Tommy's robot bath.

Tommy Bartlett goes under: Man who put the Dells on the map

More than any other human being, Tommy Bartlett created the tourist mecca of Wisconsin Dells/Lake Delton, WI. Now he's dead.

Tommy Bartlett knew how to draw a crowd. That was never better displayed than when he rooted his touring water thrill show in The Dells, a place of formerly boring natural beauty.

Until 1952 -- the year 0 BT (Before Tommy) -- the twin towns of Wisconsin Dells/Lake Delton had been a bucolic summer vacation retreat for hot Midwesterners, full of buggy cabins and fishermen. Tommy Bartlett turned it into a tourist gold mine.

Modern Tommy.

His tools were fast boats, attractive girls on water skis, and bumper stickers. The fast boats and cute girls were an instant hit in the sleepy Dells, and everyone who attended the show found a Tommy Bartlett Dells bumper sticker slapped on their car when they returned to the parking lot. Soon people in Madison and Milwaukee and Chicago knew something was afloat in The Dells, and they began driving north by the thousands, then tens of thousands, then millions. Motels sprang up to accommodate the onslaught; new restaurants fed them; and mini golf, wax museums, fudge shops, go kart tracks, and water parks blossomed to take whatever money remained after Tommy. A mecca had been born.

Young Tommy Bartlett.

Tommy, known as the "housewife's pinup boy" during his years as a radio talk show host, never married. He also never water skied, only once slipping on a pair at his 70th birthday party at the water show.

More than 20 million people have visited the Tommy Bartlett Thrill Show in its 46 years of operation. Tommy expanded his interests in later years, opening Tommy Bartlett's Robot World in the 1970s, which featured a robot scrubbing Tommy in a bathtub. Advanced in years but still nimble-minded, Tommy's last tourism coup came in 1996, when he bought Russia's spare Mir space station and trucked it to Robot World as a permanent attraction.

Tommy Bartlett died of kidney failure on September 6. He was 84. Fittingly, he passed away on Labor Day weekend -- the end of the tourist season.

[09/12/1998]

September 2, 2014

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