Has Part of Austin Sunk Without a Trace?

Aqua Fest Goes Down

by Mike Clark-Madison

illustration by Doug Potter

So, is anyone sad that Aqua Fest is gone?

Some people must be - the charities who raised money with Festival concessions, the devoted volunteers, the officers and royal court of the Admirals Club, the fans of funny hats and collectors of Skipper Pins, and anyone who couldn't find a place more comfortable than dusty, or muddy, Auditorium Shores on a hot, hot summer night.

But all around town, you hear the sound of one hand not clapping. A sample of comments this reporter heard when assembling this story (names withheld, but you know who you are):

"It's about damn time!"

"Is it really dead? Can we drive a stake through its heart?"

"Aqua Fest has been dead for years. Everyone but the volunteers knew that."

"Who cares about Aqua Fest?" (This last assessment was offered more than once.)

So Aqua Fest, born in 1962, has in 1998 sunk into a watery grave in Town Lake. The current board of Austin Aqua Festival Inc. promises to come back in 2000 out at Lake Walter E. Long, its once and future home-to-be, but this is in no way a sure thing. And even if it was, a Festival that's not in the heart of town isn't really an Aqua Fest at all, is it?

It's not hard to find Austinites who've seen Aqua Fest as a lingering disease of which they're finally cured. They can be found at City Hall and within the Parks and Recreation Department, the local mainstream media and the city's neighborhood power structure. But do they represent the majority? Will Austinites be missing something next week, when the Aqua Festival would have entered its middle age on Auditorium Shores? Do we have a civic event to replace it? Do we need one? Would an event like Aqua Fest, especially on Town Lake, still be viable?

As we watch the good ship slip beneath the waves, one overarching answer emerges to all these questions: Not only the Austin Aqua Festival, but a large part of what used to be Austin itself, has sunk without a trace.

For most Austinites - that is, everyone who's been here less than 10 years - Aqua Fest was a summer concert series, with diverse and sporadically interesting acts performing under far less than ideal conditions. And the last decade's worth of Aqua Fest "admirals" and "commodores," and their professional entourage, couldn't even seem to do that right, so who needs `em?

Those with longer memories know the latter-day Aqua Fest, a roadshow venue in a market with plenty of competition for that dollar, was an ill-advised detour from the Festival's proven niche. "It was really working great when they still had theme nights and it was all local talent," says Texas Music Office director and former Statesman music writer Casey Monahan. "But then they tried to book bigger acts, and there was greater competition for the local slots, and it went from being an Austin civic event with live music to a music event that happened to be on Town Lake."

Dolly Sinks Ship

Though the Festival's foray into the real world of live music lasted several years, and took that long to drain Aqua Fest's 30 years' worth of reserved profits, one gig symbolizes all that went wrong - Dolly Parton. The Bosomy One's 1992 appearance cost Aqua Fest $80,000, more than she typically drew elsewhere, more than the budget for an entire Festival not many years before, but only one chunk of that year's outlay on talent, which soared to nearly $300,000. Parton stiffed, drawing a generously estimated 7,000 fans through the gate, well below the attendance needed to break even. "The real question is whether they recovered from that year," says Monahan. "For the music industry, Aqua Fest changed forever with the Dolly Parton fiasco."

As the losses mounted, the ticket prices went up; as Aqua Fest got more expensive, fans stayed away, which led to a hunt for more attractive, and thus more expensive, talent. The board abruptly reversed course in 1995, returning to the traditional Aqua Fest format of "Fest Nights" with cultural themes - Czech Night, Tejano Night, C&W Night - but the Festival had already been written off by much of the public. "What's sad is that they seemed to have figured out all their problems and had gone back to being what they were, a community event," says South by Southwest managing director Roland Swenson. "But they'd gotten a bad rap for so long that it was too late."

A festive flotilla navigates Town Lake at the 1978 Aqua Fest while a crowd watches from the Congress Avenue Bridge.

Austin History Center, Austin Public Library #PICA28298

Swenson, of course, runs an event whose fortunes have zoomed as Aqua Fest's have declined, and some Aqua Fest postmortems see an easy, if illogical, relationship between these two trends. But Swenson does not see Aqua Fest's blood on his hands. "If that's true, then why has the [Austin-Travis County Livestock Show and] Rodeo - which is actually in the same month as SXSW, not five months later - continued to grow and grow for years?

"We could never step up to fill Aqua Fest's role," Swenson continues. "It seems to me that Aqua Fest serves an important function in the community, and I don't see SXSW or others taking its place, so I would hope that the charities it helped would get involved in getting it started again. I thought it was a viable event right up until this year."

Monahan concurs. "I'm sure there's something appealing that can draw people down to Auditorium Shores to celebrate the city every year," he says. "South by Southwest relies on a core of 6,000 industry people; it has music for the public, but that's not its real purpose. Anybody who says that SXSW has replaced, or can replace, Aqua Fest doesn't know what Aqua Fest really was - or could be."

Back in the day, Aqua Fest was more than just live music - even though the bands and Fest Nights generated the revenue. "The music events supported the water events, the softball tournaments, and so on, that didn't raise a dime," says Mike Kolar, a longtime Aqua Fest organizer and commodore of the 1988 event.

In recent years, Aqua Fest's connection with the city's natural heritage - particularly, of course, its waterways - had withered to the point where new residents had to have the name explained to them. "Well, they call it Aqua Fest because once upon a time there were these boat races ..."

The Aqua Fest boat races, and the violent citizen protests against them in East Austin, have become milestones in Austin's political history, but their own history has been nearly forgotten. The races, along with flotillas and regattas, sprint-swimming contests and synchronized-swimming aquacades, and significant "land-based events" in Austin's parks, were the point of Aqua Fest back when it was born.

"I was a founding member of the Aqua Fest board, and they'd have had a hard time getting started without the support of the Recreation Department," says retired longtime PARD official Beverly Sheffield, the "father of Austin parks." "I used to think of the Aqua Festival as an extension of our public recreation program. The city supported it and it was for everybody, and they had to charge a little bit, but it was a wonderful thing, and I was proud to be part of it."

That warm relationship with PARD disappeared over time. Later city managers forbade direct involvement by PARD staff in Aqua Fest; by the mid-1980s, the city was pressuring the Festival to leave Town Lake. "We were told we had to move," said Kolar, "but we definitely didn't want to. The city was planning to do things downtown, and (PARD) had plans for the parks and for Town Lake, and we were not part of them. So we asked for permission to move to Lake Long, and got it."

Austin voters in 1985 approved a non-binding referendum supporting the Festival's plans to build permanent facilities at the former Decker Lake, but after the bust hit, Aqua Fest organizers couldn't scare up the necessary corporate support. So, as a Plan B, the Festival board asked for, and got, a contract with PARD that promised the city a significant cut of Aqua Fest profits, on top of a guaranteed amount - every year, rain or shine, profit or loss - for renting the Shores that was notably higher than the rate charged to other events.

It was at this juncture that the Festival started losing money and ending each year with a debt to the city, sometimes written off but lately not. The city is currently the insolvent Aqua Fest board's largest creditor. "I think they just got themselves where they couldn't afford to keep the promises they made to the city for using that space," says Swenson. "Even with the notable stiffs they had, they could have survived if they'd had more support from the city."

A far cry from paying to put on the Fest, as the city did in Sheffield's time, as an important civic function. What happened? Well, there were these boat races ...

Festival Fracas

Before they moved the Fest Nights to Auditorium Shores, all Aqua Fest events were at Festival Beach (hence the name), due east of the interstate, and the biggest of the water events remained there. The Aqua Fest motorboat races (there were also rowing races and the occasional sailboat race out at Lake Travis) were national events in the sport, the "Indy 500 of performance boat racing." The grandstands now sit deserted below the Holly Power Plant, but at Aqua Fest's peak, the races attracted tens of thousands of people into a neighborhood ill-equipped to receive them.

The mostly Hispanic area suffered in silence, or at least its complaints fell on deaf ears, until Paul Hernandez's Brown Berets led folks into the streets, beginning in 1972, in what many Austinites consider our mellow town's wildest civic unrest. Certainly the members of El Concilio, the Brown Berets' direct descendants, consider it a high point in their careers. To quote from their application in last year's neighborhood-plan derby: "(We) organized in response to aggressive encroachment by the Aqua Festival. ... That was the largest and (most united) gathering of Mexican-American citizens in the history of Austin. Not only did we overcome, we overwhelmed. ... Town Lake stands as (our) living monument."

Boat races were also an Aqua Fest attraction, as featured here at Festival Beach during the 1971 festival.

Austin History Center, Austin Public Library #PICA00112

Folks got arrested, heads got dented, people got sued and counter-sued, but the boat races did go away, returning to Aqua Fest in ill-attended events years later at Decker Lake. The neighborhoods near Festival Beach still aren't well-equipped for events of any magnitude, so any thoughts of bringing back a Festival-like thang on Eastside shores are likely futile.

"If we have an event that brings more than 5,000 people, we have a big problem," says Sabino Renteria of the United East Austin Coalition. "They park everywhere, block driveways, block access to the neighborhoods. That's what happened every day of Aqua Fest every year, and that created a lot of resentment. People are really upset about traffic all year round, and now that our ball fields [flanking Festival Beach] are in use all year by our children, it really conflicts with any citywide event."

A similar story is told over in the Bouldin Creek neighborhood, just south of Auditorium Shores, where opposition to Aqua Fest - and, indeed, to any big destination uses of the Shores - has been entrenched for years. "We're tired of being the Auditorium Shores policemen, deciding what will and won't be acceptable; we don't want that role anymore," says Bouldin Creek NA president Gardner Selby.

"Our interest is in turning all that dedicated parkland into a real park," continues Selby, referring to the 54-acre chunk around Palmer Auditorium of which the Shores are a part. "Why not a citywide swimming pool, something for children all over Austin, something that would be a nice legacy for future generations? I hope the city will get its act together and put citizens' input on the Shores. Aqua Fest is history."

The neighborhoods most directly affected, or afflicted, by Aqua Fest may not speak for all Austinites, but they speak loudly enough to set the agenda of post-Aqua Fest discussion, especially about the future of Town Lake. And they certainly resemble the broad base of Austinites more than the districts from which Aqua Fest ultimately sprang - the tony Westside stomping grounds of the Admirals Club, born alongside the Fest in 1962 to "coordinate its social functions."

Not everyone who volunteered on Aqua Fest, even at its highest ranks, was a member of the old Austin economic elite, but enough were to enshrine the Fest as the acme of the Austin society calendar, with the annual Admirals Club ball, at which the Queen and Court of Aqua Fest were introduced, as the mother of all debutante gigs. (There were also, for years, separate Aqua Fest beauty pageants for both young ladies and little girls.) The all-male, by-invitation-only Club itself, with its formal dress whites for every member, comprised Austin men who cut ice - doctors and lawyers, car dealers and real-estate barons, UT leaders and once and future mayors.

That men with means spent their energies dressing up in fake uniforms, throwing theme parties, and parading their marriageable daughters sure seems silly - which is why the same rituals have been adopted as camp staples by drag artistes - but basically harmless. It sure did, though, make Aqua Fest an easy target for populists, progressives, greens and radicals - that is, the coalition that now runs this town - even though the same moneybags in the sailor suits worked their asses off to put on the Festival.

Old Admirals Never Die

But there is a more important angle here. When Aqua Fest was born and Austin was smaller and simpler, the elites of the Admirals Club had control over the public agenda, but they also had a real sense of noblesse oblige that's near-wholly lacking in the modern Austin elite of silicon money. "[We] realized that if you lived in Austin, you had to give something back," said Kolar. "That was definitely true in the beginning, and it was true all the way through when I was commodore.

"There may have been a few people who thought it was just a good thing on a résumé," Kolar continues, "but the people I knew truly felt in their heart that they were doing something good for the city. On Aqua Fest, you really bonded with people who you didn't know, or live near, or share many concerns with, but you shared a love for the city. It was all you needed to have to come together, (and) it used to be fun to work for the good of Austin."

Kolar, a marketing consultant by trade, shares the general consensus that Aqua Fest per se - run by the current board, in the middle of summer, and especially anywhere near Town Lake - could only be revived with great difficulty. "It would have to change," he says. "The dates are too precious to people now; we aren't just bored in the middle of summer, which is how Aqua Fest got started. We didn't have the disposable income people in Austin have now, and we couldn't just fly away to somewhere cooler. Now, there's plenty of things to do."

This cruel reality of the market is echoed by City Councilmember Beverly Griffith, who had a front-row seat for the decline of Aqua Fest as the longtime chair of the Parks Board. (Ironically, her main opponent in the 1996 council elections, Rick Wheeler, was a longtime volunteer, then commodore, then director of Aqua Fest.) "There's definitely a demand for cultural events and recreation and our natural heritage," she says, "but even though people were, and still are, going to enjoy those things, they weren't going to Aqua Fest.

"But the demand for city recreational opportunities and services is at an all-time high, and we are loving our parks to death," Griffith continues, pointing to the care and feeding of our everyday park system, and its expansion through the September bonds, as a more pressing fiscal priority than aiding Aqua Fest. "People want pools and trails and playgrounds. As for entertainment, we have a dynamite model in SXSW, in that it's so indigenously `Austin' and so financially independent. When you don't need to put city money in, you have cause to celebrate, and you leave well enough alone."

But as previously observed, SXSW is not really a "civic" event, and with Aqua Fest's demise, the city is left without any such gig. Civic blowouts like the Capital 10,000, or Eeyore's Birthday, or Spam-a-Rama may someday appeal to people who don't run, trip, or eat pork products, but they don't yet. It's not like the concept of an Aqua Fest is archaic across the land; nearly every city and town has at least one such shindig. The Texas Music Office indexes more than 550 annual events throughout the state that feature live music, most of them civic shebangs, from San Antonio's Fiesta (which draws 3.5 million people through its various gates in a metro area not much larger than Austin's) to Luling's Watermelon Thump.

Of the top 50 events on that list - that is, in Aqua Fest's attendance range and higher - only three, the Rodeo and two Pecan Street Festivals, are in Austin, and neither really attracts a truly citywide crowd (or, for that matter, the same crowd). For all the carping and bitching, Aqua Fest, even in its dying years, attracted a more diverse cross-section of Austinites - all colors, all political persuasions, all ages, all tastes - than anything before or since. And it offered them, even in skeletal form, more things to do than just stand around and watch music, and for years it managed to do so profitably and at a low cost to the public. Should we not want something like it to exist?

"Austin is struggling to find things that hold it together, and Aqua Fest was one of those things," says Kolar. "It brought people together that never had anything in common. Now, Austin is divided into a bunch of single-issue groups that won't compromise. Things have changed, and not necessarily for the better."