Monday, August 22, 2011

Super ‘70s and ‘80s: Sea World superheroes water ski show—introduction

In 1977, every boy between 5 and 15 wanted to be Han Solo…or a Sea World superhero.

Superhero fans nationwide born in the early 1970s remember the comic book ad showing Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Robin…water skiing.

Far fewer, however, actually made it to Ohio or Florida to see the actual show at Sea World, which ran from 1976 to 1979.

[2/5/14: I noticed that the video I had originally posted here had been removed from YouTube, but only a week prior someone posted this one—which is longer and more vivid anyway.]

When I was inspired to try to track down the skiers and interview them, I thought I’d be looking for the same number of skiers as characters who appeared in the pyramid I’d seen many times: ten.

However, once I began poking around online, I realized there were characters in the show who were not in the pyramid. My count was 23 (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Robin, Flash, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Captain Marvel, Black Canary, Supergirl, Batgirl, Mera, Mary Marvel, Joker, Penguin, Riddler, Catwoman, and Captain Cold, plus Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, and, oddly, Tarzan).

What’s more, I soon learned that each skier portrayed multiple characters at different times. Combine that with the fact that there were two locations (Ohio and Florida) and multiple seasons and it meant there were even more than 23 skiers to find. For a completist like me, that is not good news. It meant I would be driven to try to find all of them.

1977, Ohio

row 1: Tommy Gardner (in cap), Debbie Hay, Tom Freeburn
row 2: Tom Weber, Andy Hansen, Kaci Whittenton (Hedstrum), Ric Jones, Karen Weber
row 3: Mary McMurtrie (white headgear), RiddlerRodney Hendershot,
Paula Nelson (Bloemer), Joker—Ken McCabe, PenguinBubby Snow,
Bob “Bullet” Borth, MeraSherry Satterfield Runion
clump 4-5: Wonder WomanReyna Blasko, SupergirlNancy Radant Combes,
Greg Galloway, FlashBill Schwartz, Batman—?, BatgirlCindy Barhoff (Clasen),
—John Macqueen, Annette Botti (Hoffman) (white headgear)
row 6: Green LanternRandy Messer, Black CanaryJanalee Zimmerman (Addleman),
Green Arrow
Billy Davies, Miles ?, Dave Madeline, Mike Botti, Wade ?

I didn’t, but I did find more than 40 and interviewed many of them. Most were in their late teens or early twenties at the time; a few were mid- to late-twenties. Many have gone on to raise kids and have grandkids in Florida, and most still seem to have a connection to the water.

Something else I found: there are many ways to misremember the name “Mera.” These include Mira, Myra, Merna, and Lady Meara. All lovely in their own right.

I was honored these people let me into their memories to the extent that they did. Though my only attempt at water skiing (at camp in the mid-1980s) did not go well, I felt a kinship with these skiers. For two summers I was a photographer at Lake Compounce, an historic amusement park in Connecticut, and while that job was not anywhere near as physically demanding or flashy as theirs, I suspect some of the feelings overlapped: the joy of working outdoors in a quintessentially “summer” destination, the camaraderie among the young staff, the abundance of possible love connections in one spot, the happy exhaustion of long days on your feet in the sun, and so on.

This is the one that started this project, which expanded far bigger than I could’ve expected.Many skiers and others involved with the show graciously sent me a bounty of photos. I got permission to post all images; if you want to repost, please do the same and ask me first.

Welcome to the first-ever oral history of the Sea World water skiing superheroes show, which some describe as the best ski show ever produced.

Management, staff, and non-skiing performers interviewed (6 parts):

Bob LaPorta, Corporate Director of Productions
Chuck Jordan, Supervisor of Entertainment
Clark Gault, composer
Dan Kibbie, co-writer
Curt Rector and Ken McCabe, announcers
Dan Poor, high diver (Green Arrow)

Skier interviews (10 parts):

1—the training
2—the characters
3—the costumes
4—the show (including stunts, funny incidents, and salary)
5—the mistakes
6—the audience; the fame
7—the relationships
8—after the show closed
9—the skiers' lives today
10—the memories

Skiers interviewed:

Christina Ashley; Sarasota, FL
Cindy Barhoff (Clasen); MA
Reyna Blasko; Las Vegas, NV
Doby Buesse; Orlando, FL
Nancy Radant Combes; FL
Jacque Cook (Jackie Kuntarich); Orlando, FL 
Shirley Duke; Orlando, FL
Steve Fontaine; FL
Greg Galloway; Orlando, FL
John Gillette; Charlotte, NC
Mark Gutleben; Stockton, CA
Andy Hansen; FL
Roland Hillier; Maitland, FL
Al Kelley; Nassau, the Bahamas
Linda Knapp (Moffett); rural VA
Margie LaPoint (Bates); Truckee, CA
Carl Lipsit; northern VA
Kerry Lloyd; south FL
Dave Madeline (boat driver); OH
Betsy Maher (Hawkins); FL
Mary McMurtrie; FL
Randy Messer; Orlando, FL
Paula Nelson (Bloemer); Lake Wales, FL 
Jeff Parnell; Fort Myers, FL
Bill Peterson; Windermere, FL/Breckenridge, CO
Sherry Satterfield Runion; FL

Bill Schwartz; Orlando, FL
Suzanne (and Sharkey) Schwartz; northern CA
Diane D. Smith; central FL
Bubby Snow; OH
Jody Spence; Las Vegas, NV
Lori (and Mark) Taylor; FL
Gary Thompson; TN
Tom (and Karen) Weber; Groveland, FL
Kaci Whittenton (Hedstrum); Hattiesburg, MS
Sherry Wickstrom; Lake Alfred, FL
Janalee Zimmerman (Addleman); Friedens, PA

Who's who on the famous 1976 poster:

Wonder Woman—Kaci Whittenton (Hedstrum)
—?, Supergirl—Gay Schwartz (Peteet), Mera—Debbie Blake, Black Canary—Randi Tetrick
—Randy Messer, Batman—Randy Jones, Superman—Andy Hansen, Aquaman—Tom Weber, Flash—Sharkey Schwartz

10/5/12 addendum (but read the series first): Sea World superheroes reunion!


Jakethy said...

Thank you so much for putting in the time and effort to provide this delicious bit of nostalgia. I was born in '72 and grew up in south Florida. I never saw the show, but it somehow made its way into my consciousness. These photos are fantastic, and the video? Priceless!

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Thanks Jake! Hopped to your blog and anything that quirkily combines Super Powers figures and baked goods is top notch in my book. Please email me your email address to!

rockurbotti said...

Awesome post :) My parents and godparents were in that show (my parents are Superman & Wonderwoman in the doubles picture above). We set up a Facebook page for the 70's Sea World Skiers a while back...there are more awesome photos of those days that the skiers have shared:

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Thanks rockurbotti! Yes, I wanted to include your parents and your mom kindly responded to my initial query (in fact, she said her brother-in-law lives in my hometown in CT and your dad is from the town next door), but they didn't answer the interview questions! At least they're in the photos!

I'm curious how you learned of my blog feature?

szeecue said...

Sharkey and I are very much enjoying the interviews and trip down memory lane! [Thank you for documenting, Marc]. Sending a big, smiling 'hello' to Bob and Chuck!!!

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Suzanne and Sharkey - thrilled to read that! Wait till you see the extensive skiers' portion (starting 9/1)!

Ginger Calem said...

Fun to read this and see the photos. (Thanks, Bill Von Olen for sending to me)

I'm Ginger (Thompson) Calem -- daughter to Gary Thompson. I basically grew up on the superhero water ski show set (mainly Orlando), as I'm sure many of the skiers of the time can attest.

My husband and I met at a waterski show and now have 3 kids, all skiers! It's so fun for them to see stuff like this.

Superheroes are still so popular and big right now, wouldn't it be great to resurrect this? Possible?

Keep the memories alive!


Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Great to hear from you, Ginger! As you probably saw, your dad is one of the skiers I interviewed! His interview (and the other skiers') begins posting 9/1!

As for resurrecting the show, reboots (as they're called) are all the rage in the superhero world these days, so it IS possible! In fact, it has been a hope of mine that this feature might show that there is interest in such a revival. I've contacted Sea World...

Cathyland said...

LOVE THIS!!! Was just talking about how memorable this show was to a kid from Orlando - and googled to find someone has already done the work to research it! thank you!!

John said...

The odd addition of Tarzan was most likely due to, or at least connected to, DC Comics holding the comic book license rights from 1972 - 1977.

I was born in 1974 and I do vividly remember these ads in the comics. I went to Sea World when I was 3 and actually do have memories of the trip. I vaguely remember seeing the characters on the water briefly from somewhere in the park, although we didn't actually get seats and watch the show. That was a big deal to me at the time. I grew up with comics as my dad owned a comic book store, and people now don't know or forget that comic book characters were not all over mainstream media then like they are now, save for the core characters of each company. So to see a character like the Flash or Green Arrow represented in live action was amazing, even if it was a bit corny.

Dan said...

I was a kid and brought on the Bat Boat as part of the show. I was just scanning old photos and wondered where I was! Great article!