The camera-packing family of live consulted urgently outside the International Swimming Hall of Fame, uncertain about entering. Suddenly the door flew open, and into the sunlight of the balmy Fort Lauderdale day stepped a piratical figure in a black eye patch. It was Buck Dawson, the hall's executive director. "I'll let you all in for three bucks and I'll throw in free skin-diving books for the kids," Dawson said. And he ushered the visitors inside, grinning unashamedly as the father reached for his wallet.
The family admission rate at the hall is always $3 and Dawson's proffered skin-diving books were moldering with age, but he honestly believes that everybody should visit swimming's sacred shrine—and he is not above a bit of oversell in that cause. And who can blame him? Cooperstown and Canton may bask in the reflected glory of big-league professional sport, but the pilgrim will also find inspiration at the Swimming Hall of Fame, a $1.5-million complex consisting of a handsome whitewashed museum next door to an Olympic-size municipal pool, all of it splendidly situated beside the wide Intracoastal Waterway.
Unfortunately, the Fort Lauderdale shrine is forced to compete with horse racing, jai alai and all the other giddy enticements of Florida's Gold Coast, not the least being the beach barely a block away. In a place so hedonistically caught up in the present, a tourist attraction devoted to the past can be easily overlooked. Besides hustling customers at the front door, Dawson combats this situation by valiantly promoting the hall with productions so lavish they all but collapse under their own weight. Indeed, no sooner had he settled into his job in 1964 than he was nearly fired by the shrine's board of directors, whose sensibilities were offended by a couple of his more ambitious water shows.
One early extravaganza was the dedication of the hall's pool, a year after Dawson became executive director. It was his idea to empty into the new pool bottles of water drawn from the English Channel, the several oceans and Olympic pools the world over. Dawson also included a bottle of rainwater, which he insisted on calling "water from heaven," whereupon it was solemnly poured by a pro wrestler billed as the French Angel. Then Dawson trotted out Ted Williams, that noted sport fisherman, who reeled in three harnessed and struggling swimmers. As the festivities reached the four-hour mark, the restless audience hooted and whistled. A befuddled Dawson neglected to introduce Sam Snead and Julius Boros, two of the many celebrities he had indiscriminately invited.
At that, Snead and Boros may have fared better than Johnny Weissmuller, whom Dawson persuaded to settle in Fort Lauderdale at one point to help promote the Hall of Fame. Dawson often seemed less interested in Weissmuller's swimming career than in his subsequent role as filmdom's Tarzan. Another water show featured a monkey that Dawson passed off as Cheetah, a ruse exposed when the animal rudely relieved himself on Tarzan's shoulder. Weissmuller suffered the further indignity of sharing top billing with the horse that the White Knight had ridden in TV commercials for Ajax.
Having somehow survived these excesses, Dawson now admits, "My trouble when I first arrived in Florida was that I didn't know when to stop. There usually wasn't enough, well, economy to what I did. For a while there I guess I thought I was Flo Ziegfeld."
Despite this chastened air, it is with undiminished zeal that Dawson rents out the hall's auditorium for sock hops, weddings and meetings of a local seashell club. He briefly let an evangelist use the palm-fringed lawn for revival meetings, and enlivens the annual induction of immortals with a footprint-in-cement ceremony � la Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Dawson has also shamelessly exploited the shrine's 12-ton abstract statue inspired by Mark Spitz, which he unveiled last summer, dedicated a few months later and now talks of christening. Then there is Spitz' inevitable induction into the Hall of Faint when the mandatory five-year waiting period ends in 1977. All this is in addition to the dog that Dawson has adopted as the shrine's official mascot, a 2-year-old Spitz named, naturally, Mark.
Because of his flair for ballyhoo, it is tempting to mistake Dawson for just another of Fort Lauderdale's wheeler-dealer promoters. There is the fact that Dawson, who swims none too well himself, got into the sport only through marriage, after working in such disparate capacities as publicist and hosiery salesman. There also is that sinister eye patch He injured his left eye in an auto accident two decades ago and now makes the condition his trademark by sketching an eye patch when signing his name. He delights in being taken for Israel's Moshe Dayan, the resemblance owing as much to a receding hairline and snaggletoothed grin as to the patch. Visiting Expo 67 in Montreal, Dawson stopped at the Israeli pavilion, where he caused the desired sensation. More recently, passing through a Fort Lauderdale hotel lobby he overheard a woman whisper, "Isn't that Moshe Dayan?" Dawson waved and said, "Shalom."
With equal audacity Dawson has labeled Hall of Fame parking places with the names of Weissmuller and such other celebrated ex-swimmers as Eleanor Holm and Buster Crabbe, leaving the impression that all might be arriving in then cars at any moment. Weissmuller became a greeter at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, but his name still graces the door to what is ostensibly his old Hall of Fame office. The door, in fact, opens onto a storage closet.
For all that, Dawson has an ingenuous air about him that makes him seem less huckster than prankster. Despite a cornball sense of humor and occasional lapses of taste, he comes across as nothing so much as a 53-year-old fraternity boy. "I'm not hung up on that dignity stuff the way some people are," he says. "I like to have fun. But I'm trying to entertain people, not fool them." Significantly, it is usually Dawson himself who reveals to visitors the truth about Weissmuller's "office."