The late Dick Pope once told Tommy Bartlett: "We developed water skiing at Cypress Gardens but your road shows brought water skiing to grass roots America."
If anything, this was an understatement and, in all its ramifications, it is reason enough for Tommy Bartlett to join the company of Pope, Chuck Sligh, Dan Hains and other pioneers now enshrined in the Water Ski Hall of Fame.
It is estimated that more than 50,000,000 spectators applauded Bartlett's road shows throughout the U.S. and the Far East, including four World's Fairs, and his shows have been credited with bringing more people into water skiing than any other human factor.
Bartlett had four shows on the road simultaneously in the 1950's, and while his skiers were on the road, other performers were playing to audiences daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day, at Wisconsin Dells, Wis., where the spectacular productions have continued to this day.
Long before he "discovered" water skiing and its potential for spectator excitement, Bartlett was well known throughout America for his popular "Welcome Traveler" broadcast show. Born July 11, 1914, in Milwaukee, Wis., Thomson Bartlett began radio announcing locally at age 13 and launched his career at Chicago's Station WBBM at the age of 17 without ever finishing high school.
World War II interrupted his radio career and his talents were used in the Army Air Corps recruiting program. He then learned to fly and become a flight instructor. A stint as an airlines pilot kept Bartlett busy following the war but in 1947 he returned to his first love: broadcasting.
His "Welcome Traveler" show was riding high in 1949 when he was encouraged to take a look at something going on nearby on Chicago's waterfront. It was water ski show in conjunction with the Chicago Railroad Fair. Bartlett took a look and he was hooked.
He watched dozens of performances until the fair closed in the fall of 1950, and he purchased on the spot of most of the skier's surplus equipment. Soon he was hard at work figuring ways to inject a new note of showmanship into this exciting sport.
Bartlett found an ally in Carl Kiekhaefer, the manufacturer of Mercury outboard motors, and this partnership resulted in nearly a decade of exposure for the sport before millions.
Bartlett's show introduced colorful costumes, established themes for the productions and presented such exciting by-products as jumping boats, "dancing water," skydivers, Polynesian dancers, show ski jumping and night shows.
The impact of the Bartlett shows on American audiences attracted the attention of the USO and State Department, and for two years, the Bartlett skiers performed at military bases and before hundreds of thousands of civilians in Japan, Okinawa, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Guam, Thailand and Burma.
Bartlett gives major credit for the success of his shows to the hard work and dedication of his skiers. He gives special credit to Dick Rowe, his long-time skier associate, who kindled Bartlett's interest in water skiing in the first place.