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Pandemic forces iconic Wisconsin water ski show to closeSubmitted: 09/16/2020
Pandemic forces iconic Wisconsin water ski show to close
Story By Todd Richmond - Associated Press

MADISON - The coronavirus pandemic has forced an iconic Wisconsin Dells-area water ski show to shut down forever.

Tom Diehl, president and co-owner of the Tommy Bartlett Show in Lake Delton, said Wednesday that the show can't recover from the loss of revenue this summer. The show was preparing for its 70th season when the pandemic happened, forcing Diehl to cancel the season. He said investing in a 2021 season would have been too risky given the uncertainty surrounding the virus and its dampening effect on travel.

The decision means the loss of 115 seasonal jobs and a major option for live entertainment among the Dells' rows of resorts and water parks. The show put on more than 18,700 performances for more than 30 million people, according to a news release the show issued.

The decision to close also signals the end of the Diehl family's life's work. Tommy Bartlett created the show in 1952 as a traveling water-ski exposition that performed at world's fairs, U.S.O. tours and other cultural exchange programs. Bartlett found a permanent home for the show on the shores of Lake Delton in 1953. The show grew into a mix of water-skiing and high-speed boating complete with stage acts performed in a 5,000-seat amphitheater on the water's edge.

Diehl and his wife, Margaret, became co-owners with Bartlett in 1975 and full owners in 1998 following Bartlett's death. The Diehls' daughter, Jill, grew up working at the show.

Lake Delton drained away into the Wisconsin River in 2008 after storms and flooding breached a section of earthen bank that contained it. The show survived that catastrophe with stage shows until the lake was restored. But it couldn't beat the virus.

"It is with great sadness that we announce the Tommy Bartlett Show will not be able to make a comeback in 2021 as we had hoped," Diehl said in a statement. "While we are grateful that we have had almost seven decades of entertaining visitors in Wisconsin Dells, we have no choice but to close the Show."

The company's year-round attraction, the Tommy Bartlett Exploratory, will remain open.

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