Master showman and broadcaster Tommy Bartlett (1914-1998) brought the thrill and theater of water skiing to millions of Americans. With his roots in radio broadcasting, Bartlett's entertainment career spanned more than 70 years and is today virtually synonymous with Wisconsin Dells, the home base for his aquatic extravaganza that helped transform the area into a major tourist destination. Ironically, the man that brought water skiing to the masses only skied himself once — on his 70th birthday.
Tommy Bartlett was born July 11, 1914, in Milwaukee. His career in radio began at WISN in Milwaukee when he was only 13. Four years later, in 1931, he went to Chicago, landing a job as staff announcer for CBS Radio without finishing high school. Bartlett was soon announcing as many as seven radio soap operas a day, as well as hosting a show called "Welcome Travelers." During World War II, Bartlett became a flight instructor for the Army Air Corps and worked briefly as an airline pilot following the war, but he soon returned to broadcasting.
In 1949 Bartlett saw a water-skiing show on the Chicago waterfront that forever changed his life. Watching dozens of performances that occurred during the Chicago Railroad Fair over the succeeding months, Bartlett soon turned his show business talent toward the development of a new and even more exciting brand of water ski show.
In 1952 the Tommy Bartlett Water Ski and Jumping Boat Thrill Show was born, and within three years Bartlett had as many as four shows on the road simultaneously. Introducing colorful costumes, jumping boats, skydivers, Polynesian dancers, and production themes, Bartlett took his performers to four World's Fairs, toured military bases with the USO, and participated in the President's Cultural Exchange Program. His show proved such a success in Wisconsin Dells that the local Chamber of Commerce invited him to make his show a permanent attraction in 1953.
Bartlett significantly expanded his Wisconsin Dells show in the 1970s, which contributed to the city's rise as a major vacation destination. More than 20 million people have seen his show, and it continues to be the longest running, live entertainment show of its kind.
Bartlett remained active in entertainment circles throughout his life, announcing the Calgary Stampede (Canada) from 1966 to 1992 and the medal winners at the 1988 Winter Olympics. In 1993 Bartlett was inducted into the Water Ski Hall of Fame in Cypress Gardens, Florida, and in 2003 into the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame. Bartlett died on September 6, 1998, in Madison at the age of 84.