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“The Tommy Bartlett Show: A Revival, not a Eulogy”

The Tommy Bartlett Show
Certificate of Excellence
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Owner description: The Tommy Bartlett Show is a 90-minute, live show featuring a combination of fast-paced waterskiing, thrilling stage performances, breathtaking feats, family-friendly comedy, dazzling staging and light and water displays. A 15-minute intermission is scheduled between the water-ski and stage portions of the Show. A local tradition for more than 65 years!
Reviewed 14 July 2008

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.

5  Thank Smythe77654
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC
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Reviewed 10 July 2008

We saw this show many years ago and thought it was really good, but we were very disappointed with the no H2O show. The acts were second rate and not very good. We realize they had to make major adjustments with the disappearance of Lake Delton, but they could have done better.

1  Thank MichiganOreo
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC
Reviewed 28 June 2008

I have to admit when my son wanted to go to this show I reluctantly went along. We went last year and was just ok. This year however, because of the drainage of the lake there was no water portion of the show. I know this is intended to be a water show but this year show was 100 times better than last. The comedian addition and the sound effect guy made the show. It was great! Don't miss out on this this show because there is no H2O!

3  Thank tigerrocil
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC
Reviewed 23 June 2008

Due to Lake Delton draining out, I didn't get to see the original show. Instead, they flew in "Mr. Sound Effects" and Dieter (something or other) which were comedy acts. They were funny but it would have been nice to see the actual show but of course it was no fault of their own.

Of course the price was a little steep but then again, EVERYTHING IN THE DELLS IS EXPENSIVE. I get tired of reading people complaining about it. It's a tourist trap, get over it.

I would recommend this show, water or no water.

2  Thank rem1979
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC
Reviewed 21 August 2007

This is Midwestern family entertainment at its best. My 8, 10, and 12 year olds all loved the show. They thought it was awesome. They of course loved the water skiing the most. It was a thrilling and well paced first half to the show. The second half had a pretty good comic juggler, as jugglers go. I was pleasantly surprised by his performance. The death wheel thrilled my kids. The other acrobatics left my kids underwhelmed. The dancing waters show was very nice, if a bit long.

The closing laser show was themed to Lee Greenwood's "Proud to be an American". Some call it jingoistic. I call it a heart string tugger to be with all those God fearing Midwesterners reveling in being a proud American. If you're a flaming liberal, avoid the evening show and you'll be fine. Leave the evening show to those of us willing to die for our country.

Given the length and quality of the show, I don't think the price was all that bad. The only negative was the better seating had chairs set too high off the ground, cutting off circulation to the lower parts of our legs.

1  Thank Mighty_Road_Warrior
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC

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