Reef Lounge partons enjoy the underwater theater at the Handerly Hotel and Resort (formerly the Stardust)

The Reef Lounge

by John McGehee on June 16, 2011

When I was about four, we vacationed at the Handerly Hotel & Resort in San Diego (formerly the Stardust Motor Hotel).  That place was heaven on earth as far as I was concerned.  I loved the pool.  Next to the pool there was a bar, and behind the bar was an underwater theater.  It was here that I saw one of the most outlandish scenes I have ever witnessed.

The door to the bar was open.  I peered inside to see two scuba divers capturing a mermaid with a net! This was so weird that for years I suspected I might have just imagined it all.

Well, during my recent trip to the Design Automation Conference in San Diego, I stopped by the Handerly to check up on my memory.  It was true.  The staff directed me to a photograph of Reef Lounge patrons enjoying an underwater show with their drinks.  Apparently the midnight show even featured topless synchronized swimmers.

Reef Lounge empty pool at Handerly Hotel and Resort, San Diego, CA

Empty pool behind the bar, camouflaged by a plywood façade

I assumed that even if it once existed, the underwater theater would have been demolished long ago.  In fact the structure still exists, but the bar is now the corporate office, and the pool is dry.  Indeed, demolishing such a huge concrete structure would be very expensive and disruptive to the hotel’s operation.

I just wish I could remember whether the mermaid was topless.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Vintage Roadside November 15, 2011 at 14:20

Great post John! How great you actually got to see the Reef (even if the memory is a little fuzzy :-) If you ever make it out to Montana, you can still stay at a 1960s motor lodge complete with a mermaid show in the lounge. It’s called the Sip ‘n Dip and is located in Great Falls, Montana. Florida also has the amazing Wreck Bar in Ft. Lauderdale and Sacramento has the brand new Dive Bar.

However to our knowledge none of the above have scuba divers netting any of the mermaids!

John McGehee December 3, 2011 at 10:06

“…netting any of the mermaids!”

All those mermaids in Montana, and not one get netted! You have such gentlemanly scuba divers in Great Falls.

leslie m September 25, 2012 at 10:29

Depending on the show you saw it probably wasn’t topless. The show had one act that was topless from about 1978-1981. The swimming was fantastic and the girls very talented! It’s nice to know there are other such places around the country, it’s quite amazing!
It closed down about 1981.

Harry October 17, 2012 at 08:28

Dear John:
I thoroughly enjoyed your comments. My mom and dad moved from Toronto in 1960 when I had just turned 3 years old. My dad, an on the road salesman made it a point to take mom and I to San Diego and Tijuana for weekend getaways as early as 1962. The corporate hotel he used throughout the year was the Stardust. I marveled at the lit up tower at the lobby entrance and on many stays mom and dad dressed me up as early as 6 years old and took me to the early 9:00pm underwater ballet. I remember them putting me to bed and they would run out for a nightcap and see the evening topless mermaids at the midnight show. In 1972 we recreated one of those weekends for my 15th birthday. I remember the hotel was under renovation and we found the room not to our expectations. The Hanalei next door was booked so we made the best of it.. The ballet had closed and I don’t recall the Reef being open. Around 1974 my best buddy and I ventured down to San Diego for a day trip and hit a bucket of balls and walked the property. Yes, the facade was up and around the pool up top was a storage area. The lounge was closed, but the kiddy pool I used to swim in backside of the Reef had been filled in and was a garden. The second week of November my wife Sammie and I are booked at the Crown Plaza Hanalei next door and I am looking forward to a cocktail and venture over to the Handerly Stardust and maybe plan our next stay there. John, I’ve always thought a recreation would fly as a retro club here in SoCal, same theme. I am retiring at 55 in December. If I hit the California Lottery and I have a few extra $$$ I have a wonderful design team to consult. Perhaps you and I can raise some venture capital and start a chain, hahaha! Looking forward to exploring the Montana posts. Again sorry to be so wordy but got caught up in the moment and enjoyed your post. Be well, Harry

otto June 24, 2013 at 22:56

unfortunately the heir to the Handlery hotels hates historic sites because they get in the way of his profits

John Handlery (Harry’s grandson?) closed the very popular, successful, and historic Gold Dust Lounge and is now vindictively going after the equally historic site of Lefty O’Doul’s

John M. October 4, 2013 at 22:16

Yes, they were definately topless. My father, brother and I would stay there when my father had business in Mexico.
One night while my father was enjoying the show inside, my brother and I snuck around back and climbed up to where the topless ‘mermaids’ came up for air. It was a magical sight for a 13 year old – definately topless!

Scott winder February 20, 2014 at 06:32

I saw the topless mermaid show in 1977 or 1978. The mermaids were also cocktail waitresses between shows. I flirted with every one of them. It was amazing. I am glad to have found this site because I too was was wondering if it was a dream from the past.

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Bobby June 3, 2014 at 16:12

Yes, the midnight show featured a couple topless swimmers. I was early 20s then, we would hang out on the top of the tank and talk to the girls when they came up for air. They were students at SD State, and other local colleges. Current and former swim team athletes…they said the money was hugh

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