Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Bartlett, Tommy (1914-1998)

Tommy Bartlett | Wisconsin Historical Society
Tommy Bartlett (1914-1998) b. Milwaukee, July 11, 1914
d. Madison, September 6, 1998

Master showman and broadcaster Tommy Bartlett brought the thrill and theater of water skiing to millions of Americans. With roots in radio broadcasting, Bartlett's entertainment career spanned more than 70 years and is now virtually synonymous with Wisconsin Dells. The popular resort destination served as Bartlett's home base for his aquatic extravaganza. This attraction helped transform the area into a major tourist destination. Ironically, the man that brought water skiing to the masses only skied on one occasion — his 70th birthday.

Bartlett's Early Experiences in Show Business

Tommy Bartlett was born on July 11, 1914 in Milwaukee. His radio career began at WISN in Milwaukee at age 13. A mere four years later in 1931, he went to Chicago and landed a job as a staff announcer for CBS Radio without finishing high school. Bartlett was soon announcing up to seven radio soap operas a day and hosted 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 after the war. However, he soon returned to his broadcasting career.

A Chicago Water-Skiing Show Changes Everything

In 1949, Bartlett saw a water-skiing show on the Chicago waterfront that changed his life. He was intrigued by the spectacle and wanted to become a part of the excitement. Bartlett watched dozens of performances during the Chicago Railroad Fair over the succeeding months and soon put his show business talent to work. His goal was to develop a new and even more exciting brand of water ski show.

A Legend is Born: the Excitement and Innovation of Tommy Bartlett's Shows

In 1952, the Tommy Bartlett Water Ski and Jumping Boat Thrill Show was born. His show proved to be such a success in Wisconsin Dells that the local Chamber of Commerce invited him to make his show a permanent attraction in 1953. Within three years, Bartlett had as many as four shows on the road at once. Bartlett introduced colorful costumes, jumping boats, skydivers, Polynesian dancers, and production themes to his productions. He took his performers to four World's Fairs, toured military bases with the USO, and participated in the President's Cultural Exchange Program.

Becoming a Fixture of the Wisconsin Dells Experience

Bartlett significantly expanded his Wisconsin Dells show in the 1970s. This contributed to the city's rise as a major vacation destination. More than 20 million people to date have seen his show. It remains the longest-running live entertainment show of its kind.

Bartlett remained active in entertainment circles throughout his life. He announced the Calgary Stampede in Canada from 1966 to 1992. Bartlett also had the honor of announcing the medal winners at the 1988 Winter Olympics. In 1993, Bartlett was inducted into the Water Ski Hall of Fame in Cypress Gardens, Florida. He was also inducted into the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame in 2003. Bartlett passed on September 6, 1998, in Madison at the age of 84 away after a long, successful career.