Introduction to subseries “Sea World superheroes show” (including list of interviewees).
Skiers, part 3 of 10—the costumes.
SWSH = Sea World superheroes
What was the show’s story?
Diane Smith: The story was what you would expect when superheroes and super villains interact. It was the classic good vs. evil scenario. The 45-minute shows were complex, however. So much was happening that one could not watch it all at the same time. There was Jimmy Olsen, the announcer, who described what was taking place on the water as he controlled the action. There were flivers (small boats) and boat drivers waving and circling on the water. “Magic” occurred on the stage with Catwoman and her whip and thugs dressed in black. On the beach, lifts and gymnastic bows were athletically yet delicately completed. There was great excitement on the water as boats approached from all directions and intricate skiing: jumping, doubles, trios, slaloming, shoe skiing, trick skiing, barefoot skiing, and more continued.
In the air, a kite flier soared as Gary Thompson signaled with his feet to the boat driver and then he made a perfect landing in front of the stands. Boats raced at each other with “near misses.” On the diving platform, Tom Kaser climbed higher and higher until he seemed miles up and was finally perched at the top for his high dive into the lake which was flaming with fire. At first, he would not surface and the audience would gasp; then he would appear, smiling and ready to dive again in the next show. Characters would run down the steps in the stands, close enough for the audience to touch them. Some would pretend to be members of the audience and would run onto the set, jump into the water and ski or barefoot. It was genius. In our final stage bow, we signed off as our costumes dictated; only the boat drivers were introduced by their actual names. We even had gorgeous night shows…I remember just about turning purple from the chilling winds in the late December evening shows because we girls did not wear wetsuits, only our regular costumes. To this day, I don’t believe there has ever been another [show] to equal it.
Jeff Parnell: When the fight moved to the stage or beach, Sea World employees would hold up signs that read “POW” and “BANG.” Sometimes the adults would laugh hard. We had a couple of talented Jokers. One was a clown for Barnum & Bailey circus. Some of the younger kids would be terrified.
Linda Knapp (Moffett): Catwoman disappeared, Batgirl and Mera got sawed in half, and Robin was put in a torture chamber.
Nancy Radant Combes: There were usually three villains in each show. Joker, Riddler, and Penguin. In the Ohio show we [also] used Catwoman, a non-skiing act.
If the story changed over time, how so?
Andy Hansen: Some lines here and there. Ken McCabe came on as an announcer. He played the best Joker and was a talented scriptwriter. He and the other announcer would tweak the dialogue.
Shirley Duke: I believe it was tweaked a few times, especially by the hosts, who were pretty creative guys.
Part of the show took place on a stage and a beach. If you had lines during those portions, how did the audience hear you? Were you wearing microphones?
Al Kelley: Voice-overs for all skiers; only Jimmy Olsen (the announcer) and the Joker used mics. It’s quite possible that Adam West and others may have been involved in the original recordings for the voice-overs.
Doby Buesse: There were just a few lines for the skiers. No microphones. Lip-synched to the PA. I still remember (as Batman): “Hello there, boys and girls. Are you all having a nice day here at Sea World? That’s great!”
Did the characters have different personalities, or were they all simply “good,” as was common in superhero cartoons of the period?
Bill Schwartz: It was a little hokey...but fun.
If music accompanied the show, what kind (i.e. existing songs or original songs, rock or classical, etc.?)
Shirley Duke: There was the original Batman theme [and] the [music] from Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, where they are being chased by the posse. When that song came on, we had about 15 minutes to get ready. Some of us waited until the last minute and had to scramble out to the side dock. Sometimes I have nightmares about that song and I wake up laughing.
What was the hardest stunt in the show?
Al Kelley: The ski jumping and back barefoot were the most difficult.
Andy Hansen: Depends who you ask. Carrying those girls on my shoulders as Superman every day seven times a day during the pyramids would remind me that my back wasn’t as superheroish as it needed to be. The Penguin’s long dive off the ski jump was probably one of the scariest for me at that stage. I learned to enjoy that part in later years.
Bill Peterson: I would say the jump act; others might say star doubles.
Bill Schwartz: The jump act was probably the most difficult and dangerous group act. The back barefoot was the single most difficult act, but we were superheroes and could do anything!
Doby Buesse: For the guys, back barefoot. The girls, star swivel.
Jeff Parnell: Jumping at night. The spotlights blinded you.
John Gillette: Though long distance jumping or backward barefooting would typically be considered the hardest, the hardest for me was lead doubles. I was small (140 pounds) and lifting a girl above my head, spinning her around, etc., was a challenge for me.
Lori Taylor: For me, changing clothes in the magic boxes.
Mary McMurtrie: As Wonder Woman, we had to drive a boat over a ramp…which was kinda nerve-racking.
Roland Hillier: Starting off the dock with a skier on your shoulders while wearing a strap around you (not using a handle). There was a person in the boat that would pull a release if you were about to fall. Very intimidating and required a lot of trust with the release puller.
Shirley Duke: I believe the male skiers had the tougher stunts in the show. For the female skiers, if you played Mera or Batgirl, who were sawed in half, you had to curl up your legs and change your tights in the magic boxes while your upper body stayed still. This was after you had just skied. It wasn’t hard, just cumbersome.
Suzanne Schwartz: For me, one of the hardest things to master was the dock start—both sitting and standing. There was always something to work on: the skiing, the mechanics of the acts, the various lifts (both on and off the water), choreography, how to set up and break down a show, how to master the costume changes…it was all brand new to me.
Any funny/unusual show anecdotes?
Al Kelley: One of my favorite things after the show was to go out as Superman and while shaking hand with the kids give a real firm handshake. The kids would usually look at each other and say “He really is Superman!”
Andy Hansen: The funniest parts were always undertrained skiers trying to play a superhero. And the magic acts from Harry Blackstone would always provide some funny incidents. One that was frequent was when Catwoman disappeared from the main stage and was supposed to show up on the ski jump when the attention was drawn there. Sometimes she forgot, lost her attention.
Diane Smith: The performers were not shy; they had an excess of personality and spunk. Although we always took our show and practices seriously, I do remember moments of levity. It was my very first day and I was to magically appear as a character who had disappeared from the stage (we had kiosks and “magic boxes” where supposed “sawing” of a character occurred). What actually happened was that tunnels were used for hiding or we would change clothes curled up in the magic boxes. When this character “disappeared,” she somehow “reappeared” at the top of the ski jump. But the audience was fooled, as they saw the same costume of the character, but actually a different skier who had been taken to a hiding spot under the ski jump where, upon her cue, she would climb up the jump while the audience was focused elsewhere. Then she would stand and “appear” when the announcer told the audience to look. The audience and the children, especially, were amazed. [So] before the show, I was told, “Don’t worry about that funny smell inside the jump where you will be hiding; those moth balls are there to keep the water moccasins out.”
Another time, a very sweet female skier was stung by a bee and she continued with the show. However, she was dangerously allergic to bee stings and afterwards was rushed to the hospital for medicine so that she would not go into anaphylactic shock. She could have died if she had waited too long. Her response was, “I knew I had fifteen minutes before it became serious.” Most of us had no idea…
Doby Buesse: The multi-swivel was an all-girl ballet-type performance behind one boat. Because they held the rope with their foot, a safety release rider was required to prevent injury if one were to fall. If a fall looked imminent from one skier, a release would be pulled disconnecting all of them from the boat. The flick of a wrist could turn the graceful multi-swivel into a flailing multi-munch. Many of the guys took sadistic pleasure in this. Especially if it was cold out.
Jeff Parnell: We were always playing tricks on each other. Spraying the announcers with the jump boats was one of the most fun. We would drive those jump boats almost on the beach to get to those announcers. It was like we were out of our minds.
Kerry Lloyd: Fontaine did a lot of Batman. He looked like Batman and I did Robin. Part of show was where we take a volunteer in the Batboat. During that we’d get attacked by villains and we’d scare the s*** out of these kids! Nobody from the audience would know what was going on out in that boat. The kids practically cried but not really.
It was funny every day. We had a guy named John Gaffey who’s now deceased (about 1992). He was a natural comedian. He did that Riddler character. He could steal the show at any time. He got reprimanded constantly. Suzie and Sharkey—here’s some big characters right there. Sharkey was a star skier and got in a motorcycle accident and hurt his ankle. He moved into maintenance to take care of the boats. So a skier that becomes a supervisor—there’s a guy to pick on. [said good-naturedly]
Linda Knapp (Moffett): We were always playing practical jokes on one another, but got in trouble if it negatively affected the show. I remember putting elephant feces in the guys’ binders before pyramid…then in the backstretch (the portion of the show circle—the pattern the boat travels in—that goes behind the set so the skiers are out of view of the audience), they dropped us.
A rare glimpse of Captain Marvel and Mary Marvel, Ohio;
the other is a black-and-white shot, but face-forward
the other is a black-and-white shot, but face-forward
Nancy Radant Combes: Keeping wigs on was always a challenge. Supergirl was particularly tough because she slalomed and had to duck under a rope while crisscrossing across the wake. My friend Janalee got clothes-lined once and she totally lost her wig.
Sherry Wickstrom: The first show I started as Catwoman. To wait for my cue, I hung out by the elephant barn. I would talk to Sunja the elephant while I waited. So another day that I was Catwoman, I walked around the stadium into the park and Sunja was out there with no handler. She recognized either me or the outfit so she started following me. I could not get her into her pen. Then I heard my music cue and I went onto the beach, Sunja right behind me.
Shirley Duke: They [at Sea World] were so meticulous. You were actually part of the comic book. We ruined a whole bunch of costumes by throwing them into the dryer. The Velcro got stuck all over the costumes. They didn’t want any photographs taken [until they were fixed]. [Also,] I was in charge of the weight chart; we had weigh-ins every Tuesday. We had an 108-pound limit for the top of the pyramid. Also I was the first female to drive during the show. I was always available to drive during practice when the regular boat drivers were not available.
Sherry Satterfield Runion: One memory was skiing at night with one of the Gatlin brothers (think it was them). He wanted to ski after one of the concerts held at Atlantis Theater. The powers that be said okay...if someone went with him. I was with [my now-husband] Britt (shooting the concert and VIPs) in the tunnel after the event. It was decided our celebrity guest could ski if I skied alongside. Unheard of in today's legal world.
What was your salary/compensation for performing in the SWSH show?
Al Kelley: $600 to $1,000/month.
Andy Hansen: I calculated 50 cents/hour when I started. LOL! True story.
Betsy Maher (Hawkins): I was an hourly employee. Starting maybe slightly above minimum wage, with health insurance, dental.
Bill Peterson: $4.10/hour starting pay, in 1976 dollars.
Cindy Barhoff (Clasen): The guys made much more. : )
Dave Madeline: Paid hourly. The more stunts you did, the more money you made.
Doby Buesse: When I left in 1981, it was about $8/hour.
Greg Galloway: I think I started out at $6.50/hour, way better than the $2.60 I was earning selling popcorn at Disney.
Janalee Zimmerman (Addleman): I was making $7.30/hour. At that time, that was a lot of money to an 18-year-old (even though I did have to pay for my living expenses)! :-)
Jeff Parnell: Between $8 and $10/hour.
Jody Spence: I think I started at $7/hour.
Kaci Whittenton (Hedstrum): Gosh, I think I started at around $4 and ended up making around $6.50.
Linda Knapp (Moffett): I remember making $800/month, but that changed over the years. It was a decent salary but we worked long hours.
Mary McMurtrie: Not a whole lot. Way under $10/hour.
Nancy Radant Combes: My first summer (1977), I made $3.30/hour. We did 6-7 shows a day.
Paula Nelson (Bloemer): I think about $175 or $200/week.
Randy Messer: I started at $4.35/hour in November 1976. I was paid a bit more than other new skiers because I could back barefoot, jump and perform helicopter spin, and fly a kite.
Roland Hillier: Below industry standards.
Shirley Duke: If you were able to portray all characters, you got the highest compensation.
Steve Fontaine: $650/month.
Suzanne Schwartz: The salary for skiers back in those days was pretty awful. We were paid hourly (not salaried). Can’t recall how much but I’m thinking less than $1,500 per month. We did have full benefits that included excellent medical and dental insurance.
Next: skiers, part 5 of 10—the mistakes.