena Springs was located on Spring Lake which is the headwater of the spring-fed San Marcos River. Visitors could experience the "World's Only Submarine Theater" where you would be taken underneath the surface of the crystal-clear water to see mermaids and aquamaids (beautiful young ladies) perform underwater ballet, eating and drinking underwater, as well as Glurpo the Underwater Clown who performed underwater antics such as singing, smoking, and blowing smoke rings. All these performers were upstaged by Ralph the Famous Swimming Pig that would capture the hearts of all who saw him with his world-renowned swine dive.

Glass bottom boats would take visitors across Spring Lake where they could look below the surface at the beautiful plant and animal life as well as the water bubbling up through the limestone sand.

The Von Roll Swiss Skyride took visitors up over 100' across the lake to the hillside hanging gardens that included the Burleson Log Cabin, Mr. Manley the glass blower, a Mexican paper flower market, the 100-year-old Gristmill that ground corn meal you could purchase, and the Spring House Gift Shop where you could buy rock candy and cheese. Visitors could take the Skyride back or a ferry boat across the lake to Pirates Cove Landing which included a pirate and nautical themed gift shop.

Interior of Aquarena brochure

The Texana Village was an old western town (think Gunsmoke) complete with San Marcos' original home, a saloon, a barbershop, a general store, farm animals, a blacksmith shop, old carriages, and a beautiful rock and crystal collection. There was also Top Gun - a mechanical cowboy that would challenge you to a gunfight, the dancing chickens, a fire engine bunny, a basketball playing chicken, a piano playing duck and chicken, and the chicken that would challenge you to a game of tic-tac-toe - and beat you every time! There were even 20 live alligators you could see.

The gift shops were wonderful and sold all the stuff tourists love like Aquarena-branded shot glasses, rubber snakes, Davy Crockett coonskin hats, and Ralph the Swimming Pig t-shirts.

The Aquarena Springs Hotel was opened way back in 1929. It had about thirty rooms and sat right on the headwaters of the San Marcos River. You could sit on your second story balcony and see the fish swimming in the crystal clear water.

Visitors head into the original Submarine Theater

Vintage Roadside: It's incredible just how much there was to do there. We want to ask you more about Ralph and Glurpo, but before we get to that we'd like to hear about your connection with Aquarena Springs. Your family has a very deep history with the park. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Bob: My family history at the park began when my older brother Bill worked there for one summer when he was 12 years old (about 1960). I followed in his footsteps when I turned 12 in 1962 doing the same job he had done, which was sweeping up cigarette butts in the parking lot and placing bumper stickers on people's cars. We were called "Butt Boys". We actually had to go up to each car that entered the parking lot and ask the driver if they wanted a free Aquarena Springs sticker on their bumper. It was an inexpensive advertising ploy. Of course we wanted everyone to say yes but many didn't, and some weren't very nice about it. That was a tough job for a shy 12 year old. I seriously think this is where I learned the important lesson of how to overcome rejection.

Vintage Roadside: What kind of money did you make out there in the parking lot? 

Bob: The pay was a handsome 25 cents per hour, two dollars for 8 hours of work. The first few days on the job I ate lunch in the Aquarena Restaurant, but ended up spending a whole day's pay. Later, I started bringing my sack lunch (figuring that it was better for my parents to pick up the tab) allowing me to save some serious spending money. Being in South Texas in the summer on a blacktop parking lot got pretty hot and I would spend as much time as I could under the largest shade tree out there. There were about 4 or 5 of us San Marcos youngsters working at the same time and instead of spreading ourselves out over the parking lot as we were instructed by our boss we would all end up under the same shade tree telling stories. The boss would come out and tell us to spread out and it worked - for about 20 minutes. It could get lonely out there.

One day in August I had had enough and decided to quit, so I did. I went home and relaxed until my dad got home from work. He asked me how my day went and I told him I quit. He said "You what? You know they expected you to work until Labor Day." The next morning he took me back to Aquarena (this was very embarrassing for me, of course) and found the owner and general manager in the coffee shop, walked me up to them and said (without asking me) that Bob would be happy to come back to work and finish out the summer. Thank goodness they told my dad that was ok, they had enough help and did not need me to come back. Whew, that was a close call. 

An Aquarena Aquamaid performing

Vintage Roadside: What a great story! That must have been mortifying as a 12 year old. Did you go back to Aquarena that next summer?

Bob: No, the next summer (1963) I worked for my dad at his Mobile Oil business helping him fill up his huge gasoline truck that would transport hundreds of gallons of gasoline to the local retail gas stations. 

In 1964 my father sold his business and Aquarena offered him a job as assistant manager. So that summer I went back to work at Aquarena, but this time as the boss' son which wasn't that wonderful because now I had to set an example of being a good worker - no more goofing off. My job was upgraded from "Parking Lot Butt Boy" to "Inside Park Butt Boy" which included cleaning out the Submarine Theater between shows. I loved this because the submarine was air-conditioned and I got to help take tickets for the next show which allowed me to legally linger around in the shade until the next show started. 

I later became a glass bottom boat driver, underwater gardener, and swam as Glurpo the Underwater Clown. Being in that 72 degree crystal clear water was like being in Heaven. I worked there until I graduated from the local university, Southwest Texas State in 1972.

Vintage Roadside: Did you father continue to advance with the Park?

Bob: He did. He later became manager and then president and general manager of Aquarena Springs. He then went on to become a popular leader in the Texas tourism industry by becoming the chairman of the Discover Texas Association and chairman of the Governor's Texas State Tourist Development Agency - the agency that promoted Texas to the rest of the world. He was well liked by everyone who knew him. He was warm, friendly, and had an unbelievable sense of humor - everyone loved my dad.

Vintage Roadside: Did any of your other family members work at Aquarena?

Bob: My grandfather W.G. Phillips worked there in the Texana Village in the mid-1970s. His job was to hang out in the general store and visit with the public and tell the younger folks stories about the early 1900s.

Newspaper clipping showing Bob with 2 co-workers

Vintage Roadside: Now, you ended up being related to the Aquarena founding family didn't you?

Bob: I did. My mother passed away in 1974 and my dad later married the daughter of the founder of Aquarena Springs, Shirley Rogers. The family sold the park around 1985 to a group of investors who continued operating the park as best they could until 1994 when they sold it to Texas State University (formerly Southwest Texas State University). 

Vintage Roadside: The University didn't operate the park much longer did they?

Bob: Two years later in 1996 they decided to close the park - except for the glass bottom boats. Their goal is to use the area as more of a learning experience about the importance of the springs and the endangered species that are in the lake.

Currently the park is being torn down and brought back to its original environment - turning it back into an aquatic ecosystem. The springs have never stopped flowing for thousands of years and the site is known as one of the longest continually inhabited areas in the northern hemisphere. The glass bottom boats will still operate.

Vintage Roadside: Aside from your family history with the park, what were some of the other reasons you felt it was important to make this film?

Bob: I had such a wonderful experience and fond memories working at this beautiful place and I know that anyone who ever visited or worked at Aquarena Springs had the same feeling. They knew it was a magical place. I felt it was important to keep the stories and memories of Aquarena Springs alive for the millions of folks who interacted with it.

We hope you're enjoying our interview with Bob and learning about his unique history with Aquarena Springs. Join us for Part 2 where we'll talk about how he researched his film, compiled materials, and what you can expect to see on the DVD. 

Here's a trailer for the film:

Jeff & Kelly


Rick Kilby said...

Holy Cow! Sounds like Aquarena had everything! Part Silver Springs, Six Gun Territory, Weeki Wachee and so much more! Only in Texas!

bumperstickersnmore said...

Great blog. I had never heard of Aquarena and many of the other mermaid attractions. Always loved Weeki Wachee.

M'Lynn Stasney said...

I enjoyed working at Aquarena Springs as an underwater mermaid ... I was a college student and this was my job during the summer of 1974.
Those were the days!
:) M'Lynn

Vintage Roadside said...

M'Lynn - Thanks for leaving a comment. We love hearing from former mermaids!

We'd love to hear any stories you have from your time at Aquarena. :-)