“Fog on Wakulla Springs” by Sue Damon ©2023
In the early part of the 20th century, Alfred I. du Pont of the very rich and influential Du Pont family sent his brother-in-law, Edward Ball, to Florida to stake out some investments. While he was there in Florida, Ball also staked out some investments for himself including a railroad, a bank, a paper mill, and Wakulla Springs.
Location. Location. Location.
When Ball decided to create a resort at Wakulla Springs, he wanted something similar to what had been done at Ocala, Florida’s Silver Springs, complete with a jungle cruise and glass-bottomed boat tour. However, Ball wanted his tourist attraction to appeal to a more elite clientele. To achieve this goal, he built a lavishly furnished Spanish-style lodge consisting of only 27 rooms with original murals gracing the walls. Still in operation, the hotel is now known as the Lodge at Wakulla Springs.
One of the early problems Ball faced, however, was the location. Back in those days, the area surrounding Wakulla Springs was still considered hinterland and not easily accessible. In fact, for the first few years the resort was open, there were no paved roads to the springs.
Ball decided what they needed was more promotion, so in the late 1930s, he hired Silver Springs veteran Newton Perry as the new manager of Wakulla Springs. Perry was, at heart, a showman, and if anyone could bring some publicity to the springs, it was him. What’s more, while working at Silver Springs, Perry had accumulated a lot of Hollywood connections.
Hollywood Comes to Wakulla Springs
Because of these Hollywood connections, Perry was able to lure Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer away from Silver Springs to Wakulla Springs to make their last two Tarzan films – Tarzan’s Secret Treasure and Tarzan’s New York Adventure, both starring the incomparable Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. Perry proved himself instrumental in assisting with the productions’ logistical details – even bringing in the animals needed for the film.
Later during World War II, Hollywood would return to Wakulla Springs to film a 1943 short called Amphibious Fighters. Directed by Jack Eaton, the film won an Oscar for Best Short Subject (One-Reel) in 1944 at the 16th Academy Awards. The film featured soldiers from Camp Gordon Johnson who participated in a mock battle similar to that which would take place on the beaches of Normandy, France, the same year the film won the Academy Award.
The Tarpon Club
Notable sports columnist and author Grantland Rice brought the Tarpon Club – a bevy of beautiful synchronized swimmers – from Florida State College for Women in nearby Tallahassee, and made a couple of short films for his “Sportlight” series at Wakulla: Aqua Rhythm (1941) and Campus Mermaids (1945).
Ball and Perry understood people’s need for entertainment as escape from the problems of the real world. At the same time, they knew it was important for the war effort to help keep up the morale of the soldiers. Thus, the two hired the Tarpon Club to entertain both the local servicemen and the handful of tourists that occasionally visited the springs. In the end, it would be those soldiers and that group of water ballet performers (and a little of Bell’s money, too, of course) that would keep Wakulla Springs afloat throughout the war.
The Creature of Wakulla Springs
After the war, Hollywood movie crews would come back to Wakulla Springs in 1953 to film The Creature from the Black Lagoon. By that time, Newton Perry had left Wakulla Springs to create his own roadside attraction at Weeki Wachee Springs in 1947. Ball offered Ricou Browning – a teen who had worked at Wakulla Springs but then left with Perry to work at Weeki Wachee – the management position at Wakulla Springs. Browning returned and took the helm.
While working as manager at Wakulla springs, Browning also moonlighted as a stuntman for the Creature from the Black Lagoon. While test shooting some underwater scenes, Browning, dressed in the Gill-Man (a.k.a. “The Creature”) costume, began using an unusual paddling stroke where he kept one arm in front of him at a time while swimming. Director Jack Arnold liked it so much that he gave Ricou the lead part of the Creature in all of the film’s underwater scenes.
Hollywood Horrors and Disasters
After the success of The Creature of the Black Lagoon, Wakulla Springs continued to be the filming location of choice for many filmmakers. In fact, the Gill-man returned in 1955 for the filming of the sequel The Creature Walks Among Us, once again featuring the Wakulla Springs’ very own Ricou Browning playing the part of the Creature.
Lloyd Bridges, who happened to film his television series Sea Hunt down in Silver Springs, came to Wakulla Springs in 1965 to film Around the World Under the Sea, an action/adventure sci-fi film about a five-man crew who travels the world’s ocean in a submarine placing sensors on the ocean floor to warn scientists of any looming earthquakes.
In 1977, the springs were used in all the underwater scenes for Airport ’77. Part of a 747 hull was sunk in the springs to represent the ill-fated flight’s crash into the Bermuda Triangle. Though the film included a star-studded cast that included Jack Lemmon, James Stewart, Joseph Cotten, Olivia de Havilland, Brenda Vaccaro, and franchise star George Kennedy, only Lemmon showed up at Wakulla Springs for filming. Once his three seconds were shot, he made his way back to California to finish shooting the film there.
Edward Ball died in 1981, leaving most of his wealth to the children’s health organization the Nemours Foundation. In 1986, the Florida Department of Natural Resources, the Nature Conservancy, and the Northwest Florida Water Management District purchased the Wakulla Springs property from the foundation and conveyed it to the State of Florida. It reopened to the public on October 1, 1986.
Today, the Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park is not only an amazing tourist destination and historical treasure, but is still seen as a desirable film setting, backdrop, and shooting location. Most recently, the 2020 comedy/horror/romance film The Waiting, was shot at the park, using the Lodge at Wakulla Springs as its primary setting. 🌊
Editor’s Note: Ricou Browning, the native Floridian who gave “the Creature” from the Creature from the Black Lagoon movies his signature underwater grace, passed at the age of 93 at his home in Southwest Ranches, Florida, on February 27, 2023. He leaves a legacy as an innovator in underwater performance and as a true Gulf Icon.
“F.S.C.W. Tarpon Club – Wakulla Springs, Florida” in the public domain via State Archives of Florida
Photos of “Creature from the Black Lagoon by Shed On The Moon,” “Ginger Stanley in the grip of the Gill-Man” by Bruce Mozert, and “Ricou Browning in his movie costume at Wakulla Springs,” in the public domain via State Archives of Florida
Photos of Jack Lemmon (L) and Lloyd Bridges (R) at Wakulla Springs in the public domain via State Archives of Florida
Center: “File:Wakulla Springs State Park” by WhisperToMe is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
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