It all started after spying some vintage advertising posters at the offices of the Original Wisconsin Ducks. The posters, which depicted boat tours of the Upper and Lower Dells and the Duck rides, had a kitschy 1960s style to them that anyone who loves advertising art would instantly appreciate. When asked about them, owner of the Ducks, Dan Gavinski, said there were others, and pulled out a scrap book with black-and-white photos of posters displayed around town to prove it. Many of the attractions still exist, like the Tommy Bartlett ski show, Wisconsin Deer Park, and of course the Ducks and boat tours. Others have been lost to time and tourists’ tastes, like Storybook Garden and Ft. Dells. The signature of the artist was distinctive – it was Valentine with a heart over the “I” and a swoosh for the middle of the “E.”
Gavinski directed us to River Moon Café, where a handful of the posters adorn the walls of the restaurant. We met up with Eric Helland, who owns the café with wife Mary, to take a closer look. “My favorite is the poster for the Indian Ceremonial, it’s so dramatic with the dark blue starry sky and the moonlit silhouette of the dog jumping at Stand Rock,” said Helland. He found the posters in storage at the old Riverview Boat Line once owned by his family, and decided they deserved a better fate then being unceremoniously stashed away.
The Wisconsin Deer Park poster had us laughing, as the woman is wearing a cocktail dress with what appears to be coordinating high heel shoes. To feed the deer. Her doting husband, with camera around neck, is directing her to move closer to the buck so he can snap the perfect photo. “That one really harkens back to the ‘60s and a different time in the Dells,” laughed Helland. According to the owners of Wisconsin Deer Park, the reference to Bambi Land on the poster drew the attention of Disney, with official correspondence requesting they not refer to it as such. Wisconsin Deer Park used stickers to cover up the words rather than waste the posters.
Next stop was at the offices of the Tommy Bartlett Show, where owner Tom Diehl helped to fill in the blanks. As Diehl recounted, the artist, “Val” Valentine, lived in Florida and was brought to the Dells by Tommy Bartlett (who also owned attractions in Florida), to create a promotional poster for the ski show. Interestingly, it’s the one poster of the bunch not signed by Valentine.
This is where the story really gets interesting. “Valentine’s grandson stopped in last summer after seeing the 60th anniversary piece on the ski show that aired on NBC, wanting to know if anyone in the office was familiar with the artist who created the poster,” said Diehl. The grandson told Diehl that his grandfather was in his early 90’s and still residing in Florida.
A little online research turned up references to Valentine as a master of promotion and an innovator of haunted houses who began his career working for famous animation studios. For the Dells’ posters, with the originals assumed to be painted and then screen printed, he used a florescent color palette of oranges, greens, blues and reds. Somewhat formulaic in design so they would all “hold together” when displayed side-by-side, each has a word or two in the upper right hand corner ending with an exclamation point. Spectacular! Enchanting! Astounding! Wonderful! Fantastic! Welcome Aboard!
Decades apart, yet not so far from how the Wisconsin Dells brand is promoted still today.