Editor’s Note: The Tommy Bartlett Water Ski Show closed in the autumn of 2020.
By Anne Morrissy
In the fall of 2020, people throughout the Upper Midwest were stunned to learn that after nearly 70 years of entertaining crowds in the Wisconsin Dells area, the Tommy Bartlett Water Ski Show would close permanently, the latest victim of the COVID-19 pandemic. Water skiing is a longstanding and popular summer sport throughout Wisconsin, partly due to the exposure it received from the impressive feats of daring and complicated choreography on display in the massively popular Tommy Bartlett show.
Thankfully, closer to home, three water ski show teams still practice and compete in the lakes area — the Brown’s Lake Aquaducks, the Southern Wakes United Water Ski Show and the Twin Lakes Aquanuts. But many people don’t remember that Geneva Lake itself once served as the home of two water ski show teams, and from the 1940s into the 1960s, their practices and performances were a highlight for visitors and locals alike.
THE 1940S AND 1950S: THE AQUA CLUB
By the late 1940s, with the invention of faster speedboats and better equipment, water skiing began to rapidly gain popularity in the Lake Geneva area, especially among teenagers and young adults. On Thursday, June 19, 1947, a column in the local paper declared, “As water- ski designs improve, and as riders and drivers learn more of the technique, this sport is becoming less difficult to master… Consequently, waterskiing is spurting in popularity.”
At the end of the 1948 summer season, HC “Pat” Paterson, then the director of the Water Safety Patrol, saw the rising number of water skiers as a potential safety hazard on busy Geneva Lake. Taking stock of the situation, Paterson decided it would be advantageous to form a group to “promote safety, skill and good fellowship among Lake Geneva’s water skiers.” He called it the Aqua Club. Paterson’s club turned out to be a very popular idea — by July 1949, the Aqua Club boasted 60 members.
The club met on Friday afternoons, rotating between group members’ private piers to practice everything from ski jumping to water ballet acts. Around 30 members of the group debuted their talents for the first time during the 1949 summer season when they staged an elaborate water ski show as part of that year’s Venetian Festival. “Definitely the most novel feature of the entire Venetian Festival this year was the water ski pageant…” enthused the Lake Geneva Regional News. “Thrilling ski jumps, fancy acrobatic stunts and clown acts — all atop the waves — were maneuvered to the delight of the spectators.”
Future Majestic Ski Hill owner Bill Grunow, Jr., served as one of the star jumpers for the performance, alongside Chris Borg Abelmann, a Lake Geneva summer resident and “internationally known water skier” (according to the Janesville Gazette). In addition to the ski jumping, slalom skiing and clown performances, a mock wedding on skis was a highlight of the Venetian Festival performance, complete with a bride, groom, minister, flower girl and ring bearer — all on water skis.
Over the next several summers, water skiing only grew more popular on the lake. The Aqua Club continued to attract members, and the group performed annually as part of Lake Geneva’s Venetian Fest activities throughout the early 1950s. Their performances over five summers included ski jumping, pyramid acts, over-and-under acts, skiers riding on each other’s shoulders and 360-degree turns on skis, as well as slalom exhibitions, water ballets, aquaplaning, disc riding and clown acts. However, by 1953, the club’s relationship with Paterson, its founder, had soured. That year, Paterson became so concerned about the rise in safety violations on the lake due to water skiing that he proposed banning the sport altogether. (His suggestion was never implemented.) He retired as director of the Water Safety Patrol and left the area shortly afterward. The Aqua Club dissolved after the 1953 summer season.
THE 1960S: THE GENEVA LAKE JUMPERS
A few years later in 1960, Tom Whowell was a junior at Wabash College in Indiana. Whowell had grown up in Fontana, where his father, Gordy, ran a popular boat rental business, which included water ski rentals and lessons. Thanks to growing up around the family business, Tom Whowell was an experienced water skier by the time he went to college. That summer, he brought two of his college buddies (and fellow water ski enthusiasts) home with him to help out at Gordy’s, and together, they devised a plan to bring ski jumping back to the lake.
“Gary [Jouris] and Jim [Hampsher] kept talking about building a jump,” Whowell explains. “So we built the ski jump between building 1 and 2 right here on the lakefront at Gordy’s. Poor Gordy complained every inch of the way. He couldn’t get anybody to work because we were all building this ski jump!”
Whowell chuckles at the memory. The wooden jump could be adjusted from four to six feet high and could be towed to different locations around the lake.
As soon as the jump was built, they started recruiting people to join a new club they called the Geneva Lake Jumpers. Whowell served as the first president. Joel Bikowski, an early joiner, estimates they had around 20 members during their first summer; they often used the pier at Gordy’s as a meeting place for their informal morning practices. “It seemed like I woke up in the morning and I was more or less in the boat until I went to bed,” Bikowski remembers. “It was swimming, skiing, boating … every day.”
By the end of summer 1960, the Geneva Lake Jumpers felt ready to perform some of their tricks in front of the Fontana Beach. “We all got to the point where we were good enough to have a show,” Whowell remembers. The hour-long show included ski jumping, a six-person pyramid, a clown act and a water ballet, among other tricks.
Patty (Tannehill) Buchholtz and Sally (Bartels) Jouris were two of the performers and remember the first show as a huge thrill. “There were five of us in the water ballet,” Buchholtz remembers.
“We’d start up on two skis and then we reached out and took one of the skis off and put our foot in the ski rope to do the ballet moves,” Jouris adds. “We really had to practice. For the six-person pyramid, there were four of
us on the bottom, two on the next level and one on top. When you’re practicing, you have to fall down a lot before you get it right.” She and Buchholtz laugh. “It’s not so bad if you’re the base, except that those girls have to crawl up on your thighs to get up to the next level. I don’t know how they did it.”
The next summer, the Geneva Lake Jumpers expanded to 40 members, and reprised their show in front of the Fontana Beach. Bill Williamson was 15 years old that summer, and lived for the time spent practicing with the Geneva Lake Jumpers. “The shows that we had were really neat; we had the most talented people,” he remembers. “And then, at the very end of the show, we’d take Gordy’s ski boats; get them up to planing speed, and then right in front of the beach, we’d all slam it in reverse and the bows would go down, and we’d do it simultaneously like we were taking a bow and the people on the beach would cheer.”
Whowell says some of the Geneva Lake Jumpers also began training to compete in a handful of water ski tournaments around the upper Midwest, even setting up a slalom course on the calmer waters of Lake Como to practice. “When you’re into that sport, there is probably a tournament every week somewhere,” he explains. “There’s recognition involved and trophies. We went to a few of those tournaments and had varying degrees of success. I think it was eye-opening for us, to see how good some of the competition was.”
ALL GOOD THINGS MUST COME TO AN END
In the summer of 1962, the Geneva Lake Jumpers added a performance at that year’s Venetian Festival, delighting the crowd with everything from trick skiing and ski jumping to a clown act and another attempt at a water ballet, though Buchholtz and Jouris say the water was too rough that night to do much of the choreography. “It turned out to be hard, not only to ski in that heavy water but hard to tow the big jump all the way down [to Lake Geneva],” Whowell remembers. The Venetian Fest show turned out to be the last big show the Geneva Lake Jumpers performed.
After three summers of heavy use, the ski jump was beginning to break down. Plans to build a new one fell through and several of the club’s founders were new college graduates with more responsibilities. Lacking organizational leadership and a ski jump, the Geneva Lake Jumpers disbanded. However, the legacy of the club lives on. Jouris met her husband Gary in the Geneva Lake Jumpers, and several of the club members remain friends to this day. Some of the alums still proudly sport their custom Geneva Lake Jumpers’ jackets. Candie (Davis) Feurstein even hand-embroidered hers.
Above all, participating in the Geneva Lake Jumpers instilled a lifelong love of water skiing in every member. In fact, Buchholtz says she only gave up water skiing a few years ago. Two Geneva Lake Jumpers reunions have brought alums back to Gordy’s to reminisce and relive the excitement and the memories. Looking back on his time with the Geneva Lake Jumpers, Williamson echoes the feelings of many of the alums, summing it up simply: “It was just so much fun.”