“The Greatest Show on H2O”
Few business relationships survive for seven decades years, and even fewer survive on just a handshake. But such is the association between the two legends that are Mercury Marine and the Tommy Bartlett Show.
After witnessing the audience’s positive reaction to a water ski show at the Chicago Railroad Fair in 1949, broadcasting impresario Tommy Bartlett approached Mercury founder Carl Kiekhaefer with a plan to take water skiing to the masses. It proposed that Bartlett would produce the shows and Mercury would provide the boats and engines. The idea appealed to Kiekhaefer’s desire to promote boating as a family activity and, of course, to sell more engines.
For the next three years, as many as three Mercury/Bartlett touring companies crisscrossed North America, appearing before huge crowds, setting attendance records at the New York World’s Fair and selling out water ski equipment wherever they appeared. The run culminated in an offer for the Tommy Bartlett Show to be permanently based at the Wisconsin Dells as a major tourist attraction.
The two organizations “have worked hand in hand,” said Tom Diehl, co-owner of the show. “Mercury built the jump we use today in the mid-60s, developed the jump motors we use, and turned over all of the parts so we could keep the motors running when they stopped making them 15 years ago.”
Joey Lincicum grew up in the Bartlett show and has had siblings working there every decade since the show was created. He started as a skier and is responsible for producing the show, including keeping the fleet of 20 boats and motors running for 200 shows per season, averaging 125 to 450 hours per engine. He praises Mercury people and their product.
“The Mercury people are easy to work with,” he said. “The engines today produce more horsepower and use less gas. You turn the key and they go.
“We can’t go out and tell 4,000 people at a performance we have a problem. You can have the best show in the world, but if you turn the key and the engine doesn’t start, well, you’re not much of a skier.”
Weigh-in on Winnebago
The Mercury National Walleye Tournament, or “Merc National,” was created to promote outboard engines and walleye fishing. However, the Merc National grew to become one of the largest walleye events in the country and the cornerstone of Walleye Weekend, a nationally recognized, free family festival in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
While the format has changed over its four decades of competition, the Merc National pits professional anglers against “weekend warriors,” drawing a 300-boat field (two anglers per boat) competing for nearly $100,000 in cash and prizes.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources works intimately with producers of the event, recording fish data that would be expensive and difficult to compile outside of the tournament.
The Merc National boasts one of the highest live-release percentages of any fishing event. A portion of each entry fee is returned to the water as well, supporting the Walleyes for Tomorrow organization, which creates fish habitat throughout the Lake Winnebago system, and the FishAmerica Foundation, which performs similar work nationwide.