Dancer, actress and Bruce Mozert model Peggy Mixon Singer Collins takes us on a sentimental journey through her life at Silver Springs and in the spotlight.
Down a winding back road in the small community of Ocklawaha in southern Marion County lies a charming bungalow nestled on the shore of Lake Weir. An ancient live oak, draped in Spanish moss, stretches out over the side lawn like a colossus opening its arms and offering a wide embrace. A silky breeze works its way through the tree’s graceful limbs, its ample canopy laying out a blanket of shade that beckons one to sit a spell and sip some sweet tea. Through the screen door comes a soft, distinctly Southern female voice, “Well, hello there. Come on in,” the yet unseen woman offers in a honeyed tone. The door opens slightly and the lady of house peers out with a wide smile that beckons one forward.
Before a rollercoaster of adventures took her away to Hollywood, Las Vegas, New York and other far-flung destinations—and then back again—this dear lady lived here with her parents and older sister Margie. Now, at 89 years old, she shares the home with her beloved husband Julius.
After introductions, we settle in the sitting room. A television in the next room is playing a classic black and white film to no one in particular, the spunky blonde heroine bantering with her virile leading man. It is mostly indistinguishable, except for the familiar swelling soundtrack that brackets each plot twist with the promise of romance or danger. Peggy Ann Mixon, as she was known when she first inhabited this house, settles down next to me on the sofa.
Like so many of the individuals who have been a part of the colorful history of Silver Springs, she has endless tales about her many wondrous adventures. Julius settles on a sofa across the room from us, grinning in anticipation of what he knows is coming.
“As a little girl, I would get in front of the mirror and make up some dance steps,” she offers, flashing
that irrepressible smile. “I always knew I wanted to be a performer.”
Like a chain reaction, Julius lights up and begins grinning—their connection apparent, even from across the room—his delight and occasional chuckle punctuating her stories.
“I used to go to the movies…all the musicals, I would take some steps from them,” she continues. “I entertained for everybody I could…the Lions Club, the Jaycees.”
Her drive to perform had her traveling for hours to receive formal dance training while she was still in school.
“Before we moved here, we lived at the Hotel Florida on North Magnolia Street. Daddy owned the hotel,” she explains. “I decided to go to Jacksonville for dance lessons. I would take one bus to Jacksonville and catch another bus to the studio. By the time I got there, I would only have 30 minutes with the instructor before I had to head home again. But it was just wonderful.”
She soon put her training to good use. “I taught with Billy Dedman at the first dancing studio in Ocala. It was at the skating rink. He taught the adults and I taught children. We had to string up sheets with safety pins between us and teach our classes on either side.”
In short order, thanks to her signature brand of pluck, she managed to cast herself into the spotlight.
“I got to entertain with Elliot Lawrence and his orchestra at the old gymnasium in Ocala,” she recalls gleefully. “The way I got to do that was that I went to the president of the association that was putting it on and said, ‘Hey, that orchestra is coming up. Can’t you get me in? Why can’t you let me slip up there and do a number?’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll have to call somebody.’ He called and sure enough, he said, ‘Well, all right.’ Mother sewed and made all my costumes. They were darling,” she continues wistfully. “They made an announcement and took me straight up to the stage. You should have seen the crowd. I did my number “Hello! My Baby.” That was my go-to,” she offers, breaking into song. “Hello, my baby, hello, my honey, hello, my ragtime gal…”
The lyrics include the line, “Baby, my heart’s on fire.” Which was especially apt where young Peggy was concerned—hers was a flame destined to burn bright.
Mid-century America was a magical place, with seemingly endless possibilities. Post-war confidence fueled the popularity of everything from roadside diners to fantastical tourist destinations like Silver Springs, with its many attractions and amusements. Developed in the late 19th century, the springs became a thriving attraction for both its natural wonders and entertainment park. In its heyday, in the 1960s, the number of guests visiting Silver Springs topped 1 million a year. One of the most popular draws was Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute, which operated from 1930 until 1965.
“When I was in school, I worked for Ross Allen,” Collins says, of how she first came to know the noted herpetologist. “He had a little office. I used to type and answer correspondence from people wanting to buy snakes and lizards. I didn’t much care for them. The first time I held one…he tricked me and just threw it at me,” she continues with a chuckle. “I had to catch it. After that, I’d pick them up when people wanted to see them. But I didn’t like it.”
Her brushes with wild creatures didn’t end there, however. Another park employee, Eddie Vereen, used to delight in playing tricks on her.
“He tied a little old wildcat to my chair one day. I opened the door and there it was, spitting at me,” she remembers. “Course it was all done in fun. One morning I pulled up and I saw this beautiful dog tied up outside the office. I stooped down and I just started loving on him,” she continues. “Eddie said, ‘Peggy, do you know what you’re petting? That’s a coyote.’ But I loved him up anyway. When I’d go home at night, he’d stand up against the fence, watching me and he’d howl. Isn’t that something? I just fell in love with him.”
Eventually she went to work with Bruce Mozert in his photography studio. “I would take the photos of the guests in the glass bottom boats.”
But Mozert also observed that she had a way with animals, especially a leopard named Lolita. One day, he said, “Go and get your bathing suit on and let’s take some pictures,” she recalls.
“I liked Lolita and she liked me,” Collins offers. “But that day, they had me hold her with a rope, so she wrenched my arm and dragged me into a ditch. Then we got set up again and Bruce was snapping pictures when she started mouthing my arm.
I had red marks all up and down. That’s when Bruce said, ‘OK, that’s enough of that.’ But they made the picture into a postcard.”
Soon a different type of picture was calling and would put Collins on a path to realizing her greatest ambitions. The first movie filmed at Silver Springs was in 1916 and the area continued to be a filming hotspot through the 1950s. In 1951, Warner Brothers Pictures came to Silver Springs to film Distant Drums, starring legendary leading man Gary Cooper. Her likeness to the film’s leading lady, ingénue Mari Aldon, led to her being cast as Aldon’s double.
“I did everything she didn’t want to do, trudged through the sawgrass, went into the swamp with the alligators. Big gators! They were coming right at me and the director starts yelling, ‘Get the girl! Get the girl!’” Collins explains of a close call. “Then this came out in the newspaper,” she continues, gesturing to a yellowing newspaper clipping featuring a photo of the two women standing side by side in matching costumes. The text proclaims, Lovely Peggy Ann Mixon of Ocala, out-lovelies the lovely Mari Aldon.
“She did not like that,” she offers. “I know it seems silly, but I think she was jealous.”
Collins gave it her all and enjoyed every moment anyway. She even managed to get her sister Margie cast in the film, which led to a romance between Margie and the film’s cinematographer Sidney Hickox.
“Margie had planned to marry Sid after the film,” Collins reveals. “That’s how I got out to Hollywood. We took off in a brand-new car.”
The romance was ill-fated, however, and soon Margie was headed back home.
“I thought, what am I going to do? I decided, I’m gonna stay! I had heard about the Hollywood Studio Club,” Collins recalls of the famous chaperoned dormitory for young women pursuing a career in the entertainment business, run by the Young Women’s Christian Association. Such stars as Marilyn Monroe, Kim Novak, Rita Moreno and Barbara Eden all lived there for a time.
“I went down there and talked to the lady who ran everything. She didn’t have a vacancy. But I said, ‘But ya gotta have one for me! Because here I am,’” once again intoning that irresistible moxie that had served her so well. “I don’t know anybody. And so, she said, ‘Well, I have one girl coming, but if she’s five minutes late…the place is yours.’ Well, that other girl was five minutes late and I got in the room!”
Soon Collins was moving at a breakneck speed, shooting publicity shots, going on auditions and booking jobs. She saw nothing but possibilities ahead of her.
“I was lucky because I was always picked,” she explains of landing roles in variety shows. “That was the beginning of Hollywood for me. I got to do both dancing and the slapstick skits. It was wonderful.”
The auditions were often for nightclub shows around the country and eventually led to Collins working at the legendary Silver Slipper Casino in Las Vegas.
“Most performers did three shows a night. We did four. No nights off!” she declares. “We did all sorts of dances and all in spike heels. We also did comedic things. I was full of energy and I just loved it. That was what I wanted from the time I was a little girl, to dance and do stage work. I loved an audience. I just came alive every time I got in front of an audience.”
And because they were still performing after all the other shows on the strip had finished for the night, their late shows drew an unusually esteemed audience.
“All the stars came to the fourth show,” Collins explains. “We had Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Milton Berle…you name it. Howard Hughes used to slip in every night after the lights went down and sit in the front row.”
She even had the opportunity to perform with the USO.
“Those boys were thrilled. They were starved for entertainment,” she recalls. “I did my number and it really went over. They hollered three times for an encore. And I did it three more times. I couldn’t believe it. When things like that happened, I really felt I accomplished what I set out to do…to entertain.”
After marrying and returning to Los Angeles with her then-husband Bill Singer, she found herself in the family way. Soon they relocated to New York City.
“I am so thankful that I had my boy when I did,” Collins admits, sharing that a later struggle with cancer left her without the ability to have more children. “I just love my boy. He’s a doctor in Orlando. Dr. William Singer. I am so proud of him.”
It was also an illness that brought her back home.
“Mother got ill and Margie called and said, ‘You have to come,’” Collins remembers. “So I did.”
By that point her marriage was failing, and the couple decided to go their separate ways. It wasn’t long before she was back working for Ross Allen. She and son Billy would eventually move into the family home, but something was missing.
“I used to sit on that dock out there and pray that I would find a bachelor,” she recalls.
It just so happened there was an eligible one living right down the road and mutual friends conspired to get them together.
“One day we were out swimming and he was sitting in the screen porch. I had a bikini bathing suit on with a little lace cover up,” she admits with a chuckle. One of my girlfriends said, ‘Peggy, go on over and ask for a cup of sugar.’ I tapped on the door and I say, ‘I need a cup of sugar.’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t have any sugar, but I can offer you a drink.’”
“She made quite an impression,” Julius, who works as a Florida state engineer, offers up with a wide grin. “Yes, she did.”
“He fell in love with me and I fell in love with him,” Collins asserts. “In fact, my son fell in love with him too. He said, ‘Don’t let this one get away, Momma!’ We all loved each other.”
By now, a musical with soaring production numbers has replaced the noir film on the television. Collins is tapping her toe in time with the music.
“What else?” she asks mostly of herself, while flipping through the pages of her scrapbook. “Here’s a publicity photo of me up on top of one of the boats. They snapped the picture and then the boat took off with me on top. I was up there for the whole tour. When I left, they actually had a cake made for me shaped like a glass-bottom boat,” she explains, with a laugh, of her retirement from Silver Springs in 1988. “I thought that was so sweet. I just loved all the people and the times we spent together. Those were the days!”