The Tommy Bartlett Sky and Water Show in 2008 is a testament to fortitude, with the performers and staff’s bubbly attitudes beaming hope after the natural disaster of Lake Delton draining in early June. The show has a 52 year history of laughs and thrills and is deeply fixed in the lore of the Wisconsin Dells. A land of curly waterslide tubes protruding from western-themed hotels, and newfangled eateries with names like Buffalo Phil’s and Moosejaw, the Dells mystique is anchored by its vacationing past. The Duck Boat Tours, Storybook Land (on its last fiscal leg), The Wonder Spot (closed permanently), miniature golf, Ishnala on Mirror Lake (now for sale), window-made fudge—all kitschy fun! The Tommy Bartlett Show is an icon of this Wisconsin vacation spot, and I applaud the ethos of the performers who forge on despite the signature water-ski portion of the show being decimated by the draining of the lake. The historic ski jump ramps are currently stranded on wet sand like ships run aground at low tide.
Tourists throughout the Dells are being offered free tickets—a recent news article states that the Kalihari Resort Hotel alone purchased ninety thousand tickets to show support for Tommy Bartlett—and my family of nine couldn’t pass up a chance to see the revamped, waterless stage show. We had planned to pay, but with free tickets as part of the room rate, we used the freebies.
The 4:30PM Friday show, even on this sunny post-July Fourth summer day, held only about 200 visitors in an open air amphitheater that maxes out at 5500 spectators. The show sparked off with Pedro Rodriguez scaling a 75 foot pole and swaying by his feet, and pulsed along for almost ninety minutes with memorable performances such as cigar box and chainsaw juggler TJ Howell (and his unicycling sons) and Cirque Equinox, a triplet of stunning young ladies who can shimmy hula hoops and climb ropes like enchanting serpents.
Not every act can be a show-stopper. Wes Harrison, returning from his retirement as a 1990s Bartlett regular, spun tall tales punctuated by loud mouth and tongue sound effects--mostly frightening lip smacks into a PA system set at maxium volume. Freight trains, horses, guns and dropping doorknobs (see the show and you’ll hear what a plastic versus brass door knob sounds like—no kidding!). Wes’s sound effects are convincing, yet emphasized outdated mimickery of horses and guns; not exactly pulse-pounding for the video game and police siren generation. Another example is Aqua the Clown, a gem on the water with flips and zany wipe outs when I last saw this show in 2005. In 2008, he ribbed the audience unconvincingly and seemed emasculated outside his natural element of water-skis.
The favorite act of the adults in my family was that of German-born Dieter Tasso, shedding his Sarasota rocking chair for the Wisconsin stage to help Tom Diehl and his staff limp through the 2008 show season. A true professional, Dieter fired one knee-slapper after another, and even quipped about the dry lake and people being able to walk over to the show from the “cheap seats” at the Ravina Restaurant across the dry bay. “You like? I do it again,” he’d quip after flipping his top hat and later, a stack of teacups, onto his bald head. More than just a human walrus, Dieter Tasso has played for years at burlesque venues such as the Crazy Horse in Paris, and was a guest on Ed Sullivan and other network shows. His professional shtick was a side-splitter for his entire 20 minute act.
The afternoon was full of “guts and gusto” from performers and staff who are making the best of a rather dire situation for the Tommy Bartlett Show. We spent much time conjecturing whether, despite the effort, this iconic but seasonal show—a quintessential summer stock, vaudeville ensemble effort—can weather the rains that literally tore a hole in Lake Delton. Despite the parched lake bed, the entire show is a “watered-down” version of the past. Is providing this “Mini Me” spectacular--for free--to a sea of empty blue plastic seats, truly showing the best side of the Tommy Bartlett Show, or is it merely spreading the word that the Tommy Bartlett Show is finished? The several dozen spectators during our showing seemed unmotivated to even hit the souvenir or snack stands, and one snack bar attendant chided, “Now serving number zero. No line, no waiting.” A maudlin tone hovered over the entire show just as a vulture glides above a dying mouse. Comely Angelina, for instance, only minutes before her breath-taking performance jumping hoops onstage in her blue-sequined leotard, was schlepping two dollar show programs up and down the aisles like a beer jockey at a White Sox game. Even the show’s Wheels of Death, ten stories up with a spinning wheel and gymnastic thrills, seemed dwarfed by the lunar backdrop of the desert-like lake bed.
Tom Diehl took ownership of the Tommy Bartlett Show less than ten years ago, and now he and his staff are not only getting drenched by the rain of new, “one stop: eat, play and sleep” mega resorts, but they have now been struck by "lightening" as their natural, lake stage has split houses on it’s raging exit to the Wisconsin River. "Elvis--er, Lake Delton has left the building." I pray that the Tommy Bartlett staff can revive the tradition from its current “code blue” and continue to perform for future generations of cotton-candy eating families.
Let us all pay for a ticket to the show in 2008—or at least t-shirts and food—and may the family of hard-working and talented people that form the Tommy Bartlett Show have our prayers for a full fiscal recovery by 2009. And may 265 acre Lake Delton once again flush its rocky banks with tannin-tinged Dells Creek waters and support the tourist industry that has floated the Wisconsin Dells for over 100 years.
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