Taste of Chicago: Forever Free, Clear, and Musical?

Taste of Chicago, in recent years, has been free to attend and has featured a deep lineup of prominent pop musicians. But that hasn’t always been the case. Here’s a brief history of the Taste, including its relationship to the big ChicagoFest musical extravaganza.

During the discussion about the potential privatization and/or need to charge entrance fees to the Taste of Chicago, I’ve heard people say that the 30-year-old event has always been free, emerged from the music-oriented ChicagoFest, and has long been an important part of the city’s music scene. For instance, here’s Jim DeRogatis:

1. Taste of Chicago is not, in fact, free; one must purchase not inexpensive tickets if one is going to do anything other than smell the food (or, in the past, listen to the music).

2. Taste of Chicago has not always been about food—in fact, with its start as Chicagofest, it primarily was a music festival, and the music has been at least as important a part of the festivities as the food for the last 25 years.

There’s some truth to this, but it’s a bit of a simplification (click through, because DeRogatis goes on to make some other important points; I share his concern about Jazz Fest and the like).

ChicagoFest kicked off in August 1978, running 10 days and featuring Andy Gibb, Helen Reddy, Muddy Waters, Journey, and 271 other acts; despite extensive corporate sponsorship, tickets cost $3.50 in advance or $4 at the gate ($11.71-$13.38 in 2010 dollars) and were good for “the main performance or all of the smaller shows.” And it was contracted out to a private company, the Milwaukee-based Festivals, Inc, which received $250k plus a share of the profits; there would later be debate as to whether the festival lost money or broke even. (In its second year, the city made almost $900k on the festival, and the promoter made almost $500k.)

Taste of Chicago didn’t come about until 1980; after years of trying to convince Mayor Daley and Mayor Bilandic, restaurateur Arnie Morton sold Mayor Byrne on the idea. The city hedged its bets: each restaurant paid $500 plus 10% of gross food sale receipts, and private corporations chipped in $110k. Entertainment was modest: undersung Chicago bluegrass greats Special Consensus, something called “Airflow Deluxe,” Jimmy Damon and his “Salute to Chicago,” and other acts. Festivals, Inc received $20,000 to produce it. Food was $.50 to $2.50 ($1.47-$7.38) for “appetizer-sized servings,” with $5 coupon books ($14.77 in 2010 dollars).

The two festivals remained unchanged—one a free food festival with smaller, primarily local acts, one a big concert series that charged admission—through 1982. In 1982, political disputes began to simmer, and would kill both festivals: Taste of Chicago for the year, ChicagoFest forever. Or, more accurately, multiple political disputes. Jesse Jackson led a boycott of the 1983 1982 ChicagoFest over CHA appointments, causing Stevie Wonder and other black artists to cancel appearances and suburbanites to avoid the festival, which would lose $2m; the Better Government Association pounded away at allegations of pay-for-play against Festivals, Inc; and the city was broke. As Grayson Mitchell, Harold Washington’s press secretary, was paraphrased by the Tribune in 1984:

[T]he mayor’s main concern was that it was too costly for the city. He said the mayor inherited a financially troubled city government and couldn’t afford to spend millions just to give people a good time.

Not to mention the Demon Fund. In 1983, reports emerged that Festivals, Inc had been paid out of an illegal fund—number 666—which hid millions of dollars in losses.

The 1983 ChicagoFest would be the last one; the 1984 Taste of Chicago was given life with an Illinois Restaurant Association sponsorship (one of the parties involved in the recent, rejected Celebrate Chicago bid). It grossed $3.6m, with an estimated $400k in profit for the city.

That’s when the Taste of Chicago we came to know and love began to emerge. But even then it took years before it inherited ChicagoFest’s mantle as the big-budget pop music festival of the summer. The 1985 entertainment lineup was extensive but modest, featuring the “Big Band sounds of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey Orchestras,” the R2D2 imitation “Ashley the Robot,” and of course the Grant Park Orchestra; Pete Seeger and David Bromberg played a folk concert sponsored by WFMT. By 1989 things had picked up to state-fair levels (the BoDeans, Roberta Flack, the Fabulous Thunderbirds), and it would slowly build momentum: Los Lobos in 1990; a messy Replacements show in 1991; Santana, Squeeze, and the Lemonheads in 1994.

Compare that to, say, 2003, which featured Erykah Badu, Sheryl Crow, the Wallflowers, and Elvis Costello. Or 2005: LL Cool J, Moby, Steve Winwood, LeAnn Rimes, freaking Santana again. Train played in 2006, and I would support any privatization or pay any fees that would prevent Train from ever playing it again; if I want to hear Train, I can go into any grocery store or 7-11, thanks. More recent years have featured Liz Phair, John Mayer and Stevie Wonder, while 2009 took a bit of a step back with its headliners (the Wallflowers and Counting Crows returning years after their popular peaks, for instance).

In short, Taste of Chicago eventually did replace ChicagoFest, but it took awhile for the star power to compare, and ChicagoFest had an attendance fee in the first place. Greg Kot runs the numbers, and the combination of the two—a broad menu of pop acts and free admission—isn’t working.

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