Richard Pope Sr
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Mr. Water Skiing
No single person has done more to make the world aware of the glamour and fun of
water skiing than Dick Pope, and few, if any, have contributed more to the encouragement of tournament skiing.
His role in the former capacity is well known throughout the world. Motion pictures, television, magazines, newspapers, billboards - any media you can name - have proclaimed the beauty, the excitement, the sheer fun of water skiing, all products of the fertile promotional imagination of Dick Pope and the natural setting of his Cypress Gardens in the heart of Florida's lake country.
Less known, particularly to those whose interest in water skiing goes back only 20 years or so, was his role in organizing and promoting water ski competition at national and international levels.
He sponsored the second World Championships at Cypress Gardens in 1950, after his son, Dick Pope, Jr., and his show's prima Ballerina, Willa Worthington, had competed successfully in the first world tournament at Juan les Pins, France, the year before. He assisted in the formation of the World Water Ski Federation, which was founded during the Cypress Gardens competition.
Pope already was actively interested in the American Water Ski Association. He served as AWSA vice president for the Southern Region from 1948 through 1956, and hosted countless committee meetings and informal discussions with association officials from all over the U.S. that led to many innovations in three-event tournament skiing. He later was elected as AWSA Vice President for Life, one of only four ever so honored.
Except for the U.S. Nationals, Pope's Dixie Water Ski tournament was the oldest and most prestigious annual tournament in the country until it gave way in more recent years to his All-American Championships because of the "provincial nature" of the title in the eyes of network television producers.
Pope sponsored another World Championships at Cypress Gardens in 1957, and he even chartered a DC-6 airliner to ensure that all of the world's best water skiers would be on hand. It was by far the biggest world tournament up to that time. Seventy-eight skiers representing 28 countries participated. The overall winners were Chuck Stearns of the U.S. and Marina Doria of Switzerland, a statuesque glamour girl whom Pope immediately hired for his ski shows.
Pope's interest in water skiing, like that of so many of the pioneers of the sport, began with his performances on the aquaplane. During the 1920's, he and his brother Malcolm were an exhibition team on tour mostly in south Florida. Malcolm was a speedboat stunt man while Dick performed on his aquaplane back of the boat. He began using water skis of the double-rope Fred Waller type in the late '20's, and one of the first publicized pictures of a water skier going over a jump ramp was that of Pope performing at Miami Beach in 1928.
During the Great Depression years, Dick and his wife Julie moved north to apply his public relations flair, first in Waukegan, Ill., for Johnson Seahorse Outboard Motor Co., and later in New York, but they returned to Florida in 1936 to work on the realization of a dream -- the development of a gardens that would attract visitors from all over the world.
Cypress Gardens was started from a swamp on the edge of Lake Eloise near Winter Haven, giving rise to the title a national magazine used for a profile of Pope some years later: "Swami of the Swamp."
Flowers and pretty girls were the Garden's major attractions before water skiing entered the picture. Actually, Julie was responsible for the first Ski Show. Dick had enlisted in the Army not long after the outbreak of World War II, and his wife was left with the responsibility of running the budding attraction.
One afternoon in August of 1942, a group of soldiers showed up at the gate and inquired, "When does the show begin?" There was no show, but Julie saw an opportunity. She called her son and daughter Adrienne, both of whom knew how to water ski, and told them to round up some skiing friends and come quickly, prepared to put on a ski show. It worked. The following weekend, over 800 service men showed up, and the Cypress Gardens shows haven't missed a beat since.
As soon as he was aware of what was happening at the Gardens, Pope immediately brought about the marriage of two activities that were "made for each other," water skiing and photography. As the years passed, almost as much attention and investment went into the development of photographic talent and facilities as in the ski shows. The investment has paid off, not only in the promotion of Cypress Gardens as a premier tourist attraction but also in the projection of water skiing as an invigorating sport that can be enjoyed by millions. "Mr. Water Skiing" has left his imprint.