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‘It’s been a wonderful ride,’ Tommy Bartlett show ending after nearly 7 decades

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Tommy Bartlett Show performance, courtesy of Cathy & Jerry Luiting

LAKE DELTON (WKOW) -- It's the end of an era for a business that helped make Wisconsin Dells a tourist destination.

The Tommy Bartlett Show announced Wednesday it would close permanently, after canceling the 2020 season when the pandemic hit.

"The biggest detriment to business is uncertainty. And we don't have any certainty as to whether or not things will be the same next summer," said owner Tom Diehl. "We're a small, family business and investing the amount of money that we would have to invest to get to next May without having certainty just makes absolutely no business sense."

But it was an emotional decision for Diehl, who started working with Tommy Bartlett 54 years ago.

"The show was 14 years old when I first got here in 1967. I was given a wonderful opportunity by Tommy Bartlett," Diehl told 27 News. "Together, we grew this into what it was at the height, in the 80s and the 90s. So, it's been a wonderful ride."

Bartlett brought his touring show to Lake Delton in 1953 and stuck around. Hundreds of skiers and millions of people have come out for performances over the years.

Diehl says the hardest part about closing down was telling the staff and skiers in April that the show would not go on.

"The skiers, they don't care about getting paid, they just love what they do. And that was really hard. There was a lot of tears," he said.

Cathy and Jerry Luiting were heartbroken when they heard that 2019 would be their last time performing with their ski family.

"All day long our phones have been blowing up, because people are just shocked and just want to talk," Cathy said.

The Janesville couple has been performing with the show for decades. Jerry started working with Bartlett in the 80s.

"It's devastating," he said. "It's a big impact. It was one of only three pro shows left. So there was a lot of kids out there, they were aspiring to become a pro skier at that level, so this is a huge opportunity gone."

The two say Tommy and Tom, and their fellow skiers, were like family.

"You get to know who the people are that you're working with and they become your second family and I look forward to seeing them," Cathy said.

The Tommy Bartlett Show has been through a lot over the decades, but until now not even the draining of Lake Delton after massive floods in 2008 could stop the performances.

"There, we didn't have uncertainty because I was working on getting the lake rebuilt and I knew it was going to get done so there was no uncertainty," Diehl said. "In this case, we weren't open. However, pretty tough to reopen when there's no certainty that next year will be any better than this year."

While the performances are ending, the Tommy Bartlett Exploratory museum will stay open. The company's year-round staff have stayed on through the pandemic to keep that running.

Diehl said despite the unfortunate ending of the show, the pandemic hasn't completely devastated the Dells.

Things turned around this summer and attractions ended up bringing in about 75 percent of normal business. That's good news for the community, which is 99 percent tourism-based, according to Diehl, who also leads the Association of Wisconsin Tourist Attractions.

"The outlook for the Dells is very positive. We have come so far. It's just unfortunate that they had to have this turmoil take place, because it's hurt a lot of people. There's no question about it," he said.

After more than half a century, Diehl says he is ready to say goodbye, as he plans to continue working to support the tourism economy in the Dells.

"It was a wonderful run for almost 70 years and we didn't deviate from [Tommy Bartlett's] mission and his guidance," he said. "Tommy's legacy and the show's legacy will always remain that he presented high quality entertainment for the masses and they thoroughly enjoyed it because they kept coming back year after year."

Diehl said he hopes someone might take over the spot some day, and continue ski shows or other tourism entertainment.

Jennifer Kliese

Weekend Anchor and Reporter, 27 News

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