Sunday, June 29, 2008

Set The Wayback Machine For 1979, Sherman!

OK, Mr. G-Body!

Sit down kiddies and get close to the campfire. Unkie Ger will relive his personal experiences and opinionated history of this abysmal, filthy, over-rated, annual mess of a public festival at Chicago’s lakefront known as Taste Of Chicago.

Last year there were more than 200 cases of salmonella reported. Seems that there was a large batch of tainted hummus consumed. Justice is also served at the "Taste".

It wasn’t always that way. Chicago once held a pleasant, affordable lakefront music event they called Chicagofest. It has since morphed into the ghastly, sweaty, greasy, unsafe food bazaar now known as Taste of Chicago. Why? Politicians, a powerful restaurant lobby, unions and their lust for cash. Not that a lust for cash is a bad thing.

I’m sure you’ve heard of a place on the Chicago lakefront known as Navy Pier. In '79 it was an abandoned maritime shipping facility that extended into the lake. It was and is about 50 acres of concrete extending out into Lake Michigan. In years past it was a vibrant commercial port where cargo vessels unloaded goods for distribution. Before interstate highways and the Teamsters, everything from Wisconsin cheese to Christmas trees made the way into Chicago by rail or through Navy Pier. It also served as a military training facility during WWII. By '79 it degenerated into a series of compartmentalized, dilapidated empty warehouses. Thirty years later it is a cornucopia of multi-media entertainment that now rates as Illinois’ #1 tourist destination. Yep, it even tops that monument to futility and frat boy kegger party known as Wrigley Field. Who knew?

Jane Byrne was the mayor of Chicago in '79. Now, I do not know who dreamed up the idea and after googling my ass off there is little photographic evidence that Chicagofest actually existed. Wikipedia has published some info. Wiki gives credit to Mayor Blandic, but Chicago gives credit to their Mayor for everything.

The initial concept of Chicagofest was a winner. Take an abandoned series of warehouses on the Chicago lakefront (about a dozen or so) place a stage in front of each one, book entertainment acts (music mostly) and charge a reasonable fee to enter. Once inside you could attend any one of the many mini concert events. There was a country stage, rock stage, soul stage (etc.) and on the land side of the pier was a large outdoor main stage where big time feature acts performed.

Once inside you could roam and experience anything that caught your attention. Acts were booked and a schedule was printed. Annually, it may have lasted a week but possibly a four day weekend was more like it. I am too freaking old to remember exactly. But I do remember it being one hell of a good party.

Wikipedia claims Chicagofest was a rip-off of the Milwaukee Summerfest. Today, the Milwaukee Summerfest is reviewed by critics as far and away the best of the two. I believe it is because it holds to the concept of music first and food second, the opposite of TOC.

At Chicagofest, vendors were selling hot dogs and beer, maybe pizza too. It was simple, unique, quaint and very enjoyable. There was no BBQ’d tofu on a stick to be found. Local “fests” were not very common back then, unless you count a summer picnic at a local Greek church. Today, local economies use these fests to stimulate local commerce and I have no problem with that.

I was working at an upstart Chicago ad agency in '79 (I was 26 at the time and pre-family) on my way to having a very fulfilling career and enjoying one hell of a good time along the way. A co-worker friend was interested in attending the newly created event called Chicagofest. He suggesting having our wives ride the train downtown, meeting up and going to the fest after work one night. When I took a look at the schedule Muddy Waters was the opening act on opening night, a Friday. Looked good to me. On Friday morning I noticed a small blurb in The Sun-Times Kup’s column about John Belushi and Dan Akroyd possibly showing up to sit in with Waters. They were in town on location filming the Blues Brothers movie. That morning I told my friend, Mark that we had to do this. He called his wife and I called mine. Let’s go. Done.

We walked down Grand Ave. together, old ladies in tow, heading for Navy Pier after work carrying a plastic 6-pack stringers of 16oz. Old Style’s being gulped down. Quickly.

Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son. But every now and then it didn’t hurt. We were bullet-proof back then. It enhanced the experience too.

Arriving at the pier we staked out a spot close to the main stage about an hour before the opening act. It was probably 7pm when a local DJ showed up to introduce Waters. Everyone was jacked. Woo-freaking-hoo!

The announcer first introduced Mayor Jane Byrne and her daughter, Cathy. They came out in pork-pie hats and sunglasses too so I knew it was on. Everyone boo’d. Byrne took the mike and yelled, “Everyone sit down and shut the fuck up” or words to that effect. Seriously! It was as if your mom came home early to a party you were having. The place went silent. She spoke. We politely waited.

Mayor Byrne introduced Waters who came out and performed “Hoochee Coochie Man”. Then all hell broke loose when Jake and Elwood walked out. They performed for an hour or so doing their schtick with that fabulous horn section blowing backup. Steve Cropper was there, Lou Marini, Matt “Guitar” Murphy, the whole schmear. They finished up with “Sweet Home Chicago” along with Waters. It was a hell of a night and one I will never forget. Wish I had taken photos.

When they wrapped up we explored the acts on the small stages. My favorite was “Asleep At The Wheel” (never heard of them at the time) and that began a period where country music was my favorite.

Chicagofest lasted another year or so. Byrne lost the election to Harold Washington who gutted any expenses that did not benefit the inner city and reallocated them. Suburban yout’s were the first to suffer. Jesse Jackson was all over Chicagofest as being a wasteful expense. He held a boycott (how unusual). Stevie Wonder became a no-show at Jackson’s request. They won, Byrne lost, Harold Washington became mayor and that was that. They credit destroying Chicagofest for Harold's victory. Last Friday night at Taste of Chicago Wonder played, Jackson showed up and they used it to commemorate their victory.

Some more info on that from The New York Times:

At the same time another small festival took place at Michigan Avenue and the river. It was called “A Taste Of Chicago”. It featured local restaurants and it offered small, affordable sample portions of their menu items served at small tables. It did not draw much of a crowd the first time but it grew in popularity since Chicagofest was killed.

The Chicago restaurant lobby is a very influential group. At the time a powerful fat cat restauranteur named Arnie Morton led the group to convince the city council in supporting their proposition for an expanded Taste of Chicago. Morton’s place was Morton’s Steakhouse. He made his nut running the restaurant operations of the old Playboy Club. His son started the Hard Rock CafĂ© enterprise. They were very successful businessmen. The new event was blessed and expanded to Grant Park. It grew. Into a monster.

Today, Taste Of Chicago resembles nothing like the “taste” it started out to be. The restaurant owners offer larger portions of food that were never on their menu and the price is way out of line. The food is nothing more than typical fest food like ribs, hot dogs, cheezeborgers, turkey legs, Celtic corn (Celtic corn???) and elephant ears. And yes, BBQ tofu on a stick. I don't think Dr. Vegetable is there. Too bad.

One item being served this that is just shameful. From The Chicago Tribune:

Vienna Beef/Gold Coast Dogs (26) All-natural Vienna hot dog, a first for the 115-year-old Vienna, features meat from premium, hormone and antibiotic-free, vegetarian-fed cattle. It's naturally cured and formulated with no artificial colors or ingredients.

I like the fact that they are feeding vegetarians to cattle. Is THAT justice or what?

This time of year a lot is going on downtown. Today for instance, there is the Sox & Cubs series, TOC, and even the Gay Pride Parade. All in one day. Some will have to make a difficult decision.


Carl from Chicago said...

I'm heading over to the Taste now and will get some photos. Best to go there early before the crowds gather.

Dan from Madison said...

Great post. I have a Taste story - back in my hard partying days I got so incredibly inebriated at the Taste that I was basically slumped over a traffic signal box separated from my friends. Who knows where I would have ended up that night. Incredibly, Carl and the rest of the people came strolling by that signal box and rescued me. The odds of that happening must have been a trillion to one. I believe I may have also been denied entry to one or more bars that evening. Ah, good times.

jonathan said...

Good post.

Anonymous said...

Gerry - While I was stationed in the area a few years ago, I hit the Whiting Pirogi Festival. It still had the small town feel, female & male eye candy, Adult beverages and lots of varieties of pirogi's. All in all, a pretty good and inexpensive saturday!

Gerry from Valpo said...

Pierogi Fest is 3 weeks away! My favorite is Friday night with the most insane parade and live polka bands.

Look for coverage and the most abstract and surreal images I can capture.

brotha cid said...

If you LOVED the ChiFest, you have to check out this site: includes

It took me right back to my childhood moments. I felt I was there again!