For National Swimming Pool Day: On Billy Rose’s Aquacade and Other Aquatic Spectacles

The Aquatic Chorus Line, Diving Like Dominoes

It’s National Swimming Pool Day, and having already done a post on the ultimate swimming pool movie, The Swimmer with Burt Lancaster, today we thought we would present a brief snapshot of one particular type of aquatic entertainment (there are others). Following the lead of Coke, Kleenex and Xerox we’ll refer to the entire form as “Aquacades” for lack of a more generic term, though that brand really belonged to one particular show.

Interestingly, the vogue for this kind of entertainment was happening at around the same time New York City was unveiling several brand new WPA constructed public swimming pools. Widespread recreational swimming was still only a few decades old at this point. Prior to the mid to late 19th century, it was more of a rarified activity enjoyed primarily by the rich, and health and fitness nuts. Other physical culture fads like bodybuilding and gymnasium exercises date to the same time, as do nutrition trends such as the invention of breakfast cereal and soft drinks. In the Victorian era, some state-of-the-art venues like the Blackpool Tower Circus in England and New York’s Hippodrome installed large swimming pools under the stages of their theatres accessible through retractable floors. Faux naval battles were staged in these giant pools, but also demonstrations of skilled and artistic swimming and diving.

The biggest of the early aquatic performers was of course Annette Kellerman, star of stage, screen and competition, whom we’ve written about here, although she was mostly retired from the limelight by the time of the phenomenon which we describe.

By the 1920s “rhythmic swimming” clubs became a fad, groups of young women performing choregraphed moves in the water in time to live music. One of these, the University of Chicago’s Tarpon Club, appeared at the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago, billing themselves as the “Modern Mermaids”.

It was then that Broadway impresario Billy Rose borrowed the idea and expanded it to Ziegfeldian dimensions and Busby Berkley style formations, increasing the scale of the form exponentially. Think of the swimsuit titillation to be derived from these healthy all-girl choruses, very much in the spirit of Broadway revues married to Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties. Today most folks associate Billy Rose’s Aquacade with its most famous setting, but it actually played three engagements: The Great Lakes Exposition in Cleveland (1937), The New York World’s Fair in Flushing, Queens (1939-40), and The Golden Gate Exposition (1940). You may remember scenes about the spectacle in the 1975 movie Funny Lady; Rose was Fanny Brice’s second husband. He left Brice for one of the swimmers in the show Eleanor Holm, who became his second wife. Staged by John Murray Anderson, the show also featured Gertrude Ederle (first woman to swim the English channel), Olympic swimmers Buster Crabbe and Johnny Weissmuller (both of whom would later play Tarzan in B movies) and of course Esther Williams.

Two years after the Aquacade show closed, Williams became an MGM film star, and these choregraphed swimming spectacles became highlights of her musical films, including Bathing Beauty (1944), Ziegfeld Follies (1945), Neptune’s Daughter (1949), and the Annette Kellerman bio-pic Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). At this stage, the form of water entertainment became almost exclusively identified with Williams’ screen vehicles, and passed from popularity as an art form along with her movie career. Nowadays, much like figure skating and certain gymnastic events, “synchronized swimming” is primarily enjoyed by the public as sport, as opposed to entertainment. That is, if we don’t count certain brilliant swimming pool performers of other species, who tend to be from the sea lion and dolphin families.

By the way, horses — and not seahorses — also participated in aquatic entertainment. Learn about that particular form of animal abuse here.

For more on the history of variety entertainment, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous