Springfield tries to have fun. It isn’t pretty
July 10, 1981
Few things are as dispiriting as Illinoisans gathered in their hundreds to Have Fun. Summer family festivals in particular are bad carnivals, meaning carnivals without the sex and the swindles that makes them fun.
Notes: Baseball great Satchel Paige was then working for the Springfield Redbirds, a AAA baseball club that paused in Springfield to rest a few seasons moving on to Louisville.
I really wish that the next time Fred Puglia decides to throw a party for 50,000 people he does it in his neighborhood and not in mine. Fred runs the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, and is the man behind the first-ever Lincolnfest, held in downtown Springfield on July 4 and 5. I live downtown, you see, so every time someone asked me if I were going to Lincolnfest I replied, trepidaciously, "No, Lincolnfest is coming to me."
The police said that at least 50,000 people came downtown on Sunday. That probably wasn't any more exaggerated than are most such estimates, although it should be noted for the record that the police, like Puglia, work for the mayor.
It looked like there were 50,000 people there anyway. I counted 129 beer and soft drink cups in the ivy beds of the First United Methodist Church alone on Monday morning. Walking the befouled streets, I felt as if I were strolling through the mouth of a hung-over celebrant.
Still, I suppose they had to have it downtown. It's the most interesting part of the city, and besides, nobody uses it much on weekends anymore since White Oaks Mall opened. If the fun hadn't been so close to my apartment, I may not have gone at all. It meant missing Julia Child for one thing. For another, I have this thing about parties. I know that Fred and the mayor said that Lincolnfest would put Springfield on the map. But, see, we're already on the map, being the state capital and having Lincoln buried here and all, not to mention our being the temporary home of Satchel Paige. Besides, I remember from high school that anybody can be popular by throwing a lot of parties. That doesn't mean people really like you, though. I know that much.
I ended up going anyway. I ran into J. on the street Friday, and he predicted that the whole thing would be a veritable carnival of Midwestern camp, what with skydiving clowns, and yo-yo champs and push-up contests. I reminded him that you don't get ahead in the convention biz nowadays without knowing how to pander to Americans' lust for the meretricious. But while chatting we realized that Lincolnfest's attraction lay in the promise of its awfulness. As was proved by At Long Last Love and the Nixon administration, Bad—really Bad—can be fun.
Lincolnfest proved to be one of the few such events that lived up to expectations. It was a county fair on asphalt, a shopping mall with parking meters. The crowds were genial and well-behaved. But there was something, or someone, missing. I realized that while I saw rookie drunks by the hundred, the familiar faces of downtown's regiments of drunks were nowhere to be seen. "What," I thought with a shiver, "has Fred done with the drunks?" It occurred to me that perhaps the winos had, like any good drinker on New Year's Eve, abandoned the streets to the amateurs. But wasn't it also possible that the tourism commission rounded them up in a midnight raid, much as the Soviet government rounded up Jewish dissidents and long hairs, and packed them off to the country before the crowds showed up in Moscow for the 1980 Olympics, in order that such inconvenient persons not embarrass the Revolution? I made a note to look up the address of Amnesty International when I got home.
Boredom would explain a lot of the beer. There were only a few moments when Lincolnfest transcended the kitsch-y idiom of the Midwestern Chamber of Commerce promotion. One such moment occurred when a man tried to hold up an Indian teepee at knifepoint. Another occurred for me when I discovered half an airplane parked on Sixth Street in front of Shadid's. Wingless and nearly skinless as well, the relic did not explain itself or its presence, which is what made it so much more interesting than the other attractions, whose presence was all too clear. Half a plane was something you don't see very often, and that's a good enough reason to park it on Sixth Street.
The half-plane reminded me that, whatever its virtues as a feat of organization, Lincolnfest had failed as an act of imagination. The organizers failed to take advantage of the unique opportunities that downtown provides for amusements, competitions, and pageants. Instead of putting on bridge tournaments and horseshoe pitching, they could have staged a Kids' Steal-'n'-Wheel, in which pre-teens would compete to see who could shoplift candy bars from K-mart, run out of the store, and jump onto the Colony West bus before the store security man catches them. Or a King Leer Contest, in which lunch-hour workers would try to top each other's salacious remarks about the members of the opposite sex strolling past them on the south mall. And a Demolition Derby in which banks and trust departments would race to see which could buy, empty, and tear down rehabilitable downtown commercial structures the fastest.
Think what a festival that lineup would make! Here's another example: A derelict car was parked in front of the Marine Bank, and people paid a buck each to bash it with a sledge hammer. It was almost as interesting as the half plane. At the most obvious level, the scene resembled what one sees every day at rush hour, except that then people use Oldsmobiles instead of sledge hammers. At a deeper level, the act symbolized for me a Luddite impulse to destroy the hated machine and drive it from the streets. (One of the delights of Lincolnfest was the blissful experience of having the streets to ourselves.) But what if they had sold chances to bang up a bank, instead? Give people a chance to tear up a car and you have a carnival act. Give them a chance to tear up a bank and you've got revolutionary street theater.
As it was, the celebration struck me as hollow, an occasion with only a pretext, not a reason. Officially, Lincolnfest was held to celebrate the arrival 150 years ago in Sangamon County of Abraham Lincoln. Reason enough to celebrate, to be sure. But Springfieldians care little for Lincoln, and know less. Except for his name, and a Lincoln look-alike contest, Lincoln was an invisible presence at Lincolnfest. Springfieldians did not gather to celebrate his arrival.
So why Lincolnfest? The festival slogan urged people to go "for that old-time feeling." Unfortunately the organizers never explained what that old-time feeling is; watching hundreds of people on Sunday lapping beer from buckets like dogs at a bowl, I decided that that old-time feeling is numbness. Cynics have suggested that the whole thing was staged to make a name for Fred so he can someday get a good job and get out of Springfield. But that's okay. A lot of people have used Springfield to further themselves. Look at Jim Thompson. Or Abraham Lincoln.
I did encounter Lincoln, but by accident, in the lobby of the Marine Bank where there was mounted a traveling exhibition of art commissioned by the Container Corporation of America as part of its "Great Ideas" ad series. One of these works is by Fred Conway. It is an angular, dark portrait of Lincoln which illustrates these words of Lincoln: "Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves." Lincoln looked a little lost in there with the likes of Einstein and Johnson and Neitzsche and Marcus Aurelius, but he no doubt would have found it more congenial company than the drunks parading just outside.
Heading home Sunday night, during the rousing fireworks finale I watched as people streamed south down Fifth Street as the aerial bombs boomed overhead. The gunsmoke billowed across the immaculate lawn of the governor's mansion, and the crowds were illuminated fitfully by the arching pink and green lights as they poured past the iron fence that surrounds the mansion's luxurious grounds. For a moment I relived the apocalyptic fantasy nurtured so hopelessly by my generation of the revolution—the next revolution, the one that would redeem the first one 200 years ago. But the citizens were not storming the mansion to recapture their government, merely trying to get to their cars before the traffic jammed up. As I walked, pieces of bomb casings plopped onto the pavement around me. They were made of cardboard. I kicked them aside and went home. □