History of ChicagoFest
The City of Chicago was loosening the reins on its uptight image by the summer of 1978.
Chicago was just ten years removed from the riots that defined the 1968 Democratic National Convention across America. Police were raiding Chicago gay bars in the mid-1970s. Downtown State Street was deteriorating.
The world was turning and Chicago had to dance to the music.
Chicago mayor Michael Bilandic created the summer party called ChicagoFest in 1978 as a response to Summerfest, which began in 1968 along the Milwaukee lakefront.
Change had been percolating in Chicago. In July 1976 a “World Series of Rock” with Aerosmith, Jeff Beck, KISS, and others was held at Comiskey Park in the Bridgeport backyard of poker-faced mayor Richard J. Daley. The last of the big city bosses would suffer a fatal heart attack later that year. Chicago’s Steve Goodman wrote the 1977 ballad “Daley’s Gone,” singing how no job was too tough for Daley because he built McCormick Place twice.
But when ChicagoFest started it was Navy Pier that required a major facelift.
Navy Pier was a dank, industrial place sticking out in Lake Michigan like a shipwreck. Pigeons and rats were comfortable at the pier, built in 1916 as a dock for freighters. Navy Pier was so creepy it made the idea of seeing ChicagoFest headliners like Frank Sinatra, Etta James and Willie Dixon super exciting. This wasn’t the “my kind of town” that Sinatra sang about.
ChicagoFest had main stage seating for 30,000 people and stages devoted to rock, disco, country, comedy, ethnic, jazz, and more. Indoors, senior citizens could have free blood pressure checks, outdoors there was a children’s playground. The rock stage was on the roof. Imagine that today. More than 500,000 people attended the inaugural ChicagoFest. By 1980 attendance swelled to 900,000 according to the city’s convention and tourism bureau.
The warm vibe of a good party can quickly grow cold, especially in Chicago. Mayor Bilandic was voted out in 1979 because of his poor response to a snowstorm.
Mayor Jayne Byrne took over and became Chicago’s original party aunt. She had previously served as Chicago’s commissioner of consumer sales. At first, she wanted to drop the festival, but citizens and labor unions talked her back on the pier. Instead, Byrne upped the ante. She even branded it “Mayor Byrne’s ChicagoFest.”
Mayor Byrne and her restaurant friend Arnie Morton had their eyes on Boston’s Faneuil Hall as a model for Navy Pier. Nearly 100 local food vendors grossed $10 million annually at the funky pier. Dozens of Chicago radio stations did remotes from the Pier.
In 1982 headliners Stevie Wonder and Kool & the Gang canceled their ChicagoFest appearances in support of Black residents who were upset with Mayor Byrne’s nomination of three white board members to the Chicago Housing Authority. ChicagoFest took financial and public relations hits. In 1983 ChicagoFest headed to Soldier Field where it lasted one year. Its parent company Festivals of Chicago declared bankruptcy after the ‘83 Fest. The party was over.
But the spirit of ChicagoFest was reimagined into the present-day Taste of Chicago.
Off the Navy Pier stage, Mayor Byrne became the city’s first gay-friendly mayor. She stopped the police raids on gay bars. She was devoted to the arts. The late Chicago Tribune arts critic Richard Christiansen said Mayor Byrne made “the arts and amusements of the city a most significant part of her mayoral administration.” While Mayor Richard J. Daley discouraged movies being made in Chicago, Mayor Byrne greenlighted the Blues Brothers movie filming in Chicago, and yes, she introduced the Blues Brothers at the 1979 ChicagoFest.
In 1989 the Metropolitan Pier and Expansion Authority was established by the Illinois General Assembly. Their mission was to manage McCormick Place and Navy Pier. They sailed off to redesign the pier that you see today.
An event like ChicagoFest will never pass this way again. For example, ChicagoFest 1981 was a 12-day affair. A sampling of main stage acts included Aretha Franklin, Muddy Waters with Johnny Winter, John Prine and Steve Goodman, Chicago, Bobby Vinton, Chaka Khan, Teddy Pendergrass, and Mickey Gilley with Hank Williams, Jr. and Joe Ely. ChicagoFest offered something for everyone which is how life should be celebrated in any American city.
ChicagoFest Performer Lineups Year by Year: