In 1962, the marquee act for the first very Austin Aqua Festival, long before the advent of South by Southwest (1987) or the Austin City Limits Music Festival (2002), was Art Linkletter.
That a mild-mannered daytime TV host — whose tag line was, "Kids say the darnedest things" — starred at the premiere of this onetime Austin mega-fest suggests that the city was indeed quite a different place almost 60 years ago.
Sponsored by the Austin Chamber of Commerce, early Aqua Fests — scheduled during the hottest part of the summer, when business activity slowed down, kids needed distraction and college students and legislators were out of town — centered on watery events for the entire family. These included parades down Congress Avenue and on Town Lake, boating races and skiing showcases, beauty contests and decorated floats, community games and fishing contests, wandering entertainers and craft sellers, food booths and nightly concerts.
Famously, South Austin vied against North Austin in a giant tug-of-war across the lake that was periodically charged with uncivil taunts, egged on by humorists such as late American-Statesman columnist John Kelso.
One gained entry to festival events by purchasing in advance a "Skipper Pin," which cost $1 in 1962. The pin discounted the price of admission to individual events. Nostalgic collectors now buy, sell and trade these colorful little plastic mementos online.
During what became a three-weekend festival in early August, concerts were grouped, for years, under headings such as "Czech Night," "Mexican Night" or "German Night" and often showcased local and regional acts. Festival leaders — costumed "commodores," "admirals," "captains" and "commanders" — along with a very small paid staff booked national acts, too, sometimes welcomed by fans and critics, at other times overpriced for a nonprofit without significant outside income other than sponsorships and fundraisers that would be considered small-scale today.
As one of the city’s most recognizable gatherings, Aqua Fest also exposed fissures in the larger community. Early boards of directors were almost completely white and predominately male. For years, they turned a deaf ear to protests from Fiesta Gardens’ mostly Latino neighbors in East Austin, who complained about littering crowds and roaring powerboats. Later, it was South Austin’s turn to shout down the concerts at what is now Vic Mathias Shores, named after the chamber’s longtime president who orchestrated the early years of the festival, for busting decibel limits. Travis Heights residents were not happy with the related River City Road Races on Riverside Drive.
The nightly Fest Nights concerts, the centerpiece of the festival, fluctuated in scale and quality. The festival’s business model, which relied almost completely on volunteers, did not take into account the high risks — or the exorbitant riders demanded by some big acts — involved in outdoor concert promotion.
The whole edifice collapsed in 1998, but not before it had won a permanent spot in public memory as an emblem, tarnished though it might be by political animosities, of what it meant to be part of Old Austin.
A lake is born
It all began with a new power plant.
In the 1950s, city planners decided to plop the Holly Street Power Plant in an old East Austin neighborhood on the north shores of the Colorado River. The district of shaded bungalows surrounded by trees and gardens had once been mixed ethnically, but by the ’50s it was predominantly Hispanic.
The noisy, sometimes dangerous plant, fired by natural gas and fuel oil, needed water to cool its 570-megawatt turbines, which produced electricity to supplement output from the 1950s-era Seaholm Power Plant downtown.
So the city’s power utility built Longhorn Dam in 1960 at an ancient ford that had been used by Native Americans, Spanish soldiers and missionaries, Anglo and Black settlers, and Chisholm Trail cattle drivers.
Longhorn Dam, in turn, impounded Town Lake, a "pass-through" lake not meant to prevent floods nor to serve as a large reservoir, like Lake Travis, for instance. Besides cooling the new plant, the lake provided drinking water for the city.
Named Town Lake by a newspaper reporter after attempts to dub it Lake Longhorn or Lake Tonkawa went down in defeat, the future Lady Bird Lake gave Austin something it never had before: a constant-level lake right in the middle of town.
City leaders immediately began to propose trails and parks along the lake, along with trees to replace those cut down by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s in an ill-conceived attempt at flood control. Some wanted big boat docks, restaurants and houseboats as well, but parks, neighborhood and environmental activists successfully argued against a commercialized body of water and, instead, for a "serene lake."
The trails and many of the parks would not arrive until the 1970s and, in truth, are still incomplete, as backers of the Trail Foundation and the Austin Parks Foundation will tell you.
While Austin waited for a necklace of emerald to grow around the new lake of blue, civic and business leaders, especially at the Chamber of Commerce, spied an opportunity to create an event that would not only please locals but also attract tourists with open pocketbooks.
"We had a new committee at the chamber called tourism and recreation, and I proposed to them that we needed an activity on the new lake," Ed St. John, an Austin business leader and former chairman of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, said during an oral history interview in 1986. "You see, Austin had lost many of its communitywide events. There had been a parade in April for San Jacinto Day. There was the University of Texas’ Round Up Parade, which drew citywide support, but that was mostly local at the university. So here we are in Austin, the capital city of Texas, and we had no major community event. I asked the new committee to explore the possibility of an activity that would focus attention to the lakes."
Thus was born Austin Aqua Festival in 1962. Much of the activity was centered on Festival Beach and, beginning in 1966, at Fiesta Gardens, on the north side of the river around a lagoon. Later events were staged on the south side at Auditorium Shores, now named Vic Mathias Shores.
Thirty-six years later, the giant festival was gone.
"When Austin Aqua Festival began in the early 1960s, it was the city's premier civic event, organized by bankers and downtown businessmen, complete with beauty queens, kiddie fishing derbies and Boy Scout canoe races," a 1998 American-Statesman article explained after the plug was pulled. "Speedboats roared down Town Lake and bikini-clad skiers sliced the water, adding a mod counterpoint to the event's Leave-It-To-Beaver wholesomeness. In the evenings, moms, dads and kids two-stepped on a concrete dance floor at Fiesta Gardens as local bands played over a PA system.
"At its peak, Aqua Fest attracted crowds of nearly 200,000 during a … run that dominated live music in Austin. Club owners would schedule their vacations to coincide with Aqua Fest, because it didn't pay to keep the doors open anyway."
For this story, I gleaned fresh history from newspaper archives, easily available online, consulted other news sources, and asked questions of people who had worked the events or simply attended them. Many of them gather virtually in a Facebook group named "Austin Aqua Fest Alumni ’62-’98." A 1986 interview with festival founders Vic Mathias, John Simpson, Ed St. John and Beverly Sheffield by Lynne Skinner, posted on Facebook, was extremely valuable.
Like a gift from the heavens, Skinner also shared with me research that she had unearthed for Aqua Fest’s 25th anniversary in 1986. The information was used again in a business proposal in 2016, when some city leaders raised the prospect of reviving the event. Her clearly presented data formed the main basis for the following timeline.
1960: Longhorn Dam was completed. It impounded Town Lake, now known as Lady Bird Lake, renamed in 2007 after Lady Bird Johnson’s death.
1961: The Austin Chamber of Commerce looked into the possibility of holding "Aqua Days" to spur economic development. Chamber leaders travel to Minneapolis to study its "Aquatennial." They also chose a "Navy identity" for what would be called Austin Aqua Festival, and they adopted a document that emphasized recreation on the Highland Lakes, economic stimulus for the slow hot midsummer season, ways to attract visitors and vacationers, and — this is key — a way to make it accessible to all locals. Music seemed to be something of an afterthought.
Before the fest got underway, there appears to have been no major public opposition to the idea.
"The only problem we encountered was explaining to people what we were trying to do," Vic Mathias said in a 1986 interview, "and then we needed a lot of facilities that we ended up working with the city to get. So, it was really an education process."
Strangely, just two years earlier, the state of Texas could have stood in the way of advertising Aqua Fest to tourists.
"When we were first thinking about staging a festival, we had just gone through a long session of many years with the state Legislature to get the ‘Carpetbaggers Provision’ voted out our state constitution," Mathias said. "This basically said that Texas could not advertise for immigrants, which was interpreted by judges as ‘tourists.’ Up until that time, Texas could not advertise in any way if it involved tax dollars … (Many) people worked for many years to get rid of that thing."
In 1958, Texans voted for a constitutional amendment to allocate tax monies to attract visitors, according to the Handbook of Texas.
1962: Business leaders launched the inaugural fest with a $13,000 budget. The Admirals Club, which crowned the Aqua Queen and her court, worked with a budget of $10,000. Leaders ordered 2,000 Skipper pins but sold only 800.
A fleet of volunteers took the fest’s naval theme seriously. Entire sections of the group’s constitution and bylaws were devoted to guidelines about how to wear pins and patches on white or black uniforms.
"Everyone really took a ribbing that first year because of those uniforms," Mathias said. "But when we talked with Ken Walstad, who also happened to be the president of the International Festivals Association at the time, (he) said that successful festivals had to really establish an identity. A uniform was the easiest way to do that and, after a time, people would get used to it and be happy to buy their own uniform in order to be involved. Yet, for the first year, we weren’t quite sure about it."
The American-Statesman devoted a 56-page section to the festival. To some observers, it seems like the whole city showed up, especially to the parades.
"There is a tradition — very big in Texas — that each small town had their own small ‘themed’ festival and their respective royalty," Lynne Skinner said. "Luling Watermelon Thump. Cedar Park Cedar Chopper Festival. Rattlesnake Roundup. You name it. Still happens.
"There was a mutual exchange and visitation of these floats during their respective festivals. So this gave Austin a way to participate — and all these floats and their ‘visiting royalty’ and friends would come in and start the fest with the land and pet parade — beginning of the week, opening night — and end the fest with that float and royalty on a barge which we would light up and send in a flotilla down the river. Same floats and royalty. Bookends to the event. And it really made it special. Austin Aqua Fest became kind of the ‘crown jewel’ of these festivals."
1963: In this year — and in 1969 – Skipper Pins were orange and white to honor the national champion Longhorn football team.
1960s-1990s: These years were the heyday of the Miss Austin Aqua Fest Pageant, which started at Barton Springs Pool and later moved to Palmer Auditorium and finally to Bass Concert Hall. Additionally, the Admirals Club crowned a queen and princesses for an exclusive social set, but also for the festival parades. Charlie Green, editor of the American-Statesman, who had organized the Headliners Club, chose the name Admirals Club.
1966: The world premiere of "Batman: The Movie" was timed to coincide with this year’s fest. Austin-based Glastron had built the special Batboat used in the movie. This year also saw the first Battle of the Bands at the recently built Fiesta Gardens, now recognized as a National Historic Landmark.
This was the first year as well for AeroFest, which featured the USAF Thunderbirds at Bergstrom Air Force Base. Free to the public every year, AeroFest drew as many as 135,000 guests.
1967: The fest introduced the first powerboat races on Town Lake. An estimated 150 to 200 boats raced each year at more than 200 miles an hour for an audience of 5,000. Neighbors, especially in East Austin, revolted against the noise.
1968: The first Fest Nights concerts at Fiesta Gardens were free, but they really bumped up Skipper Pin sales.
1969: The first themed concerts were Western, German, Czech, jazz and R&B. Later themes included Mexican, Black, rock, international, Italian, Scottish, family and children, American and soul.
1970-1971: The largest attendance and revenue for the Battle of the Bands came in these years.
1971: Powerboat races on Town Lake became the largest fest event.
1972: Chicano activists, ecologists and neighborhood groups vigorously protested the drag races and incursions of crowds and cars into residential districts. Along with the earlier Economy Furniture strike, these protests are credited with uniting disparate parts of the Latino community for political action on a local level.
Meanwhile, the Austin Boat Club, which organized the races, threatened to cancel them altogether if the City Council did not allow them to hold additional races at other times of the year. The power struggle continued for another six years.
1976: An eventful year for the fest.
Women finally joined the Austin Aqua Fest board. By this time, people of color had joined at least the advisory boards.
The City Council suggested that the increasingly unpopular powerboat races be phased out.
The late "Fajita King," Juan Antonio "Sonny" Falcón, set up his popular booth at the fest for the first time.
As explained in a 2019 profile in this newspaper, it helped that Wally Pryor of the Pryor entertainment clan promoted Sonny’s food booth over the PA system.
″‘You need to go over and try this,’ Wally would say," Sonny recalled. "But people grumbled, ‘look at the sign: "fajita." It doesn’t even sound good.’ They didn’t see that a ‘faja’ is a long sash, and that ‘fajita’ was like a little belt. But I brought my grill right up to the point of sale."
That sensory strategy worked.
"He was like a golfer; everything was free-standing," Sonny’s son, John said, laughing. "He’d pick up a blade of grass to see which way wind blew, then he moved his grill so the wind could do its thing with the smoke."
1978: Final year for the drag boat races on Town Lake, thanks in part to multiple noisy but mostly peaceful protests by the East Town Lake Citizens, El Centro Chicano and the Brown Berets as well as leaders such as Paul Hernandez and Edward Rendon Sr.
These days, the park around Fiesta Gardens is named for Rendon, who died in 2018.
"Last year the city government lied to us," Mary Muniz of East Town Lake Citizens said in a statement. "We want to be sure that is understood: As long as there are boat races, there will be demonstrations and they will become more intense as we get more organized."
An April 22 demonstration "led to 19 arrests and a five-day suspension of an officer for using excessive force in handling a demonstrator," the American-Statesman reported. "A videotape of the demonstration appeared to show the police wading into a crowd of demonstrators with billy clubs flying."
The FBI investigated the taped police brutality, and citizens demanded that the officer be removed from the force.
In August, Mayor Carole Keeton voted with a slim majority of City Council to ban the races.
Also this year, Fest Nights moved from East Austin to Auditorium Shores.
1981: Willie Nelson drew 35,000 to his Fest Night. Mr. Gatti’s PBA Bowling Tournament brought in $110,000.
1982: The first Great River Raft Race started near Austin High School, with imaginatively decorated vessels grouped into "racers" and "floaters." They headed downstream 2 1/2 miles. Awards included most original, most humorous and best theme in each category. Fest Nights grew to six stages, prefiguring ACL Music Fests. Skipper Pins cost $2.
1985: Largest attendance in fest history: 252,000. Chaka Khan drew the largest crowd in fest history, larger even than Nelson’s. Voters approved a referendum to move the fest to Lake Walter E. Long, another cooling reservoir for a power plant. In 1983, Rodeo Austin had moved to the Travis County Expo Center nearby.
1986: The 25th anniversary of Aqua Fest went off with a big bang and a heartfelt reunion of volunteers. Leaders dropped the ethnically themed nights in hope of attracting a broader cross-section of the public each night. The number of stages dropped to three over three consecutive weekends.
1987: The price of Skipper Pins rose to $3 for three years, dropped to $2 in 1991, and fell to $1 in 1994.
1992: The fest’s volunteer managers bet big on Dolly Parton, whom they paid $100,000. But not many people showed up, and the fest lost $300,000.
1993: The fest lost $722,000, depleting cash reserves. Higher ticket prices reduced crowds to 44,000, a record low. The run was reduced to two weekends and one mega-stage. Audiences were divided into Teen Town, Captain Barton’s Cove for kids and "Club Aquapulco," which served mixed drinks for adults.
1994: Trying to revive the fest’s original hometown feel, leaders relied entirely on volunteers while booking only local musical acts. Speedboat races returned, but at Lake Walter E. Long, to little interest.
1995: Some theme nights — Czech, Tejano, C&W — were reintroduced.
1998: Austin Aqua Fest folded. Much public commentary focused on the city’s changing identity.
"People lose interest in things, and events will die on the vine if you cling too long," Austin businessman John Simpson said in 1986. "The boat race thing was a power struggle. Fest Nights was a stroke of luck … You hit these things by accident and you’re not sure how they’ll turn out."
1999: The final AeroFest was held April 17-19 as part of the grand opening of Austin Bergstrom International Airport.
2000-2020: The Admirals Club still met and crowned royalty.
The "Austin Aqua Fest Alumni ’62-’98" Facebook page is active and brimming with nostalgia.
For a while, Fun Fun Fun Fest revived some popular Aqua Fest elements, including the Skipper Pin graphics.
As recently as 2016, supporters floated the idea of bringing Aqua Fest back.