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Bartlett water ski show to thrill no more

Beloved mecca of Wisconsin aquatic kitsch water skis into history after 69 years, a victim of COVID-19.

Members of the Tommy Bartlett Water Show perform the triple helicopter maneuver at Lake Delton, Wisconsin.
Members of the Tommy Bartlett Water Show perform the triple helicopter maneuver at Lake Delton, Wisconsin.
Provided/Tommy Bartlett Show

The Palmer House Hilton closing indefinitely, I can endure through pure denial; it recovered from the Chicago Fire of 1871 and the Great Depression, it’ll somehow pull through COVID-19 and bounce back with its Wedgewood ceiling intact.

Ronny’s Steakhouse, well, having eaten there several times, I could accept its demise philosophically. Things happen.

But the Tommy Bartlett Show? The Water Thrill Show?

Noooooooooo!

Cut out the heart of the Dells — out of Wisconsin, out of the entire Midwest. Exile the ornate faux riverboat of Mr. Pancake to the salvage yard, sell the Packers to Austin, Texas and sign our country over to the Russians while you’re at it. White flag. We surrender.

I’m semi-serious. My family loved going to the Dells. Seeing the Tommy Bartlett Show was as American as apple pie.

”The boys liked the speedboats and clownery,” I reported after a 2002 visit, “and I savored the show as a pure form. One doesn’t get much chance to see a chorus line of gals doing the can-can on water skis, never mind a flag-waving pyramid streaking by to ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever.’”

Is that not America? How could that not survive? That is the central quality of the Midwest. We don’t quit. We continue. Did a duck boat sinking in Branson, Missouri, killing 17 people, put a stop to the Dells duck tours? Of course not. Did the death of Tommy Bartlett, famous radio star, slow his empire? No, the concept he expropriated in the early 1950s from Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Fla., kept going without him.

When Lake Delton was drained in 2008 — by heavy rains, ironically, which basically washed the basin away — the venue was transformed into a muddy expanse. And yet they recovered.

There was actually something really beautiful about the Tommy Bartlett facility.

”We even glimpsed a bit of the natural beauty that got the Dells going as a tourist attraction in the first place, 100 years ago,” I wrote in 2002. “Like most tourists, we didn’t bother seeking nature out, but it found us in the most unexpected place: the entrance walk to Tommy Bartlett’s Water Thrill Show, which turns out to be a cathedral of enormous pines, hushed and cool and not at all what you would expect to usher you into the inner sanctum of Wisconsin kitsch.”

If Tommy Bartlett cannot make it, what hope do any of us have?

The news just broke Wednesday, so I don’t want to panic. The Wisconsin Dells are Las Vegas designed for 7-year-olds, and where there is a buck to be made, there will be flash and sparkle designed to separate visitors from those bucks. Maybe this is all a trick, the way, in the late 1990s, Tommy Bartlett’s Robot World and Exploratory tried to convince the public that its dummy Mir spacecraft was actually the genuine article.

At least Robot World endures — an immensely cheesy collection of optical illusions picked up, for a song no doubt, from some defunct science museum, and robots of the garbage can/lightbulb nose variety. My boys adored Robot World.

We still do. When my lads were home for months in the early pandemic, and we were crawling the walls, I actually suggested the 186-mile drive to the Dells, just for a visit to Robot World and one more pumpkin pancake at Mr. Pancake. My wife put her foot down: the pancakes might be to die for, but that didn’t mean we should, you know, die for them.

Parts of the pandemic are so huge they defy understanding — 200,000 Americans dead, over triple the death toll of Vietnam in six months. Who can even pretend to feel that tragedy? But Tommy Bartlett closing his Water Thrill Show? That is a small loss that somehow slips through our defenses and strikes at the heart.