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A Dive into History: Water Carnival Performer Beverly Graham Forson

Beverly Graham and Jay Leonard
Beverly Graham and Jay Leonard practicing on the trapeze for the Water Carnival, 1944

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk stands as an icon of seaside entertainment; history and nostalgia intertwined to create stories that endure the test of time. Recently, Ted Whiting and myself had the extraordinary privilege of sitting down with Beverly Graham Forson, to dive into the captivating tale of her awe-inspiring performance during the famous Plunge Water Carnivals at the Boardwalk back in the 1940s when she was just a child.

Ted and Beverly
Ted Whiting and Beverly Graham Forson, 2023

The Plunge Water Carnivals, a series of weekly aquatic spectacles that graced the Boardwalk’s indoor pool, were a highlight of the entertainment calendar in the 1930s and 1940s. Produced by Skip Littlefield–a competitive swimmer himself–these events featured a dazzling array of competitive swimming feats, clown antics, water ballet, and in the case of young Beverly, gravity-defying acrobatic feats high above the pool.

Helen Graham and Gary Beall
Beverly’s sister Helen (left) and Beverly’s cousin, Gary Beall (right)

Beverly is not the first Water Carnival performer we have had the privilege of talking to. Back in 2016, we conducted an oral history interview with Fred Quadros Jr. Sadly, Fred passed away in 2023, but his story lives on.

Skip and Beverly
Skip (left) and Beverly (right), 1946

As we sat down with Beverly, she recounted her tales in the Plunge with much fondness; the memories of her childhood performances etched in her heart. Beverly’s journey into the world of aquatic acrobatics began with an adventurous spirit shared by her family. Beverly’s sister, Helen, would bring her to the Plunge for her competitive swim training session with Skip. Beverly recalled, “I was always tagging along because she was eight years older than me, but she took me everywhere. She was the best sister anyone could ever have.” During these practices she caught the eye of Skip who asked her if she wanted to join the Water Carnival. Beverly went on to perform in the Ring Ballet, Flying Trapeze, and the Aerial Human Triangle.

Beverly and Ditty Thomas
Water Carnival performers Beverly Graham and Ditty Thomas, 1944

Local children, drawn by the allure of the Boardwalk’s indoor pool, gathered to practice and perfect their routines on Thursdays under the guidance of Skip. Beverly recalls practicing outside the pool as well: “We had a ranch there in Scotts Valley…And my dad and oldest brother, Bill, they rigged rings from the peak of the barn for me to practice.”

Their performances on Saturday nights captured the hearts of Santa Cruz residents and visitors alike. The acrobatic feats performed by Beverly and her peers were nothing short of mesmerizing. For the “Aerial Human Triangle,” Shirley Whightman would be hanging upside-down by her knees from the trapeze bar suspended high above the pool. Two other performers, including Beverly, would then fly off another trapeze in succession catching Shirley’s hands. And Fred Quadros Jr. would then daringly dive through the center of the triangle created by their arms. The audience, a mix of locals and tourists, would marvel at the youthful exuberance and astonishing skill displayed by these young aquatic athletes.

Beverly in Neptune's Kingdom
Beverly visits Neptune’s Kingdom (formerly the Plunge) where she performed in the Water Carnivals as a child, 2023

As Beverly shared her memories, it became evident that the Plunge Water Carnivals were more than just a series of events. “I just loved my time in the carnival that I still think of that…it was really special,” Beverly expressed.

Before leaving, Beverly donated two of her Water Carnival costumes to the Boardwalk Archives. The glittering swimwear, sewn by her mother, an amazing artifact of a remarkable time in the Boardwalk’s history. In documenting Beverly’s journey, we not only preserve a piece of Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk history but also pay homage to the resilience, creativity, and sheer joy that defined the Plunge Water Carnivals.

Beverly's Water Carnival costumes
Beverly’s Water Carnival costumes

As the interview concluded, we couldn’t help but feel a profound sense of gratitude for the opportunity to unearth and preserve such a precious chapter of Boardwalk History. Beverly’s tale is now woven into the rich tapestry of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a testament to the enduring magic that has made this iconic seaside destination a timeless treasure for all who visit.

Ted, Beverly, and Savanna
Beverly (center) reminisces about the Water Carnival with her grand daughter, Savanna (right), and Ted Whiting (left) in front of the Historium display in Neptune’s Kingdom

 

‘Til next time,

Jessie

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