Just a week ago on a balmy afternoon, four generations of Richard Robertson’s family flew kites in Zilker Park.
Robertson, 91, has participated in the Zilker Park Kite Festival — now named the ABC Kite Festival after underwriter ABC Home and Commercial Services — since 1963.
“Yeah, I thought the festival would still be around this long,” Robertson says with confidence. “I didn’t think we’d have 10,000 — or what is it now? 40,000? — friends joining us.”
The 88th flying of the kites — the fest was canceled twice — takes place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 31 on the Great Lawn of Zilker Park.
“See that tree over there?” Robertson says. “Once early in the morning, a man raised a huge kite. It got away from him and went right into that tree. Immediately, somebody came out with a bugle and blew taps.”
The grand old man of the kite festival, sponsored since 1929 by the Exchange Club, a service group, has a kit full of stories like this one.
Consider the following timeline a “historical appetizer” about what is likely the oldest kite festival in the country.
March 10, 1929: Ed St. John, president of the Exchange Club, organizes the fest to encourage home kite-building. It takes place in Lamar Park, a stretch of green north of the Colorado River and just east of the Congress Avenue Bridge.
1930s: Festival continues to be sponsored by the Austin Statesman, Austin Parks and Recreation Department and the Exchange Club. The tradition of a rain date set aside for the Sunday following the primary event date continues until 2019; this year does not have a rain date. Competition events — highest, largest, smallest, steadiest, most unusual, strongest pulling and 50-yard-dash — remain generally the same for the fest’s full history.
1936: The festival moves to Zilker Park.
1963: The Robertson family starts attending the festival. They have remained a big part of it through four generations of fliers, including unofficial roles as mentors to the organizers and running the Northwest Recreation Center Kite Making workshop for more than 25 years.
Mid-1960s: American Kitefliers Association forms. Members from across Texas join the Zilker Festival. Later, its president, David Gomberg, shipped in enormous kites to display at the fest.
Late 1960s: Adults compete for the first time; some events are divided into adult and youth categories.
1970s: University of Texas architectural students participate.
1974: The first parafoil, a self-inflating fabric device that resembles a parachute, is invented by Domina Jalbert and introduced at the festival.
1977: A 100-foot centipede, designed by David Jue in California, memorably flies at the fest.
1978: Leaders celebrate the 50th anniversary of the festival. Founder St. John is interviewed for Kite Lines magazine.
Mid-1980s: Joel Scholz dazzles the crowds with one of his “Icarus” kites; he goes on to become a professional kitemaker and founds Sky Delight Kites company.
1989: Junction Kitemakers Retreat, which meets each summer in Junction, located at the confluence of the North and South Llano Rivers, begins. Participants continue to meet at the Zilker fest every year after that.
1990: Marian Robertson, wife of Richard, creates a Mary Poppins kite that continues to be air-worthy to today.
1998: Bunnie and Dorsey Tidwell take over the year-round management of the increasingly large and complex festival.
2011: Bobby Jenkins of ABC Home and Commercial Services becomes the title sponsor.
2015: The festival is completely canceled for the first time because of inclement weather.
2017: Bad weather rears its ugly head again and, for only the second time, festival is completely canceled.
2018: The Exchange Club and ABC Home and Commercial Services reach an agreement to keep the fest afloat for the next 50 years. A new nonprofit, Friends of the ABC Kite Festival, is born.
(This story has been updated because there is no rain date this year.)