critical reviews of history exhibit practice in an age of ubiquitous display
Thursday, January 13, 2011
"Beautiful Girls That Live Like Fish!"
In this post, Vintage Roadside’s first for “Off the Wall”, we’d like to introduce ourselves by touching on our motivation for launching our preservation-themed business followed by a brief review of a symposium we presented this past summer on Aquarama, a wonderful 1960s mermaid attraction once found on Lake of the Ozarks in Osage Beach, Missouri.
From one perspective, Vintage Roadside is a t-shirt company featuring original advertising graphics and history of mom and pop businesses operating from the 1930s through the 1960s.
From another perspective, Vintage Roadside may also be considered non-traditional (or, what we call when we’re feeling feisty, “guerilla”) historians working to communicate the stories and history behind mom and pop places travelers could have visited on a road trip undertaken anytime from America’s boom in road construction and automobile travel to the decade following the introduction of the Interstate System.
Over the past five years, the questions we’re most frequently asked relate to why we think roadside culture of the 1930s – 1960s is important. Is it the kitsch factor? Is it nostalgia for a sentimentalized past? Do we secretly long for ducktail haircuts and pedal pushers?
The best way we can answer those questions is to talk about our experience road tripping through small towns across the country. Drawn by our nature to roadside architecture, we often stopped at historical societies, museums, and local businesses to ask questions about an abandoned motel or a dilapidated neon sign advertising the best hamburgers in town.
Although we met many kindred spirits who shared a love of roadside architecture and knew the places we were referring to, we had a difficult time uncovering specifics about who ran the business, when it operated, or why it closed.
We also talked with a number of people who enjoyed roadside remnants in their community, but did not immediately connect defunct roadside attractions or bowling alleys with “historic preservation.”
From our perspective, we saw the defunct mom and pops as much more than failed businesses. For us, the history of mom and pops was the gateway to relating a community’s past with its present.
In addition to providing interesting family and community history, the story behind each mom and pop also had the potential to touch on a fascinating variety of subjects including the evolution of motor courts and motels in America, the changing nature of travel and entertainment post-WWII, the neon and sign painting industry in the 1950s, the cultural impact of technological innovations such as air conditioning and television, even the flamboyant individuality of roadside entrepreneurs before the prevalence of corporate chains.
Our feeling that the histories of defunct roadside mom and pops were not particularly valued as a subject of preservation while their records, buildings, and stories seemed to be disappearing prompted us to found Vintage Roadside.
In our own way, we view our t-shirts, packaged with their brief history hang tags and extended histories available on our website, as a way to support and contribute to the ranks of those working to document roadside America of the 1930s – 1960s.
We often hear from our customers that they enjoy wearing our t-shirts because they have the potential to start a conversation – whether it be about the place featured on the t-shirt or a favorite memory of a mom and pop back in the day. Two particular questions also seem to come up time and again: where have all the mom and pops gone and what, if anything, should be done to preserve those that are still around?
In addition to acting as conversation starters, we see our t-shirts as a fun way to talk about the relevance of historic preservation to the recent past and, through the support of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, are able to offer those customers who’d like to learn a little more about the preservation movement a free one-year membership to the NTHP.
This past August, we expanded our role as t-shirt toting roadside historians by presenting a symposium based on Aquarama, a 1960s mermaid attraction on Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks.
The venue for our first presentation of “Beautiful Girls That Live Like Fish!” might be considered fairly non-traditional in the public history field: Tiki Oasis, a fantastic four-day tiki convention in San Diego, CA.
As our PowerPoint presentation started with lowered lights, we invited the audience to travel back in time with us to 1964 and imagine themselves sitting front row at Aquarama’s underwater show. To help set the mood, we played the opening sequence of Aquarama’s original voice-over narration and music obtained from Marc Johl, the son of Aquarama’s founders.
The opening soundtrack was followed by a history of the Johl family and Aquarama illustrated through vintage 8 mm film clips, photographs of beautifully preserved costumes used in Aquarama routines from 1964 – 1968, vintage advertising ephemera, and invaluable first person interviews with Marc Johl and past Aquarama employees.
We also we brought in Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid, a professional aquatic performer and friend, for a lively Q & A about aquatic entertainment, then and now.
Although the Q & A had the potential to veer into a discussion of pop culture and kitsch, we were pleased that the questions asked by our wonderful audience were both thoughtful and fun and indicated that we were successful in communicating our goals for the presentation – to celebrate the history of a unique roadside mom and pop while opening up a larger discussion about the changing experience of automobile travel over the past 50 years and the impact of the Interstate system and corporate chains on independently owned mom and pops.
Questions brought up during the Q & A also touched on broader questions relating to historic preservation such as who decides what is to be preserved, whether historic preservation is inherently anti-development, and the value of preserving roadside history – exactly the discussion that we hoped to spark with the founding of Vintage Roadside.
On a technical note, we thought the addition of a soundtrack to the 30–60 second film clips spaced throughout the presentation would have created more of an impact on the audience. We’ll be making this improvement for future presentations.
Through our use of archival materials, corroborated oral history, and passion for the subject, we’d like to think that our symposium about a nearly forgotten 1960s mermaid attraction both entertained and engaged people in a broader discussion of the value of preserving roadside culture and place history while helping to push the boundaries of what might be considered as public history display.
(top to bottom) Pub in Poundbury, UK (town built 1993); image of Rosa Luxemburg on portion of Berlin Wall, Potsdamer Platz, Berlin; circuitboard; 2009 model PT Cruiser by Chrysler; St. Louis Unions vintage baseball player