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‘Tommy Bartlett Show’ celebrates 60 years at the Wisconsin Dells


The Tommy Bartlett Show performances are 4:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. daily through Sept. 2. General admission: adults, $21; children 6-11, $11; seniors 65 and over $16.80 (add $3 per ticket for reserved seating). Visit or call (608) 254-2525.

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Updated: August 23, 2012 6:05AM

WISCONSIN DELLS, Wis. — The “Tommy Bartlett Show” has survived video games, water-themed parks and a 2008 celebration that was ruined when rainfalls broke the Lake Delton shoreline. The 12-foot deep lake emptied into the Wisconsin River. Water skiing was curtailed, but acrobats and jugglers continued to perform on land.

The Bartlett show without water is like Santa without snow.

But the gig always goes on and “The Tommy Bartlett Show” is celebrating its 60th anniversary this summer.

Anyone who grew up in the Chicago area is familiar with the unique Bartlett presentation of water skiing and circus hi jinx on the tree-lined shores of Lake Delton. Signs promote it as “The Greatest Show on H20” and, indeed, “The Tommy Bartlett Show” is the longest-running professional ski show in the world. (Cypress Gardens closed in 2009 ending a 73-year run.;

“Tommy Bartlett’s” is Chicago’s Coney Island — with hot dogs on water.

A few things have has changed since 1952, starting with the music. The present day troupe will ski to Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion”; in 1952 it might have been Rosemary Clooney’s “Botch-a-me.” Bartlett staff no longer sticksgenerally unwanted “Tommy Bartlett” bumper stickers on cars in the parking lot. The motorboats go faster and the female skiers are more scantily clad.

But the big-top-in-a-big-dip essence of the Bartlett show is the same, which is why it is so sweet from a 2012 perspective: It is Lost Americana.

Over the 4th of July weekend a dozen Bartlett skiers from the 1950s and ’60s took in the Friday matinee. They sat in the shaded bleachers watching standbys like Aqua the waterskiing clown, the swivel line and the world-famous human pyramid. The sun began to set over old White Pine trees. The still-peppy performers squinted from their distant seats.

Maybe it was the sun.

Or maybe they sawthemselves.

Over the entire weekend nearly 650 alumni and families took in the Bartlett shows. Fans sit in 5,000-seat bleachers, half under the stars or sun and the other half under covered grandstands. During the 1950s folks sat on peach crates on the beach and blankets on the hillside. Wide-eyed kids still thrill to the sound of high performance speed boats and people stare in awe at T.J. Howell who juggleschain saws (but not on the water).

“This is wonderful, but there’s also a sad connotation,” said Skip Gilkerson, Bartlett show director from 1961-84. “It may be the last time I see some of these people. It is family. I met my wife (Sharon) out here 45 years ago. I went in to have a pizza 45 years ago and there she was.”

In 1959 Lance Renfrow was the youngest skier to be hired by the show. He was 16. “This is a family,” he said. “And a family stays together.”

Gilkerson said, “It’s been a wonderful ride.” No pun intended.

Outside of Tommy Bartlett himself, few have put on as much mileage from the water show as Gilkerson. As show director he helped design costumes, picked out music, made the show schedule and coached young skiers. It’s an impressive resume for a guy who grew up in landlocked Monticello, Ind. Gilkerson made his skiing debut at the Indiana Beach resort.

“I don’t want to sound haughty, but no one knows who John Heisman was but everybody knows the Heisman Trophy,” he said. “The outstanding water show skier in America gets the Skip Gilkerson award. I’m supposed to be the best water skier that ever lived. I’m in the Wisconsin Water Ski Hall of Fame, the Water Ski Hall of Fame.”

Gilkerson said showmanship is what makes him the best. He worked the crowd. “I tell amateur clubs that professionals get paid,” Gilkerson explained. “Their pay is audience applause. They have to get the audience on their side.”

But Gilkerson did not ski at the July reunion.

“I’m 71,” he said. “If I make it people will say, ‘Well, Skip was voted by his peers the best water skier of all time. He should make it.’ If I fall, it’s ‘Ooh, poor Skip, he’s slowing down.’ I could ski a whole show. But I don’t know if I could get out of bed the next day.”

After retiring from the Bartlett show, Gilkerson became Director of Skiing for Master Craft. He holds a masters degree in physiology. He also does Ironman triathlons. A resident of New Braunfels, Texas, Gilkerson got up at 7 a.m. on the day of our conversation and ran 36 miles. He was staying with his sister Judes, a year-round Dells resident who debut as a Bartlett skier in 1962.

“Last week I biked 450 miles,” Gilkerson said. “I went from Eagle River (Wis.) to Prairie DuChien.”

That is not haughty.

Many of the alumni skiers attained great heights after spending summers in the Bartlett show. Charlie Porter started with Bartlett in 1958. He became a key player in the Aerospace industry, working on the Sky Lab program and for the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station programs.

Renfrow received a degree in chemical engineering from Arizona State University and in 1969 helped develop the first knee brace. “I’m kind of reserved, believe it or not,” he said. “When you’re performing in front of thousands of people, you can’t be shy. Looking back on that it gave me a sense of confidence. As Tommy did for thousands.”

Thousands of tourists still check out the family-run operation, which operates from Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend.

Jill Diehl is the assistant general manager and vice president of “The Tommy Bartlett Show.” Bartlett hired her parents in 1967, and she grew up working at the venue. “About 33 percent of our audience is from Chicago, 30 to 40 per cent from Wisconsin, “ said Diehl, 43.

Bartlett developed a nationwide scouting system to bring talent to the Dells, which led him to Glenn Sperry. Sperry is a 71-year-old world-champion stilt skier. He set the official record on stilt skis at 7 feet, but also has skied on stilt skis 10½- feet tall.

“We had won the nationals, that’s how Tommy found out us about it,” said Sperry, who began skiing at the age of 6. “Tommy had a road show coming to Texas so I skied on that show in 1958, from Louisiana across Texas. The next year I came to the Dells. I skied for Tommy until 1975. What better job could you get? It’s live entertainment outside, and that’s what Tommy promoted. And that’s why it is so good.”

“I may be the only person that skis on one stilt,” the nearly six-foot-tall Sperry said. “I start on two and drop one. It was taking it one step farther. Tonight I’ll make one full circle.”

And he did.

And he was young again.

As a still active skier, Sperry is aware of the technical changes in the Bartlett show. The shtick hasn’t changed much, but life is better for the talent.

“The jumps have super good surfaces now,” he said. “We had wood surfaces. You would fall and get splinters. We had good towboats, but the boats have so much precision and power now. When we started we didn’t wear a lifejacket, a helmet, none of that stuff. Now you think a little more about it. This is the skill God gave me. This is why God put me on earth.”

Sperry looked out at circles in the lake, and just maybe he saw the reflection of a younger man.

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