Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Archive: Hot times at Willie's 1990 Picnic at Zilker

Pete Szilagyi; Julie Bonnin; Michelle T. Johnson

Cool was at a premium this Independence Day, as thousands at Willie Nelson's picnic used every bit of shade at Zilker Park Wednesday, and crowds at the Austin Symphony Orchestra's evening concert and fireworks hid under umbrellas and bushes waiting for the blissful relief of sunset.

The temperature hit 101, making Wednesday the hottest July 4 since 1970, when it was 102, according to the National Weather Service. The humidity was low and the heat was more bearable, but crowds were smaller than predicted at both the Zilkerpicnic and the symphony performance at Auditorium Shores.

"The smoothest picnic ever. It was easy, " said a smiling Nelson, who was trailed by autograph seekers as he strolled backstage in the afternoon sun with fellow musicians Kris Kristofferson and David Allan Coe.

The nation got periodic glimpses of Austin's Fourth of July as CNN broadcast bits of Nelson's picnic, which officials say was relatively calm, with few heat-related problems and a mellow crowd estimated at about 12,000 in the early evening.

The holiday ended with two fireworks displays - courtesy of the picnic and the Austin Symphony - and the annual downtown traffic jam of people leaving both sites.

The day began in Austin's neighborhoods and in area communities, which took advantage of the morning cool to stage traditional parades.

Many, such as the Bryker Woods parade in West Austin, drew hundreds of participants and observers. Nelson may have had the celebrities, but Bryker Woods had Clairlea Eckert and her dog, Alfie, in the parade. "I like seeing my old friends that I don't see very often because I grew up in this neighborhood, " Eckert said.

San Marcos residents wisely headed for the river for an evening parade, while the annual Lake Austin Boat Parade took in 12 miles of the lake in the morning. Hundreds gathered at Mount Bonnell and in Emma Long Metropolitan Park to observe the parade of boats.

The South First Street and Congress Avenue bridges were a favorite vantage point for the symphony's fireworks show, which began after the traditional playing of the 1812 Overture and a cannon volley by the Texas Army National Guard. Crowd estimates were not available Wednesday night, although officers who have worked the event for several years said fewer people attended than in past years when as many as 50,000 people jammed Auditorium Shores.

Still, it was a patriotic event. Ten-year-old cousins Misty Monro and Krista Zaniewski came with stars and stripes painted on their faces.

George Willeford, 68, an avid symphony goer, attended the fireworks display with a group of friends for the first time in years. "It just seemed like a good year to be patriotic, " said Willeford, who was wearing a red, white and blue straw hat.

Nelson and others said his picnic was the most organized ever, with numerous sprinklers for the crowd, free drinking water in several shade tents, and air-conditioned dressing rooms and a dining hall backstage. Thirty shuttle buses from Capital Metro, which operated continuously between Zilker and Barton Creek Square mall, helped alleviate traffic problems.

"This is beautiful, here in the park" said Mickey Raphael, Nelson's harmonica player for 17 years. "We usually do these picnics in pastures and we have to look at cactus and rocks and you're lucky if you can even find water."

Thom Steinbeck, son of writer John Steinbeck and a former Austinite who came from California, called the picnic "the best party in the U.S. . . . These are good, gentle people, and there are a lot of families here, " said Steinbeck.

Kimmie Rhodes and her band were unlucky enough to be on stage during the late afternoon, but she said they were unfazed by the heat. "I looked around at the band when we were playing and they were all sweaty and red. I had to laugh. The heat will give everybody something to talk about tomorrow."

Mayor Lee Cooke took the stage in the early evening, putting his arm around Nelson and telling the crowd, "Does the Willie Nelson picnic belong here in Austin or what? I don't mean outside of Austin, I mean right here in Zilker Park."

Nelson has thrown about a dozen July 4 outdoor picnics since 1973, but the tradition looked like it was dead after a disappointing turnout for the 1987 picnic at Carl's Corner and a huge financial loss for the singer. He originally hoped to revive the picnic at Manor Downs this year, but organizer Tim O'Connor suggested Zilker instead.

Nelson said Wednesday that having the city behind the picnic made it much easier to put on - some small cities and counties where the picnic was held in past years attempted to block the event.

Wednesday's event at Zilker had all the trappings of a typical Nelsonpicnic, with large crowds backstage and a party atmosphere as Nelson and other entertainers greeted friends and posed for pictures.

Police said there were about six arrests for public intoxication - including one woman who repeatedly attempted to climb on stage - and picnic-goers were generally well-behaved and not drinking heavily, police said. The crowd included many families, who used the break between performers at the main stage to take their children to a stage with music, clowns and other entertainment.

Medical crews were prepared to deal with a lot of heat victims, but Delilah Stallings, an EMS technician, said the people treated had "very minimal problems with heat exhaustion. The crowd had good sense and wore light clothing and drank a lot of water."

EMS workers walked through the crowd during the day looking for people passed out or failing to cope with the heat. Stallings said most of those people were treated on the spot with nothing more than a few sprays of ice water.

She estimated about 50 people were treated for heat-related problems, and said three were taken to Brackenridge Hospital.

The crowds came early for a shot at the shade or the best spots in front of the stage to lay out blankets. By the time the gates opened at 11:30 a.m., well over 1,000 people had gathered.

The estimated attendance of 12,000 to 15,000 was below the 25,000 to 35,000 organizers had predicted and considerably less than the biggest July 4 concert in Zilker, when the Beach Boys played to 50,000 fans in 1987.

Nelson and his band opened the concert with a short set at noon, and he returned to the stage early in the evening to play with one of the headline acts, Little Joe y La Familia. Nelson then joined Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, who perform as the Highwaymen, for a set before closing the show in a medly with Rhodes and Billy Joe Shaver.