The Way It Was – The Aqua Follies

The synchronized swimming group stunned in a 1954 Belle Isle performance
Aqua Follies
Aqua Follies photograph courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.

1954 It’s all but impossible in the Great Lakes State to think of summer without linking the season to the allure of water, whether it’s boating, swimming, water-skiing, or simply watching the sunlight coruscating on gentle turquoise waters. In the mid-20th century, water presented yet another attraction in the form of the Aqua Follies, a splashy presentation of synchronized swimmers, Olympic divers, and other aquatic acrobatics.

As The Seattle Times described the show looking back in a 1999 article: “The follies were a slapstick medley of divers, dancers, and synchronized swimmers performing a vaudeville-style lineup of skits and aquatic feats.” The Follies began in Minneapolis in 1940 and began touring around the country under the direction of showboating producer and director Al Sheehan. They even offered “Midnight Matinees,” which began at 11:30 p.m. In this 1954 photo, the Follies are seen during a rehearsal on Belle Isle, where they also performed their act. In the distance is the Scott Fountain.

The Aqua Dears, a complement of about 30 synchronized female swimmers, were the backbone of the Aqua Follies, supported by the “dry” Aqua Darlings, who danced on the stage. The Follies were likely influenced by the MGM water ballets (or aqua musicals) of the 1940s and ’50s, starring Esther Williams, aka America’s Mermaid. But by the mid 1960s, the craze for aquatic derring-do had pretty much washed up, and the Aqua Follies made their last splash and packed up their swimsuits for good.