Thursday, September 17, 2020

Bartlett water ski show to thrill no more

     The Palmer House Hilton closing indefinitely, I can endure through pure denial; it recovered from the Chicago Fire of 1871 and the Great Depression, it’ll somehow pull through COVID-19 and bounce back with its Wedgewood ceiling intact.
     Ronny’s Steakhouse, well, having eaten there several times, I could accept its demise philosophically. Things happen.
     But the Tommy Bartlett Show? The Water Thrill Show?
     Cut out the heart of the Dells — out of Wisconsin, out of the entire Midwest. Exile the ornate faux riverboat of Mr. Pancake to the salvage yard, sell the Packers to Austin, Texas and sign our country over to the Russians while you’re at it. White flag. We surrender.
     I’m semi-serious. My family loved going to the Dells. Seeing the Tommy Bartlett Show was as American as apple pie.
     ”The boys liked the speedboats and clownery,” I reported after a 2002 visit, “and I savored the show as a pure form. One doesn’t get much chance to see a chorus line of gals doing the can-can on water skis, never mind a flag-waving pyramid streaking by to ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever.’"
     Is that not America? How could that not survive? That is the central quality of the Midwest. We don’t quit. We continue. Did a duck boat sinking in Branson, Missouri, killing 17 people, put a stop to the Dells duck tours? Of course not. Did the death of Tommy Bartlett, famous radio star, slow his empire? No, the concept he expropriated in the early 1950s from Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Fla., kept going without him.

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  1. Oh wait, you're not kidding. I have to admire your range of interests.
    "Inner sanctum of Wisconsin kitsch" indeed. MAGA temple of the highest order. An unofficial Fox News/QAnon poll confirms that 95% of Tommy Bartlett patrons fully support Heir Furher and the American way of life in 1955.

  2. "Who can even pretend to feel that tragedy?" Nailed it. So overwhelmed by bad news, I find myself repressing feelings until some "minor" trigger brings on stress, even a crying jag ("Aw, their yard ball got knocked over..."; thankful for the release of those). Mind you, this doesn't bring on a crying jag but it's definitely a trigger of sorts. Spot on that the demise of the Water Show causes one to stop and consider, whether one wants to or not. So much to consider, indeed. Clapping hands emoji.

  3. Now you tell me! For years and years, I've resisted the blandishments of Tommy Bartlett and his fantastic Dells, considering myself superior to the folk who would find such thrilling. I realize now that my family and I would have had a hell of a time there and now it's gone forever.


    1. In my defense, I did write several astonished columns, back in the day, spilling the beans about the Dells. I was like you, too refined for such stuff until fate stuck me there. Ditto for Disney World. What's the point of culture if it only cuts you off from enjoying certain valid experiences?

    2. Indeed. It was much the same thing with cruises. Much too bourgeois for me. My daughter took me along on a Caribbean cruise and it was great: the entertainment was wonderful -- if the performers were 3rd rate, I didn't notice. The food was much richer and plentiful than I was used to, but I managed not to put on 20 pounds, nor did I tarry in the slot machine area that was deftly placed so that you had to walk through it a dozen times a day. I suppose that many if not most of the companies providing the cruises will close for good what with the Covid-19 nightmares experienced by a few of them. I wasn't planning on joining another cruise soon, anyway, but I'll miss having the opportunity, just as I miss the Dells based on the rave reviews.


  4. Anyone that has been to the Dells has probably been there. It's just so, ah, how do you say it, Wisconsin. But great way of putting it, Las Vegas for kids. Too bad, it was one of the few things I think the adults and kids both enjoyed. The Barnum and Bailey of Wisconsin.

  5. My parents never expressed any interst in spending any family vacation time in the Dells. My kid sister and I were never taken there...and neither of us has ever been there, even though we've passed it countless times on I-94. Instead, we were shlepped to the beachfromt resorts in South Haven, Michigan.

    Maybe my folks felt uncomfortable because (in their eyes) it might not have been Jewish enough for their "Skokie" tastes and West Side backgrounds. And they both had family histories in South Haven, going back to when my grandmother, recently widowed, was a cook at a summer camp in the Thirties.

    So they went there by train and by newlyweds, and then after the war. Took us kids there in the early and middle Fifties. That whole Chicago Jewish scene--the Catskills in miniature--is long gone, probably for almost sixty years now.

    As a "progressive" adult, I wanted to no part of suburban culture. I had been immersed in it, up to my eyeballs, as a youngster and as a teen. So I've never experienced the "Midwestern, middle-class, bourgeois hell" of the Thrill Show. Frankly, I'm not all that surprised that it's finished.

    Why not? much of everyday American life is either going away for a very long time...or is dying. Killed by the Orange Plague, along with its 200,000 American victims. Restaurants by the thousands, many with long and colorful histories. A neighborhood bowling alley, shuttered after almost a century. Cleveland's airport convention center, dark since March, has announced it won't be reopening. Not exactly akin to the demise of McCormick Place, but still a very big deal around here.

    Even if Orange Julius gets a well-deserved ass-kicking in November, he will have left deep scars on America's people and culture that will be very slow to heal, or that will never heal at all. The "New Normal" may somehow, someday. manage to become just "Normal"--but the "Old Normal" is gone. And a lot of it is never coming back.

    First you cry, and then you find something else to do with your time. Eventually, you get used to it. There's one thing that will never, ever change--human beings can--and do--get used to almost anything.

  6. In one of my favorite Second City pieces, a Chicago couple visited a travel agent (!) to plan their dream trip to Europe. Of course, he convinced them to go to the Dells instead.


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