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Tommy Bartlett, Reflections in the Water

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Donna & Cliff Conley---a team (Courtesy of Tommy Bartlett Show)


WISCONSIN DELLS, WIs.--Love floats in the rarefied air of the Tommy Bartlett Show.

The Americana water ski show celebrates its 60th anniversary this summer in the Wisconsin Dells. Over the Fourth of July weekend a dozen Bartlett alumni from the 1950s and 60s gathered at the outdoor venue along the shores of Lake Delton.
They reminisced, tried some new tricks and gave a few tips to young whippersnappers from today's show.

I was so focused on gathering oral histories, I didn't consider the fact that the Bartlett show was a likely precursor to "Dirty Dancing" in terms of hot summertime romance--until my videographer Jon Sall pointed this out, along with my cameraman friend Tom Vlodek, who was on assignment at the Bartlett show for NBC-TV. Those camera guys have a lot of time on their hands.
"Listen, when you have beautiful women....," chortled Lance Renfrow, who skied at the Dells between 1959-61. "....I mean we loved it. We had Miss America's. Miss Floridas.........."


....... Donna Conley began with the Bartlett show in 1954.
"I met my husband (Cliff, who died in 2010) here," she said during a conversation in the bleachers. "The true story is that I was sitting on the dock. I had this long black hair and he figured that was it."
Cliff and Donna were married in 1956 near the Dells.


"He became one of Tommy's vice presidents," said Conley, who was born in Evanston. "They made me the ski boss. I taught the girls and the guys showmanship. I was here 10 years. We retired after appearing at the (1964) New York World's Fair. We traveled overseas twice with the show." Cliff, Donna and the Bartlett troupe were part of traveling USO shows that toured the South Pacific and Southeast Asia. "Some of them thought we were Gods walking on water," said Conley, 79. "On the way over I suggested the kids (the 1958 Eugene Burdick-William Lederer novel) 'The Ugly American' because there was a message there for us."

Conley had been modeling in Chicago since the age of four.
She was Queen of the Chicago Railroad Fair in 1949, where she met Cypress Gardens show director Dick Pope.
The Chicago Railroad Fair was held at Navy Pier and featured a water ski show. Bartlett was a popular Chicago radio and television host in 1949 and he caught the ski show at the railroad fair.

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He decided to try the same ski shtick in the Dells. "It was just like any other World's Fair, except it wasn't a world's fair," Conley said matter-of-factly. She water skied at Cypress Gardens between 1949 and 1954.
Conley looked out at the young performers and said, "This tells me I want to do it again. But I've had two car accidents and I have two titanium hips so I'm not going to push it."
A resident of Orlando, Fla., Conley stays active in other ways.
She has been a yoga teacher for 45 years and still teaches nine classes a week. She is also a ballroom dancer. And an ordained minister.
"I've been doing God's work for a number of years with the yoga, which is a way of life, keeping yourself healthy through body, mind and spirit," she said with a orange grove smile. "I don't care what you call the spirit that you worship if you do. There's a different name in every country."


Skip Gilkerson was the Bartlett show director between 1961-84. "We went through a period of time where they wanted all the girls to look alike," said Giilkerson, a member of the Water Ski Hall of Fame. "They had all the girls wear wigs, so they had the same length hair style like the Rockettes."
Gilkerson said that costuming was the biggest change he noticed between the current Dells "Livin' the Dream" revue and his shows of the early 1960s.
"When I started, it was a red bathing suit, a black bathing suit and a white bathing suit," Gilkerson recalled. "True story. One guy was in a big hurry, put on his bathing suit and it ripped. He didn't have time so he went in, took white clown makeup, put it on his posterior, did the whole show and no one knew the difference. Now the costumes are elaborate. In the late 1960s I wore a sequin blue Elvis (Presley) suit and that's in the Water Ski Hall of Fame. That was the first expensive costume of its kind. I'd say it cost $500. Now they're all sequins, hand sewn. It was a six dollar bathing suit when I started. The boats are more powerful. The skis are more expensive. The skis are fiberglass versus wood. We used to have an organ, now it's pre-scripted music."

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Glenn Sperry, high as a kite.

Gilkerson still has a very active mind. At age 71 he is health teacher and head swim coach at St. Marcos (Tx.) HIgh School. He also skied at Cypress Gardens and was recruited by Bartlett to come to the Dells. As show director he was always open to other ideas, even when it came to Aqua the waterskiing clown, who has been part of the Bartlett revue since day one.
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My new summer friends.

"One time we had a thing where the clown would sail out on the dock and he would slide out of his skis," Gilkerson recalled with motorboats humming in the background. "We would run and pick up Aqua like he was hurt. One of the skiers said, 'You know what, it would be funnier if we picked up the skis and left Aqua'. And he was right."
Gilkerson then shifted gears. "Trivia question!," he shouted. "Who was the first person to water ski in Central Park? My sister Judy, because Tommy produced a show there and then in Prospect Park in Brooklyn on Sunday. She carried the American flag."


The Tommy Bartlett Show ("Ski Sky Stage," technically) has been characterized by such hijinx.
The World Famous Human Pyramid is an iconic picture of the Bartlett show, reproduced on Dells postcards and brochures. "When I started it was three guys on the bottom, two girls on the next layer and one girl on the top," Gilkerson said. "Now some water ski clubs do five high pyramids with 40 some kids. (The Bartlett still does the traditional three high because the water stage is so small). They get more power in the boats now."

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And Glenn Sperry brought stilt skiing to the Bartlett show---at age 71 he reprised his act on reunion weekend.

Sperry learned to stilt ski in 1968 during the world's fair at HemisFair Park in San Antonio, Tx. "I was not the originator of it," Sperry said in modest tones. "(Show skier) Domingo Veagas of Mexico sat down with a napkin in the dressing room and drew up plans for me to make a pair of stilts. I said I would make them provided I could ski them. They were about two feet tall. SInce then I've raised them. Normal size is about five feet. I have seven footers, that set a record."
Sperry had never been on stilts until he skied on them.
"You don't think about it, you just do it," he said. "The man made HemisFair lake was 168 feet long. Short ropes. Ski boat in circles. 28 acts in 32 minutes. About four shows a day, six shows a day weekends and holidays. And I never missed a single time. The current talent here got excited about some of the things we did. For example, the only way I completed a sumersault is on shoe (16-inch long) skis. These guys do them on the big (close to six feet) skis, they don't have any problem. They have more centrifugal force and they give you more lift. You just have to learn how to flip slower when they're coming around.

Sperry said the worst accident of his career happened in 1960 at the Bartlett show in the Dells.
"I just missed the pine trees right here," he said as he nodded to the trees behind the bleachers. "I was flying the flat kite (the kite is hooked to the boat and as air speeds up the kite ascends) and got caught on the outside of the wake. The tree was in my path and I looped the kite. The full force of the wind picked me up 20 feet. I ended up in the water about eight feet from the tree I was trying to avoid. just like I'm sitting here. Both skis split apart between my legs. It knocked the wind out of me."

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Linda Heineke, at reunion practice--you go girl! (D. Hoekstra photo)

Linda Heineke began skiing in the Bartlett show in 1960. She married Jim Heineke, whose father owned the legendary Monks Bar in the Dells. Jim worked at the Bartlett show in 1955-56, although not on the water. Linda and Jim are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary this year.
In a separate interview she said, "We talked about our favorite memories at lunch today. I don't know if you heard this. It was the night show when Glenn Sperry landed by the trees with a kite. We thought he died. Tommy Bartlett was here at the time. Tommy went to the hospital in an ambulance with Glenn. He stayed with Glenn and then stayed in contact with all of us. We really thought he died, that's how serious it was. But Glenn was back on the water a week later. That memory always comes back to me. We were all crying.

"That was how close we were."

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1 Comment

I used to work for MasterCraft with Skip and got to hear a lot of these amazing stories. Great blog!

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.

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