About eight decades ago – on Jan. 22, 1939 to be exact – a fledgling manufacturing company was born when E. Carl Kiekhaefer left his family farm and purchased a bankrupt manufacturing company – as well as hundreds of flawed ...
Mercury Marine and Tommy Bartlett
Creating success together for decades
A long‑shot business venture brought Mercury Marine and Tommy Bartlett together in 1952, but reliable outboards and crowd‑pleasing performances have kept them partners for 66 years.
Since their earliest days, Mercury and the Tommy Bartlett water-skiing show in Wisconsin Dells have thrilled audiences every summer with spectacular feats on the water. Nearly seven decades later, the partnership continues to flourish and crowds continue to grow.
How it all started
In 1949, popular Chicago radio and TV personality Tommy Bartlett was hired to emcee a 10-day Chicago Railroad Fair on Lake Michigan. A team of water-skiers from Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Florida, performed during the 10-day event and the crowd went wild. Bartlett, a sharp businessman, was so impressed with the skiers’ entertainment value and potential he immediately formulated a business plan to take water-skiing to America’s masses – changing the course of his own career, the growth of Mercury Marine, and the plans of millions of future vacationers.
Bartlett didn’t wait long before driving two hours north to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, to discuss a joint effort with E. Carl Kiekhaefer, founder and president of Mercury Marine. Bartlett shared with Kiekhaefer his plans to assemble a touring water-skiing show that would travel across North America if Kiekhaefer would provide the boats, motors and logistical support. Exposing so many people to sensational water-skiing shows, Bartlett told Kiekhaefer, would sell a lot of tickets and a lot of outboard motors. A handshake sealed the deal, and Mercury and Tommy Bartlett became partners for life.
The Bartlett/Mercury touring show was a hit from day one. Bartlett was a tremendous promoter who sometimes was referred to as the PT Barnum of water-skiing. Kiekhaefer, meanwhile, had earned a similar reputation for promoting his boat motors. Together they created a traveling show called the Tommy Bartlett/Mercury Water-Ski Show.
In 1952, the second stop for the Bartlett/Mercury show was Wisconsin Dells. Impressed with what he saw, a local business leader approached Bartlett about producing a permanent summer show at the Dells. Bartlett was extremely well-known in Chicago, and the Dells was blossoming as a tourist destination. Tommy Bartlett’s Water Skiing and Jumping Boat Show virtually guaranteed a steady stream of visitors from Chicago. The Dells show opened that year with Mercury outboards on the boats, and the shows have attracted more than 20 million visitors over the decades.
Bartlett and Mercury continued to produce the road shows throughout the early 1950s. Mercury provided the equipment and Bartlett provided the skiers, music, costumes, etc. Tommy was also responsible for promoting the shows to ensure maximum attendance. He was known to say that, everywhere the show went, local stores sold out of their water-skiing equipment.
Tommy Bartlett and Mercury also took their show overseas, performing as featured elements of many USO shows. They also performed at two World’s Fairs (Seattle and New York) and at least three World Expos (Montreal, San Antonio and Okinawa).
On down the road
In 1967, a young entrepreneur named Tom Diehl started working at the Tommy Bartlett Show. Eleven years later, he and his wife purchased a portion of the Tommy Bartlett Show. Following Bartlett’s death in 1998 (he was 84), the Diehls purchased the remainder of the show.
Today, Tom Diehl is the owner/operator of the Tommy Bartlett company, and his daughter, Jill, is general manager. While many aspects of the show may have changed, said Diehl, one constant remains: “To this day, Mercury provides the engines used in the show,” he said.
Many locals say that, without Tommy Bartlett, Wisconsin Dells would not be the vacation destination it is today.
“And without Mercury’s partnership and involvement, there would be no Tommy Bartlett Show,” said Diehl. “We hope this relationship will last as long as we keep producing high-quality water-ski shows in Wisconsin Dells.”
Like many businesses, water-skiing shows must battle for their share of consumers’ vacation dollars. Yet, they continue to do well.
“The show continues to attract customers because Tommy’s vision was to always provide high-quality, clean, wholesome, family entertainment to the masses,” said Diehl. “He always said, ‘Give the customers more value than what they paid.’
“We have a unique Show in a beautiful scenic setting. It is unlike any other in the world. We have a high value for what our customers want, and we provide outstanding customer service.”
The Tommy Bartlett Show on Lake Delton in Wisconsin Dells opens each year on Memorial Day Weekend and closes on Labor Day Weekend.
“We have a summer staff of approximately 120,” said Diehl, “including 30 water ski performers and professional entertainers. We normally attract skiers at age 18 and keep them through their college years.”
Adding multiple aluminum jumps in 1964 was a major accomplishment for the show, and those jumps are still used daily. The overseas show was also a huge accomplishment, providing exposure of Mercury engines to the international market.
“Mercury always had a major presence at all of the World’s Fairs,” said Diehl.
“Being in the entertainment business for so many years, I can’t think of any other show or performance that has been running as long. This is a real tribute to Tommy Bartlett and to Mercury.”
In addition to many highlights, the Tommy Bartlett Show and Wisconsin Dells faced near-disaster in 2008 when record‑breaking rains destroyed Lake Delton, home of the Tommy Bartlett performances.
“That was a catastrophe that not only directly affected the Show but everyone in the area who relied upon Lake Delton as a part of their business,” said Diehl. “On June 9, 2008, after five days and 18 inches of rain, Lake Delton breached at the north end of the lake and 700 million gallons of water emptied into the Wisconsin River. We tried to put on a full show with just stage and aerial acts; however, we only played to 10% of our normal business.
“We almost didn’t make it to 2009, but with the help of many people, we rebuilt Lake Delton and opened the show by the next season.”
In 2018, the shows were as strong as ever: each live 90-minute performance was packed with stunning tricks on water, on stage and high in the sky. The Show featured a mix of extreme water-skiing, masterful boat maneuvers, light-hearted comedy and dare-devil stunt artists to celebrate 66 years with Mercury Marine in Wisconsin Dells.