Chicagoland Music Festival was true spectacle

Chicago music lovers counted down the days to August. The annual festival was a highlight of the year, one of the most popular tickets in the Midwest. The crowds streamed into the city and onto the lakefront, eager to see the dozens of new and popular acts take the stage in the biggest arena for one great night.

Starting 75 years before Lollapalooza took up residence in Grant Park, the Chicagoland Music Festival claimed gaudy attendance numbers at the annual Soldier Field events, figures no longer possible in the renovated stadium.

Unlike most events, the Chicagoland Music Festival didn't start small and grow. It started big and became huge. About 150,000 — with thousands more unable to get in the stadium — watched the inaugural show Aug. 23, 1930. There were so many people, in fact, that spectators sitting on the sidelines impeded the drum corps' movements.

Like the College All-Star Game, Golden Gloves boxing, the Silver Skates Derby and numerous other events, including airplane and horse races, fashion and kite-flying shows, bowling tournaments and wrestling matches, the music festival was organized and sponsored by the Chicago Tribune. The newspaper wasn't shy about promoting its own events in its news pages — especially once longtime publisher Col. Robert McCormick took a liking to it. It's hard to say how much the Tribune's glowing coverage helped the festival thrive, but even accounting for some exaggeration and boosterism, and assuming the reporter was ordered to don his rose-colored glasses, that first Chicagoland Music Festival was a spectacle.

The thrill — and the showmanship — started with the public address announcement: "You are sitting now in the glow of 392,000 watts of light, and in order that you may have a standard of comparison, I will add that that is three times as large a volume of light as at any baseball game that ever was played at night. Friends, it is the greatest artificial illumination of a single arena in the world's history."

To which the Tribune reported: "The people rapturously applaud these words. They are rising to the fact that they have come to a big show."

That, at least, was hard to argue. Before that first night was out, the crowd saw 21 marching bands and 16 drum corps, which entered the arena in one bombastic burst. They heard the festival band play the John Philip Sousa marches "The Washington Post," "Stars and Stripes Forever" and "U.S. Field Artillery."

Another highlight of the night was a 1,000-member African-American choir singing the spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." The Tribune reported, "The colored brethren have 'stolen the show.' Everybody is glad." The black performers and spectators were often segregated, and the coverage condescending, but their participation was an important part of the show, with the added benefit of giving these acts a much broader audience. According to Tribune reporter Liam Ford, in his book "Soldier Field: A Stadium and Its City": "Black groups became a mainstay of the festival, providing some white Chicagoans with their first exposure to black music."

The climax of that first evening was the Hallelujah chorus from Handel's "Messiah," performed by a combined 3,000-voice choir. The Tribune's reporter did not hold back: "The 3,000 never faltered — never once — in their bombardment of the hallelujah against the background of the scriptural phrases of the hymn." But it wasn't the finale, which, of course, was Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," with not a single cannon punctuating the music, but a full cannonade and fireworks.

The festival wasn't just a concert but also a competition. Musical acts applied and competed locally months ahead of time. Newspapers around the Midwest joined the Tribune to promote and organize the local contests. Each year, the winners were announced and pictured in the Tribune.

The force at the Tribune behind the festival, Philip Maxwell — whose brother Don Maxwell would be managing editor and editor from 1955-69 — didn't settle for just a repeat performance. The second year, he added a "system of electrical amplification such as the world has never heard" and welcomed famed band director and composer John Philip Sousa himself to the performance.

In the late 1930s, the lighting ceremony — where the thousands in attendance would hold up a lighter or a lit match — became one of the most popular parts of the festival.

Possibly most important, though, for the continued success of the festival was the expansion of community participation.

In addition to having the audience join in singing popular songs that second year, 14 groups of local girls waving flags of different nations paraded and performed. The next year, 600 costumed girls danced and twirled in the spotlights. Over the festival's 36 years, thousands of Chicago children danced, sang and played instruments — what do 2,000 accordionists sound like? — at the festival. Given the number of youngsters involved, the parents and siblings of the performers alone would constitute a large crowd.

Arlene Gould, who now lives in Northbrook but grew up on the North Side, was a precocious accordionist, who not only competed and won the senior competition when she was 17 but led her own band in the evening performance in August 1950.

"I was nervous," Gould said of the event. She said she didn't find out she would be playing until winning a competition round earlier that same day. "It was a very exciting time in my life. It was really wonderful."

Gould, whose maiden name is Einz, became a professional accordionist. She said she won other competitions, playing classical favorites such as Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony," but gave it up to get married and raise eight children.

"A couple of months ago, I tried to put it on," Gould said of her accordion. "It is so heavy. I'm 81 years old now. I don't know how I ever played it. I really miss it."

Carol Nosich, of Crest Hill, remembered how as a young girl she practiced her dance routine at her local park in Chicago. She said nearly every park would participate and practice its piece of the show and then come together at Soldier Field to perform the choreographed routine for the first time. She said each child would be given pieces of cloth for the costume; the mothers were expected to sew it together.

While numerous famous singers and musicians played at the festival over the decades, including Louis Armstrong, Frankie Avalon and Mahalia Jackson, for many Chicagoans and their beaming parents, the highlight of the show was no doubt their own children. That's how Nosich recalled it: "I was the star. I danced at Soldier Field."

Editor's note: Thanks to Arlene Gould, of Northbrook, Carol Nosich, of Crest Hill, and Marie Balaz, of Northbrook, for suggesting different aspects of this Flashback.

sbenzkofer@tribune.com