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.

~ Kelly Burg and Jeff Kunkle


  1. Hi Kelly and Jeff:

    I enjoyed your post and, like you, have a soft spot for those bygone days of pre-chain travel.

    That said, I'm also aware that my fondness for memories of roadside America doesn't square very well with the historian's long view. Quirkiness and charm notwithstanding, all of those moms and pops were, after all, looking to make a buck off of American automobility. In that sense, and recalling the cozy relationship between America's auto industry and the federal government, we might just as well recognize the mom and pops as early players in precisely the kind of state capitalism that we have to thank for today's Interstate system and all of those corporate chains that crowded out the funky roadside joints (Fred Harvey and Howard Johnson may deserve some of the blame too).

    It's easy too to loose sight of how powerfully American roadside culture recycled the prevailing political winds of the Cold War years. I grew up near an old roadside place that, incredibly, managed to continually gouge passersby for $3.00 a head to see a massive miniature village over which a bright light appeared to indicate God's approval of our foreign policy. A late 1950s (my guess) voiceover made the point by suggesting that no such light shone over the Soviet Union. Even Aquarama, with its rhetorical nod to GM's Motorama and, implicitly, celebrations of science, progress, and corporate liberalism (and mermaids?) cashed in, even if subtly, on Cold War anxieties.

    I'm sure you've wrangled with all of these nuances in your work, but I'm curious how you draw the line (in your business and elsewhere) between celebrating the remarkable creativity of roadside entrepreneurs and enshrining their values.

    Seth Bruggeman

  2. kelly, jeff and seth:

    such an interesting conversation! in my research on the Baltimore Hon, I've become fascinated by the way in which kitsch can be "heritagized" which suggests that people's deep commitments to the effluvia of mass culture says something about us.. True, Seth, there is a lack of understanding of the bigger picture that accompanies roadside attractions, but the desire of contemporary Americans for those items seems to be a potential moment for politicizing nostalgia--what are they desiring? Is it American Cold War policy or a sense of wonder which is increasingly lost in a corporatized world? I think the answers are not as simple as that question suggests, but I hope more public historians think about it..

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  4. Very interesting post ! I just read and seriously enjoyed it very much till the last. Its great to read your experience regarding neon sign and other things.. Loved it :-)

  5. can a swimmer really swim like a mermaid?