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It took ten years to find the perfect land for Tommy Bartlett’s Water Circus in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. In 1976, 110 acres of farmland were finally purchased with 450 feet of US Highway 441 frontage. A 20-foot-tall dam was built to hold 8.5 million gallons of water to form the man-made Gatlinburg Lake. 25,000 pounds of steel was used to construct the 4500-seat stadium.
And yet, The Tommy Bartlett’s Water Circus only operated in Pigeon Forge from 1978-1982.
Yep, all that work for four short years.
Around the Smokies, the mountains themselves are about the only thing that is sure to remain constant. Your neighbors can change in the blink of an eye as many entrepreneurs come to the area with dreams of drawing huge crowds and becoming the next big thing.
However, despite its short run, Tommy Bartlett’s Water Circus is still fondly remembered by those who were lucky enough to catch a show in the late 70s and early 80s.
What was Tommy Bartlett’s Water Circus?
The water circus in Pigeon Forge began with a parade of boats and was followed by water skiing acrobatics, ballet, trapeze artists, trampoline acts, a juggling comedian, and even a water-skiing clown named Aqua.
One of the main events was the Helicopter Trapeze Act, which featured Dave Merrifield. It’s is exactly what it sounds like — a trapeze artist, trapeze-ing about, while suspended from a helicopter.
Merrifield “helicoptered” coast to coast and was featured on national television. As an 11-year-old, he practiced every day on a homemade trapeze suspended from a backyard tree. (Don’t try that at home).
Pigeon Forge’s water circus also featured Rudolph Delmonte, a “handsome-as-a-Greek god” contortionist extraordinaire who came from a long line of show business performers.
One of the early “slapstick comedy” routines came courtesy of the Huntzicker & Botsford Trampoline Comedy Act. The duo showed off their athletic ability as they entertained the crowd with corny jokes.
Water skiers from all over the country would come to perform at the water circus in Pigeon Forge, with performers from Texas to Connecticut. The attraction even featured a handful of local performers native to Pigeon Forge and Knoxville.
The entire program was said to have been under the personal direction and supervision of Bartlett himself.
Who was Tommy Bartlett?
Bartlett never attended high school.
He had a modest start in the entertainment industry doing kids’ roles on the radio when he was 13. He eventually moved to Chicago and grew to become Chicago’s No. 1 radio personality.
During World War II, he pivoted to flight and became a flying instructor in the War Training Service. He then served as a Northwest Airlines pilot from 1943-1947.
Eventually, he returned to radio, where he hosted shows like Meet Tommy Bartlett, Tommy Bartlett Show and Welcome Travelers.
When network TV came around, Bartlett saw that it was time to pivot in his career yet again. After being inspired by a water skiing show in Chicago, he saw an opportunity and set up a water ski show.
The show started touring in 1952. The first show appeared in Madison, Wis. and the next was in Wisconsin Dells.
At that time, the show consisted of two tow boats, four jumping boats, a pick-up boat, a few trucks and trailers and 12 men and women who doubled as skiers and boat drivers.
The show ran for 26 years in Wisconsin Dells before Bartlett brought the show to Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
What happened to Tommy Bartlett’s Water Circus?
According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, the company sold the Pigeon Forge attraction to finance “Tommy Bartlett’s Robot World,” reportedly a $2.5 million investment that planned to display an array of animated androids.
Today, that investment is known as the The Tommy Bartlett Exploratory, an interactive science center with more than 175 hands-on exhibits. It is currently open and operating in Wisconsin Dells.
The water skiing circus acts are still live on at The Tommy Bartlett Show, also in Wisconsin Dells, although it is currently closed for the 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We look to return in 2021, to again bring you the mix of extreme water-skiing, masterful boat maneuvers, light-hearted comedy, and dare-devil stunt artists you’ve come to know and love,” the company said in a statement.
As for the land in Pigeon Forge, the canopy is still rusting in place on Sugar Hollow Road. The lake has been filled, and Life Changers International Church sits nearby.
“I’d like to be able to compare myself, in a small way, to Walt Disney,” Bartlett said in the 80s. “Many people won’t know who I am or who I was, but I hope that the name will mean quality.”
Ironically, Bartlett himself only reportedly water-skied once in his life, on his 70th birthday. Bartlett passed away in 1998 at the age of 84.
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