When a mermaid stripper performed her act in Akron, nightclub patrons enjoyed getting tanked.
Her name was Divena and she was a breathtaking sight.
She undulated behind glass in a 600-gallon tank of crystal-clear water, slipping into something more comfortable while goggle-eyed customers got a little sloshed at their tables.
“There’s nothing new under the sun … but UNDER WATER — ah!” the newspaper advertisements gushed.
Divena’s so-called “aqua-tease” was a popular draw in the late 1940s and early 1950s at the Yankee Inn, a swanky club owned by George Zenallis at 231 W. Exchange St. in Akron. The establishment was famous for its live entertainment, featuring rising stars such as the Four Freshmen, the Four Lads, Johnny Ray, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme.
Part “divine” and part “dive in,” Divena was billed variously as “The World’s Premier Underwater Ballerina,” “The World’s Loveliest Feminine Form” and “The World’s Foremost Novelty Attraction.”
“Divena, the girl who does a striptease while submerged in a 600-gallon tank of water, is back at the Yankee Inn this week for three shows nightly,” the Beacon Journal reported in 1953. “She’s making a terrific splash there as she goes through the many antics of Esther Williams, while refusing to hide any of her curves.”
With the surging popularity of television, nightclubs increasingly turned to gimmicks to lure customers away from their living rooms. Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance weren’t likely to disrobe in giant aquariums, so Divena offered something different for viewers.
With dark curtains providing a backdrop, the aqua-tease tank measured 4 feet by 5 feet by 4 feet and featured plexiglass windows five-eighths of an inch thick.
The water was heated to a comfortable 80 to 90 degrees.
Dressed in an evening gown, Divena eased herself into the tank from an adjacent platform and slipped beneath the surface while live music played. She wiggled rhythmically in the water and wriggled slowly out of her clothes.
Each garment was treated with fluorescent dye, so the effect was enchanting as Divena tossed and turned beneath colorful beams and strobe lights.
The graceful swimmer worked on her backstroke and sidestroke. The giant tank appeared to be full to nightclub audiences, but a decorative frame hid the breathing space at the top where the stripper casually surfaced to grab some much-needed air.
She systematically stripped down to “an abbreviated brassiere” and “swim panties,” but anyone expecting to see more must have forgotten that this was Akron (or the 1950s, for that matter).
“Contrary to popular belief, I can’t see the audience while I’m disrobing,” Divena once told a reporter. “The first time I presented the aqua-tease, I became confused and finished my act with my back to the audience and blowing kisses at the tank exit.”
Divena performed three nightly shows at 10:30, midnight and 1:30 a.m. at the Yankee Inn. The show was so popular that an “early bird show” was added at 9:30 p.m.
“HELD OVER!” newspaper ads boasted.
WCUE radio personality Jerry Crocker scored an exclusive interview with Divena inside the tank. Listeners mostly heard splashing noises and unintelligible conversation.
“Out in Akron, the world’s first underwater interview with a strip teaser was accomplished not very successfully by a disc jockey named Jerry Crocker,” columnist John Crosby told readers. “Carrying a microphone, he dove into a tank of water and gurgled briefly at a nightclub entertainer named Divena. Didn’t get much information out of her.”
Regular customers might have noticed something unusual. One year, Divena was a blonde. Another year, she was a brunette. Yet another year, she was a redhead. Now it can be revealed: Divena was more than one person.
Charles Rayburn, a Los Angeles publicist, copyrighted the name Divena and enlisted swimmer Clarice Murphy as the original mermaid. Initially, Rayburn built a 1,000-gallon tank on rubber wheels, but decided that the 600-gallon tank was easier to transport.
The show was so successful that Rayburn hired more swimmers and launched five touring productions for nightclubs, theaters, carnivals and fairs. Tank volumes ranged from 400 to 600 gallons. Some of the other Divenas were Nanette Parker, Diana Grey, Harriet Rockwell and Randy Steven. Any one of them may have performed in Akron. Or perhaps they all did.
Each woman earned about $7,000 a year (roughly $68,500 today). Hazards of the job included pruning skin, frequent colds and crude remarks from drunken spectators.
Another sign of the show’s success was the growing list of imitators. Other underwater nightclub acts included Merma, Sirena, Atlantis and the Golden Mermaid.
In Chicago, Divena was accused of indecent exposure for wearing two silver stars in a most innovative way. In Atlantic City, comedians Stump and Stumpy were fired from their nightclub act for jumping into Divena’s tank. In Macon, Ga., Divena stopped traffic by sitting in a hydrant-filled bathtub at a busy street corner.
The most infamous incident occurred in New Orleans when Divena was hired as the lead act at the Casino Royale, reducing the usual headliner, Evangeline the Oyster Girl, to second billing.
The Oyster Girl’s act was to rise out of a giant shell and hold a giant silver orb representing a pearl. When she found out that she was demoted, the Oyster Girl cracked.
She grabbed a fire ax and began swinging it at Divena’s water tank during the middle of her aqua-tease performance.
“There! There! There!” the Oyster Girl screamed.
The plexiglass shattered, pouring hundreds of gallons of water onto the stage and forcing Divena to hang on for dear life. Customers jumped on table tops or scurried to the back of the nightclub, wondering if the flood was part of the act.
The Oyster Girl reached through the glass and pulled Divena’s hair before club workers could separate them.
“The pressure in the tank is pretty terrific,” Divena told a reporter. “I lost consciousness when she began to hit it with the ax. I feel as though I had been riding horseback for two weeks. I’m going to see a doctor for a complete checkup.”
Police arrested the Oyster Girl, who apologized for her outburst. She was fined $10.
On a typical weekend night in Akron in the early 1950s, Joe Rockwell’s Orchestra was at Club Topper with the Four Freshmen at the Old Mill, Frankie Reynolds and His Orchestra at Trianon Ballroom, Wanda Goodrich at Ted Boyer’s Backstage, George Zittai and the Polka Notes at the Trocadero and Joe Yobi and His Trio at the Ghent Road Inn.
Over at the Yankee Inn, Divena frolicked in an underwater act that would be considered relatively clean today.
“Curves alive with the poetry of artistic and unrestrained motion … sheer loveliness in bodily rhythm … and eye-popping submarine display of sinuous, artistic action,” the advertisements read. “Underwater, onstage, in person.”
Oh, Divena. Tanks for the memory.
Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.