The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed another Wisconsin summer tradition. For the first time in nearly 70 years, the Tommy Bartlett Show has been canceled.
With Wisconsin’s “safer at home” order in effect through May 26 and ongoing uncertainty about when large gatherings can safely resume, company president Tom Diehl said Tuesday that he would not open the water, ski, sky and stage show as planned on May 22.
Diehl called the decision “horrendous” and said it would be “catastrophic” for the family-owned business, which generates virtually all its revenue between the Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends.
The decision leaves some 115 seasonal performers and support staff without jobs and cancels “a multitude” of vendor contracts, Diehl said.
However, the family is hopeful the show can resume next year.
“We’re going to give it everything we’ve got,” Diehl said. “We have a wonderful product and we hope things will turn around in the next 12 months and we’ll be able to.”
The show, started by Tommy Bartlett in 1952 as a touring water ski exposition, has been a Lake Delton staple since 1953 — even after heavy rains caused a washout that drained the lake in 2008.
Despite “a wonderful show” that year, Diehl said he lost 90% of his customers that summer.
“We got through that,” he said. “That was a very costly expenditure.”
Diehl said it would be impossible to get enough guests into the 5,000-seat amphitheater while maintaining 6 feet of separation.
Romy Snyder, president of the Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau, said the community and the show have endured past adversity through mutual support.
“We understand summer this year will look and feel different in Wisconsin Dells. The Tommy Bartlett Show is an iconic symbol of the area and is synonymous with a classic Wisconsin Dells summer experience,” Snyder said. “The Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau continues to support Wisconsin Dells businesses and we look forward to welcoming visitors back when the time is right.”
A longtime trustee for the village of Lake Delton, Diehl said the state needs to come up with guidelines for reopening less crowd-oriented businesses in the tourist mecca.
“We have plenty of things here in the Dells that can be opened and opened safely,” he said. “We need to focus on those.”
Diehl plans to reopen the company’s other attraction, the Tommy Bartlett Exploratory, as the health crisis eases. He said the interactive science center adopted safe distancing measures and extra cleaning protocols before the complete shutdown.
“One size doesn’t fit all,” Diehl said of restrictions on business. “My feeling is if the customer doesn’t feel safe, they’re not going to go anywhere anyway.”
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