Back in the 1960s when I hung out at Georgia’s Elijah Clark State Park, the cool guys were into water skiing. I got into it too and learned to slalom. That was a big deal. Learning to take off from shore standing on one leg was an even bigger deal, and I did that despite my most ordinary ski’s limitations. No matter how well you skied though, not having a big name ski rubbed a lot of luster off your accomplishment. A Dick Pope Jr. ski, however, carried cachet. A cheap ski? It might as well be a plank.
I want to say I got my run-of-the-mill ski at Miss Minnie Wells Oil Company but the truth is I can’t recall where I got it. I know one thing though; it was not a celebrated Dick Pope ski. Pope’s brand sported gorgeous gold and red cypress wood, a lustrous finish, and snug rubber boots. Firmly planted in one of those really hip guys performed watery acrobatics across Clark Hill’s blue veneer. White feathery contrail-like wakes rippled their fame from Georgia to South Carolina.
Another cool ski to own was an Alfredo Mendoza. We called it a “Mendoza.” With it, skiers jumped wakes and launched themselves into the stratosphere. I had no idea who Pope and Mendoza were, just that their skis represented the supreme, and frustratingly, I didn’t own either. It was immature to crave status like this; still not having a good ski annoyed me to no end.
Life moved on and my days skiing ended, as did my envy of Pope and Mendoza skis. College, jobs, and family matters rearranged priorities. And then many years later, thirty to be precise, an editor by the name of Lisa Dionne called me. She worked for Ski Boat magazine. “Would you like to do a story on Cypress Garden’s 60th Anniversary?”
I know a good photographer I told her.
Two weeks later Robert Clark and I were driving down I-95, the Snowbird Flyway, to Winter Haven, Florida. I was about to learn a lot about Pope Sr. and Jr. and Mendoza. I would tell Dick Pope Sr.’s story and in the process I’d learn how his skis gave the guys in Lincolnton, Georgia, a chance to be cool. Back then, just teens and twenty-somethings, we knew little about Pope, just that Pope skis were the real deal. They carried status and meant you knew what you were doing.
Pope was a waterbug. Early on he was boating and skiing. From 1938 on into 1963 and beyond Dick Pope Sr. created the impression that though he didn’t create water skiing he gave it legitimacy. Once he got his ski mecca rolling, the name Pope meant everything when it came to skiing heroics. In 1928, Dick Pope Sr. leaped off a wooden ramp, soaring 25 feet, the first person to pull off such a feat. Dick Pope Jr. was the first person to ski barefoot, and word of these exploits spread. When the Dick Pope signature went on skis, well, they sold pretty good.
Pope Sr. was brash. He had moxie and he was insightful. In the late 1950s and 1960s Americans, deeply in love with their cars and shaking off the World War II blues, were establishing a new tradition: the summer vacation. “Travel is the third largest industry in America,” observed Pope, “and we want to be the biggest thing in it.” Thus it was that he created Florida’s first theme park, Cypress Gardens. His park paved the way for more grandiose parks. Were it not for him, Disney World would not have come to Florida. Pope pushed Cypress Gardens into the public’s consciousness using everything from place mats and menu covers in restaurants to jigsaw puzzles and the covers of phonograph albums (Chopin’s piano themes). Legend has it that Pope invented Florida and its beautiful women, palm trees, exotic flowers, and sun-splashed landscapes.
He started out in snow country. Born in Iowa in 1900 Pope’s family moved to Florida where he spent his teens in Winter Haven at his father’s real estate office. Pope and brother Malcolm were known locally for their boating regattas, held on Winter Haven’s chain of lakes. With a mix of developer and water sports in his blood, Pope’s theme park idea came from an unusual source—a magazine. Pope read a story in Good Housekeeping about a man who opened his home to the public and charged admission. That man was a millionaire in Charleston, South Carolina who charged 18,000 people a year two bucks a head to tour the gardens on his estate. “Thirty-six thousand dollars just for letting people look at flowers—that sounded pretty good to me,” said Pope. Pope decided to do the same thing but on a far grander scale. He and his wife, Julie, dreamed of a botanical wonderland along the shores of Lake Eloise. Water, flowers, and exotic plants, those were to be the stars, not skiers but fate had something else in mind.
On January 2, 1936, his dream became a reality. Pope, who had a natural bent for promotion, lured in visitors by distributing thousands of newsreels and photos to the press. That bit of hucksterism sent Pope on his way. He would become known as the “Father of Florida Tourism,” but it would be up to wife Julie to get the water ski show going. In 1943, a local newspaper ran a photo featuring water-skiers on Lake Eloise. Servicemen from the Naval Training Station in Orlando saw the photo. A busload of servicemen headed out to Dick and Julie’s park to see the “water show.” There was just one small problem. No such show existed.
Julie rounded up her children and friends and put on an impromptu water ski show. The next weekend 800 servicemen showed up and a world-famous water ski show was off and running. In the years to come water skiing and Cypress Gardens became synonymous. The place hosting these early ski shows had a lot going for it. Life magazine called Cypress Gardens’ original 16 acres—carved from a swamp by Dick and Julie Pope—”a photographer’s paradise.” Robert and I knew this and we anticipated some beautiful shots, though most of our work would involve the professional skiers. We were, sadly, decades too late. The glory days were over. The garden’s beautiful setting had not been lost on movie producers in the late 1940s and early 1950s, however. Hollywood came to Cypress Gardens. On An Island With You, Easy To Love, and This Is Cinema were all filmed at Dick Pope’s swamp-turned-dreamscape. In Easy To Love, Esther Williams lounged in a Florida-shaped pool filled with oranges.
Robert and I found Esther’s forlorn pool sitting in the corner of the Botanical Garden by Lake Eloise. Filled with scum, sure enough, it was shaped like Florida. We got the feeling that the gardens were in for a tough time and we were right. The good days were past. From 1936 to 1985 the Pope family owned what was tantamount to the water ski capital of the world. As the ensuing years passed things “got a bit fuzzy” as Henley sang in the “Garden of Allah” and ownership passed to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and Anheuser-Busch, and later, a management group. A promise was made to preserve the park’s heritage as a world-famous botanical garden and water ski capital. A bit was said too about adding “new entertainment elements.” That proved true and ultimately disastrous to Pope’s original dream. As its run ended the park experienced closures and re-openings, eventually closing for good. Today there is no Cypress Gardens. In its place you will find something called Legoland Florida. Here, read “About Us” from Legoland’s website.
“LEGOLAND® Florida, Central Florida’s newest theme park, is a 150-acre, full two-day interactive family theme park specifically designed for families with children ages 2 to 12. The largest LEGOLAND Park in the world, it features more than 50 rides, shows, and attractions, restaurants, shopping, a breathtaking botanical garden and the all-new LEGOLAND Water Park.”
Enough about that. Return with me to the four days I spent at Cypress Gardens eighteen years ago. During shows, Robert and I rode in a MasterCraft pulling women who formed pyramids, topped by a woman hoisting a U.S. flag. We recorded the action up close. We had something a lot better than a front-row seat but it was anything but smooth. The boat rocked hard on Lake Eloise. The ride was rough. It was a bit chilly. Talking above the engine was impossible. The drivers used hand signals to communicate their intricate maneuvers.
It was January, and crowds were thin. I recall being distracted by a bald eagle wheeling high above Lake Eloise, oblivious to the spectacle below. Sitting in the grandstand and on the lake’s grassy shores people watching the show were a bit sedate. Only when four men, Rampmasters, shot across ramps at 60 miles per hour executing crisscrossing jumps and helicopter spins did “Oooohs and aaahs” at last escape. I could tell from the drivers’ and skiers’ expressions there was nowhere else they’d rather be.
To ski behind a sleek MasterCraft was a dream many realized here. To pilot the MasterCraft was a lofty ambition too. Great athletes passed through here, among them an older fellow, “Banana” George Blair, known for his barefooting and trademark banana yellow wetsuit. (He skied barefoot until he was 92.) When I talked with the skiers they spoke with reverence of preceding generations of skiers.
We heard and saw it all. Robert and I were allowed into the dressing room where the girls donned their exotic costumes. A sign above the dressing room’s exit door read, “Through these doors pass the world’s greatest skiers and drivers.” Nearby another sign implores the team to “Perform like champions. One show at a time.”
The ultimate destination for ambitious skiers, Cypress Gardens was the birthplace of more than 50 waterskiing innovations, including the world’s only five-tier human pyramid. The show Robert and I covered for Ski Boat magazine had come a long way from the mid-1940’s revues Pope’s children performed for soldiers and sailors. The shows we saw served up a fare of jumping, barefoot skiing, pyramids, comedy, hang gliding, delta wing kites, and skiing innovations. Ice skater Alfredo Mendoza had skied at Pope’s ski Mecca many years earlier. He brought some of ice skating’s innovations to the water, the Adagio doubles, a series of lifts and graceful ballet moves.
From Winter Haven the idea that skiing was daring and cool spread across the land. It found willing ears and strong legs at the major reservoirs of the South. Boys with time on their hands and ambition in their hearts found that skiing was one way to rise above anonymity.
I never owned a Dick Pope ski. I skied on a friend’s though, just once. Back then, in the mid 60s, I had no idea who Richard Downing “Dick” Pope was, only that people coveted his skis. Now he is gone, having died in 1988. He used his time on earth, on water I should say, to change life for many. For certain the self-proclaimed “Grand Poobah of Publicity” changed Florida forever.
Once upon a time visionaries turned a swamp into a paradise peopled with leggy girls in alluring swimsuits. Dick and Julie’s dream flourished and exuded a charisma uniquely its own. Hollywood loved it and soldiers loved it and Bermuda-short-wearing, knee-sock-clad retirees loved it too. And flower seekers and thrill-seeking drivers and skiers worshipped it. And to think all that skiing started as an accident.
By the time Robert and I came along the place seemed threadbare, worn, faded, a ghost of itself. Its better days best viewed from a MasterCraft’s rearview mirror. My love for skiing long gone, what I liked best about the place was the banyan tree in the Botanical Gardens. From a five-gallon bucket in 1939 it had grown mightily. When I was there its soaring wings had spread and its many aerial roots had tapped into Desoto’s Land of Flowers. They say that in its native country of India entire villages live beneath its massive multi-trunk canopy. I liked too the bougainvillea, azaleas, and chrysanthemums: they drenched the place in color.
I can’t speak for you but I’ve found my life to be a magical chain of coincidences and clairvoyance. Between my early days envying those who owned Dick Pope skis and my only trip to Winter Haven, my one exposure to Cypress Gardens was seeing its ski team perform a pyramid on television. “I’d like to see that in person,” I thought so many years ago. Well, I did.
When I left Cypress Gardens that January day in 1996, evening was coming down and the day’s last show was underway. The call of an osprey drifted over the water. Crows clamored from atop a moss-draped cypress. Landscaping lights twinkled along the park’s oaks, hedges, and waterfalls, and the Aqua Maids were ski-dancing and a’prancing across the water as the emcee exulted, “Poetry in motion.” Nearby an electric tour boat whirred through cypress and kapok trees. Cajun music echoed through Florida’s original theme park, a place once described as the most successful swamp in America. Indeed it was, a forerunner of Disney World, Epcot, Sea World, and more.
I looked out on Lake Eloise one last time. As the grand finale unfolded, men on skis, Dick Pope skis I assumed, traced feathery spirals and swirls onto the water. I felt good. An old festering splinter got removed on this trip. I never did own a Dick Pope ski but I had appeared as an observer, if you will, in Pope’s spectacle that turned a lot of boys onto water skiing so long ago. In the end, that was better than owning a Dick Pope ski.
Some wonderful old postcards of Cypress Gardens
(CardCow.com (promotional/fair use)