The following history of show water skiing is adapted from and courtesy of USA Water Ski, the national governing body of towed watersports.
Brief History of Show Water Skiing
Extremely popular in the upper midwest and practiced throughout the nation, show water skiing combines elements of all water ski disciplines. Water ski shows are productions, featuring several water ski acts choreographed to music and built around a story or theme.
Unique to show water skiing are swivel skiing, strap doubles, freestyle jumping, and human pyramids. Water ski shows are usually performed by amateur clubs, which typically have over 30 water skiing members. Some of the larger clubs have between 100 and 200 total members! Water ski show performers include people of all ages.
Show water skiing is a rich part of the history of water skiing. Water skiers have been performing amateur and professional water ski shows since the 1940s. In fact, in the 1950s, the most talented traditional competitors also were water ski show professionals. Today, many of the most talented water show ski athletes perform at venues such as Tommy Bartlett's in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin; Legoland at Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Florida; and Sea World in San Antonio, Texas.
Earliest Organized Water Ski Shows Performed Over 85 Years Ago
No one knows what Ralph Samuelson, the acknowledged father of water skiing, hoped to accomplish when he founded the sport in 1922, but it was soon apparent that one thing he wanted to do was put on a "show" for his neighbors on the Minnesota lake where he lived. Samuelson’s first pull on skis was behind a motor boat, but he quickly created a new act (one not done today) by skiing behind an airplane on floats. The development of water skiing as a form of entertainment can be traced to Samuelson's theatrical beginning.
According to archives in the files of the Water Ski Hall of Fame & Museum in Polk City, Florida, show water skiing as an organized activity began in 1928 in New Jersey, nearly 1,000 miles east of Minnesota where Ralph Samuelson lived. An entrepreneur named Frank Sterling signed a contract with the Atlantic City Steel Pier to produce a water sports show on a motorized device called a skiboard. Sterling realized that the skiboard was not suited for the rough water conditions of the Jersey shore, so he had his performers transition to a new water sport — water skiing.
One of the original performers from the 1928 Atlantic City Steel Pier show was Harold "Pee Wee" Care of Margate City, New Jersey. Reminiscing 55 years later about his experiences in the show, Care wrote the Water Ski Hall of Fame saying, "skiboards were forerunners of the present-day motorized ski-mobiles, with flat bottoms and a deck approximately 3-1/2-feet wide, 6-feet long and 8 inches thick. 10Hp Johnson direct-drive motors were locked in straight forward position, and after pulling the rope to start the motor, you stood up with rope handlines and steered it like an aquaplane by leaning with your weight from side-to-side."
Care went on to say, "the rough water proved them [ski-mobiles] to be unreliable resulting in many canceled shows. An act had to be made up using the aquaplanes and tow skis. I was hired for my aquaplane experience. Our act was to put on a fast 10 to 12 minutes with something going on in front of the audience at all times. The two girls did a shoulder carry and rode on one ski. The three fellows did three headstands, a pyramid and three-high shoulder carry on the aquaplane. The dog would leap out of the boat when it was his turn, swim to the aquaplane, ride with the girl then swim back to the boat to be lifted out of the water. We finished with the driver of the boat cracking the whip trying to sling the rider off of the aquaplane."
The skis used in those early Steel Pier shows were made by another pioneer in water skiing, Fred Waller, who had concluded, much like Samuelson, that there was a future in the sport. Waller, who had never heard of Samuelson, was making skis and selling them in the northeast.
Water Ski Show Performance Started in Other Areas of the Country
That same year another man, who later was to have a tremendous impact on the public’s recognition of water skiing as entertainment, was doing a ski show in Florida. Dick Pope Sr. rode a pair of skis over a long, low slanted ramp to introduce water ski jumping to an audience at Miami Beach. Fifteen years later he brought show skiing to America’s attention by introducing it into his Cypress Gardens attraction in central Florida.
Meanwhile, in Seattle, Wash., another enterprising ski maker named Don Ibsen (a third pioneer of water skiing, who also didn’t know about Samuelson) was looking for a way to promote the fledgling sport and his products. In 1937, he recruited a few local skiers and they put on a show at Seward Park in Seattle. He named the troupe the Ski-Quatic Follies, and their promotional slogan was "Poetry in Motion." According to an article published in the Seattle Post Intelligencer newspaper, the show’s acts included, "hurdles, balloon gathering, water slalom, acrobatic aquaplane riding and several other feats difficult to perform on a free surf board."
The enthusiasm of the crowds that watched his earliest shows convinced Ibsen that he had a good thing going, and the group soon began performing in other West Coast cities. It wasn’t long before they were on the road most of the summer when Ibsen then realized some sort of training facility was needed in order to replace skiers who left the show to pursue other interests. In 1939, Ibsen and two friends, Bill Schumacher and Bob Schmidt, created what is believed to be the first water ski club in the United States — the Olympic Water Ski Club. For many years afterward, members of the club would practice all year on Lake Washington in Seattle. When the new Ski-Quatic Follies show hit the road each year, vacancies in the acts would be filled by skiers from the club.
A version of this club training is practiced even today as the professional ski shows — such as those which appear at Cypress Gardens (Florida), Tommy Bartlett's (Wisconsin) and several other summer theme parks across the country — recruit their new performers from within the ranks of the amateur show clubs.
Clubs Formed Around Show Water Skiing
The late William D. Clifford, who retired in 1984 after serving 28 years as the executive director of USA Water Ski, thought that most of the early water ski clubs formed in the United States were begun by skiers who were interested in putting on shows, rather than holding competitive water ski tournaments. Today, there are more than 650 water ski clubs affiliated with USA Water Ski. Many of them are interested only in competitive tournament skiing — slalom, tricks and jumping. But a great number of them are dedicated to show skiing and it is evident that this aspect of the sport continues to grow.
Wisconsin Leads Creation of Clubs
If show skiing began in the 1920s and 1930s on the coasts, it really bloomed in the 1950s and 1960s in the Midwest. Wisconsin took the lead in the development of clubs whose main interest is show skiing, and today there are more show clubs in that state than any other.
One of the early Wisconsin show clubs was the Min-Aqua Bats of Minocqua, whose roots can be traced back to 1950. It was an informal beginning, fostered when a group of local young people skiing on Sundays noticed that families would stop along the road and watch them ski. Encouraged by the attention, the skiers decided to put together a show for the onlookers and thus an entertainment tradition was started that continues today.
Today, many of the Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota clubs perform shows for the benefit of their towns and cities. The entertainment is a way for tourist-conscious communities to attract visitors who crowd the shorelines of city lakes and rivers to watch the fun.
The First Water Ski Show Competition
Tournament show skiing, in which the clubs compete to produce the best acts and best overall performance, came into being in 1967. Jack Lukes, president of the Aqua Skiers Inc. water ski club of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., was seeking a way to create greater national interest in show skiing. With encouragement from fellow Wisconsin skier Allen Bubolz, at that time board chairman of USA Water Ski, Lukes wrote the first rules and procedures for competitive show skiing and organized the first Wisconsin State Show Tournament, held at Wisconsin Rapids.
The tournament announcement sent to clubs was a brief one page. After telling where and when the tournament would be held, the organizers outlined the requirements of the new sport by saying: "When selecting your acts use these facts — The show course is primarily circular with a diameter of 100 yards and average depth of 5 feet. You can gain up to 30 points for your adaptability to the site." With that understood, apparently anything the clubs wanted to do in the tournament was considered fair.
Seven clubs showed up for the first tournament. It was declared a success and has been held every year since with as many as 16 clubs participating.
Seeking even greater recognition for their sport, Wisconsin’s show skiers in the early 1970s began talking about a national competition. In 1975, the Rock Aqua Jays water ski club of Janesville, Wis., announced the first Show Ski National Championships to be held in August.
Enthusiasm for the tournament was high as shown by the following excerpt from a news item in the Wisconsin Water Ski Federation newsletter: "Since there has never been a national contest for show skiers before, this tournament will acquaint skiers from Maine to California, from Wisconsin to Florida. The style of Eastern skiers and those of Western skiers may flow together like stream and river to produce an all new style and showmanship".
Nine clubs participated in the first Show Ski National Championships and the winner, Capital City Water Ski Club of Madison, Wis., was invited to perform at the traditional Water Ski National Championships later that month in Tomahawk, Wis.
From its beginnings in the 1920s, show skiing has always had the potential to be one of America’s great spectator events because it entertains and involves the audience. Today, show skiing continues to grow in popularity and many water ski clubs include show events in their summer activities.