We talk to a war reporter who was kidnapped in Syria. He looked at the risks of war journalism and concluded that for him, it’s not worth it. Then, we look at new fish consumption guidelines in Wisconsin, and meet a legendary Wisconsin showman who shaped tourism in the state.
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How Tommy Bartlett Put Wisconsin Dells On The Map
For many people, Tommy Bartlett is the first name that comes to mind when they think of water skiing, and for good reason: While the Wisconsin native didn’t invent the sport, there was arguably no more figure in the world who was more important when it came to promoting it.
Bartlett is probably best known as the founder of the “Tommy Bartlett Thrill Show” in the Wisconsin Dells, which has been entertaining tourists for more than 60 years.
“It’s a real tribute to Tommy that this has stood the test of time,” said Tom Diehl, the current owner of the “Tommy Bartlett Thrill Show”and Tommy Bartlett Exploratory. He chalks up the show’s success to Bartlett’s sense of showmanship, which he called “remarkable.”
Bartlett’s story began long before he put the Dells on the map. Born in Milwaukee, he began a career in broadcasting at an early age. After working for hometown radio station WISN, he moved to Chicago and hosted various shows on a CBS affiliate radio station there before breaking into television — which itself was no small feat.
“Tommy was one of the few radio personalities who made the transition to radio to TV,” said Diehl.
Because of his star status, Bartlett was asked to emcee the 1949 Chicago Railroad Fair. As a part of the show, a water ski team was brought in to perform, and Bartlett immediately saw the entertainment value in such a team.
Shortly afterwards, Bartlett traveled to Fond du Lac to meet with Carl Kiekhaefer, founder of Mercury Marine. The two struck a deal: Bartlett would provide a water-ski team if Kiekhaefer provided the boats and motors, and they would tour the country to bring water skiing to the masses.
Bartlett convinced Kiekhaefer that if they could increase interest in water skiing, Kiekhaefer would sell more boats and motors.
“And that started a relationship in 1949 that we still have today,” said Diehl.
The show began as a traveling act. According to Diehl, Bartlett had about three or four troupes of skiers touring North America. Soon, Bartlett brought the traveling show to the Wisconsin Dells, where it immediately turned heads.
“The local business community leaders were so enthralled with the quality of the show, and more importantly, Tommy’s tremendous name recognition,” said Diehl.
The local Chamber of Commerce convinced Bartlett to keep a permanent show in the Dells, which has been there since.
Diehl met up with Bartlett in 1967 when he was looking for work at a placement office in New York. Bartlett was looking for help managing a motel and restaurant he had purchased, and Diehl fit the bill.
“At that juncture, I barely knew where Wisconsin was, (much less) the Wisconsin Dells,” Diehl said.
But for Diehl, and many others, that lack of familiarity with the Dells would change quickly. “People here credit Tommy with creating the Dells that we have today,” he said.
He noted that in the past, members of the Wisconsin Dells Visitors and Convention Bureau referred to Bartlett as “Mr. Wisconsin Dells.”
“Tommy put Wisconsin Dells on the map as a viable tourism destination,” Diehl said.
Now, as the owner of the show, Diehl said he tries to channel Bartlett’s energy and passion into each performance.
“I’d like to believe that he instilled in me that same sense of value and showmanship that he had,” he said.
Bartlett died in 1998, but not before he strapped on water skis for the only time in his life, a move that Diehl orchestrated himself.
Diehl said that he had asked Bartlett: “What better way of getting PR for the show than by getting Tommy Bartlett to ski on his 70th birthday?”
Naturally, a showman couldn’t say no to that request. And in true form, he skied right past the audience, grinning and waving the entire time.
War Journalist Leaves The Battlefield Behind After Kidnapping
After he was kidnapped in Syria, our guest reporter took stock of the risks and rewards of war journalism and concluded – it’s not worth it.
Wisconsin DNR Issues New Fish Consumption Guidelines
Fish caught from Wisconsin lakes and rivers can be prepared for a healthy meal, but there are toxins and contamiants to worry about, too. A toxicologist talks about the DNR’s latest guidelines for eating Wisconsin fish.
Tommy Bartlett Was A Showman Par Excellence
This year brings the 100th anniversary of the birth of a Wisconsin entertainment phenomenon whose shows have been seen by 50 million people around the world. Anyone who’s gone to the Wisconsin Dells or put on a pair of water skis knows the name Tommy Bartlett. We’ll find out how a Milwaukee radio personality was able to create a water show that’s still going strong after more than 60 years.
- Rob Ferrett Host
- Veronica Rueckert Host
- Chris Malina Producer
- Tom Diehl Guest
- Tom A. Peter Guest
- Candy Schrank Guest
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