The Unexplained: Who was Glurpo the Clown?

Glurpo the Clow performing at Aquarena Springs. Courtesy of University Archives, Texas State University

At a time when clowns were not usually frightening, Glurpo was popular with an act that included silly underwater antics, even blowing smoke from an underwater pipe. 

“I think Glurpo was Stephen King’s inspiration for It.” This is what one comment said on a page about Glurpo the Clown.

But who was Glurpo the Clown?  Why was he?

In San Marcos, Texas, there once was a bizarrely fascinating amusement park centered around natural water formations of the San Marcos River.  Aquarena Springs was its name.  Developers were able to showcase the flora and fauna found in the crystal-clear water, and they even built a submarine theater—the world’s only submarine theater.   One wall of the theater was thick glass with a small auditorium facing it.  Those in the seats could look right into the underwater scenes of the basin pool that formed Spring Lake, part of the San Marcos River system.

If going into the auditorium made you claustrophobic, you could go for a river cruise in a glass-bottomed boat, instead.  There, you could gaze down beneath your feet and see a fantasy land of activity as the boat wove its way through giant lily pads.  Warm bubbles would rise up from the limestone floor bed.  Most tourists decided to try both—the submarine theater and the glass-bottom boats.

The acts in the submarine theater were sort of borrowed from the Weeki Watchee Springs park in Florida.  Some of the performers were poached, also.

A person in the theater could see underwater mermaids, renamed Aquamaids.  The Aquamaids held their breaths while they did underwater ballet, skits, and tricks,   They held underwater picnics, drank bottled drinks, blew bubble rings and fed passing fish.  They occasionally took hits of compressed air from underwater air hoses.

Sara Marie Hogg

The real star of the show was an underwater pig called Ralph.  Ralph, the swimming pig, was introduced in the 1950s.  The part of Ralph was played by many young pigs.  The pig started his performance by diving into the water—his Swine Dive.  He carried a baby bottle of milk and swam after the human performers until one would stop and feed him from the bottle.  Ralph’s earthly abode was called Ralph’s Pig Palace.  Ralph could be spotted running on land at intervals throughout the day and always drew a crowd of giggling children.

At some point, an underwater clown, christened Glurpo, was added.  At a time when clowns were not usually frightening to children, Glurpo was popular.  Glurpo’s act included various silly underwater antics.  Sometimes he blew smoke from an underwater pipe.

The smoke was condensed milk powder stuffed into the pipe before the show. He would come right up to the glass window to interact with the audience members, especially the children.  He did an optical illusion with a framed mirror.  He pointed it at the kids in the theater audience and pretended to snap their picture as their image appeared in the frame.

He was so popular that they added a female clown, Glurpette, and Bublio, who became Glurpo’s trusty sidekick.

Glurpo had a very important job to do when he wasn’t performing his underwater antics.  It was Glurpo’s responsibility to watch the cues of the various Aquamaids and get the air hose of compressed air into their awaiting hands as inconspicuously as possible.  It was important as the Aquamaids had held their breaths as long as they could before they cued for an air refill.

Glurpo wore special billowing nylon outfits and wore a rubber clown mask with a bulbous red nose and pointy eyebrows.  A tiny cowboy hat sat on the top of his head.

In a bold move, Glurpo ran for San Marcos Junior Chamber of Commerce office and he even ran for President of the State.  His image appeared on posters and handbills—handbills that no doubt were handed out by boys doing park clean-up duty.

A Texas Monthly article by Emily McCullar hints that Glurpo is quite a mystery man, that his actual birth date is not known.  Little was known about him.  He was just someone who was introduced in the 1950s as comic relief for the Aquamaids’ routine.

Not only was Glurpo’s birth date a mystery, where he came from is just as much a mystery.  After the park shut down, it was just as big a mystery as to where Glurpo disappeared.

Glurpo, clown of mystery, no beginning, no end?   I could not leave this alone.  It was time to do some deep diving, so to speak.

I believe that I had actually seen Glurpo once, Ralph the Pig, and the fabulous Aquamaids on a honeymoon side-trip in 1974.  Dallas and Austin radio stations peppered the public with ads for the unique amusement park and I was drawn to see it.  How could Glurpo not have a known history?

I began to dig and dig and found out that Glurpo was possibly several people.  Maybe even Glurpo was portrayed by nearby college students on summer break. I have found two, possibly.

Bob Phillips seemed to be the main Glurpo.  His older brother had worked at the park and Bob followed in his footsteps in about 1960.  They were fairly young when they started sweeping up cigarette butts in the parking lot.  The youngsters were called butt boys, according to Bob.

They were also supposed to try to talk uncooperative tourists into letting them put an advertising bumper sticker on their automobiles—no easy task.  They made a quarter an hour.  Bob stated that he got a bad case of goof-off-itis and decided to quit his butt boy career.

Several years later, about 1964, Bob’s father was wooed away from his business as an oil transporter.  He was asked to become assistant manager of Aquarena Springs.  He sold his oil transport business to take the job.  Bob went on the site as inside park cleaner, then glass-bottom boat driver, then underwater gardener—the water was constantly 72 degrees.  He then advanced to Glurpo the Clown.

His father moved up to manager and later advanced in the Texas Tourism industry.

Bob graduated from the local Southwest Texas State in 1972.

This brings us to another possible Glurpo, John Burton Roberts, Jr., 1944-2021.  When researching Glurpo, I ran across an epitaph for Robert that stated, “From Glurpo the Clown at Aquarena Springs to Chairman and President of Busch Entertainment Corporation, John spent his life living his dreams and entertaining people.”

This same blurb about Glurpo appears in several articles about Roberts, so this indicates to me that he played the part of Glurpo at some point, when he was a young man.  He graduated from San Marcos High and Texas State University.

The lifespan of Aquarena Springs was from 1951 to 1994.  It closed in 1994 when Texas State University bought the land and converted the buildings to the Meadows Center of Water and the Environment.  Known as Aquarena Center, it is a place where you can still book a glass-bottom boat tour.

Please click HERE to find Sara Marie Hogg’s mystery, The Scavenger’s Song, on Amazon.

, , , , , , , , ,

Related Posts