It was a different world in 1939. Adolf Hitler had just ordered the Luftwaffe bomb Britain. America was climbing out of the Great Depression. In St. Paul, the police department let gangsters make the city their home base as long as they didn’t perpetrate their crimes in the saintly city. In Minneapolis, Ira Blumenthal, a.k.a. “Kid Cann”, ran a highly profitable bootlegging, prostitution, and racketeering operation out of his Flame Nightclub on 15th and Nicollet.

Legitimate business leaders were worried. It seemed the judicial system was incapable of making a conviction stick on Blumenthal. The City of Lakes was called “Mobapolis” in newspapers around the country. The reputation of their fair city was going down the tubes. Something had to be done.

That’s how Win Stephens of Stephens Buick; Neil Messick of the Nicollet Hotel; Dave Onan, Onan and Sons, Inc.; Tom Hastings, Minneapolis Brewery; adman John Cornelius; and PR man Mike Fadell found themselves attending a parade in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in honor of England’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

The immense crowds gave them an idea for a civic festival, and the Aquatennial was born. Since the first band stepped off in 1940, the annual summer festival has entertained and delighted Minnesotans far and wide and brought international recognition to Minneapolis. So much for Kid Cann!

The organizers thought big. The first Aquatennial included more than 170 events. An air show, championship rodeo, golf tournament, and a Paul Bunyan Canoe Derby that ran 450 miles from Bemidji to Minneapolis were part of the action, as well as the Grande Day and Illuminated Evening Parades. At noon each day, 490 fountains went to work on the north shore of Lake Calhoun. At 8 p.m., 800 colored lamps played on the water until midnight.

The Aqua Follies also debuted that year. Synchronized swimming teams performed in Busby Berkeley-style shows and a crazy guy by the name of Maury Ostrander donned an asbestos suit, doused it with gasoline, set it on fire, and dived into Cedar Lake. There was even an ecumenical religious service at Powderhorn Park.

World War II didn’t stop the Aquatennial. More than 400,000 people attended the 1942 “On to Victory” parade. After the war, the rodeo and polo matches were dropped from the schedule and other events and activities took their place.

Over the years, the Aquatennial continued to adjust to changing times and contemporary tastes. The Aqua Follies were discontinued in 1964. Milk Carton Boat Races were held at Lake Calhoun from 1971 to 2015. The Grande Day Parade was dropped in 2005, and the 40-block Torchlight Parade route has been shortened to a mere mile, hardly enough to break a sweat in a wool band uniform.

Other things remained constant: The Torchlight Parade, the Aqua Jesters clown troupe (founded in 1946 and always up on the latest news and politics, which they include in their gags and sketches), celebrity appearances (Bob Hope, Jefferson Airplane), and the Queen of the Lakes.

The Queen and her Commodore are Minneapolis’ goodwill ambassadors to the world. The former Miss Anoka, Pam Albinson, served as queen in 1962. She traveled 150,000 miles and made 600 appearances from Minnesota to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Lima, Peru. She was also the first Aquatennial queen to appear in the Rose Bowl Parade. The crown she wore was created in 1948 by J.B. Hudson Jewelers.  The red velvet chapeau was decorated with sterling silver, 24-karat gold plate, semi-precious gems and trimmed with genuine ermine. It disappeared for a few years, but was later found in a filing cabinet at Hudson’s and turned over to the Hennepin History Museum.

The Aquatennial has always been a volunteer event. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, 5,000 volunteers ran the festival; it took 1,000 volunteers to manage just the parades. Some years it made money, other years it ended in the red. In 2002, the festival came under the aegis of the Downtown Council. Last year, the council shortened the festival to four days and moved everything downtown.

The Aquatennial has been held, rain or shine, hot (103 degrees in 1940) or cold (50 in 1992) for 76 years. It has survived race riots (1968) and demonstrations by the American Indian Movement (1971). It’s been rearranged, reconfigured and downsized, but it happens every summer. Long may it reign.

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Author Sowden marched in Aquatennial parades as a member of the Edison High School Band from 1969 to 1971.

 

SIDEBAR:

Although it’s no longer a 10-day extravaganza, the Aquatennial still has plenty of fun events to attend.

Wednesday, July 20

8 a.m.-6 p.m.     Hennepin History Museum Aquatennial Exhibit, Cambria Gallery 625 2nd Ave. S.

9 a.m.-5 p.m.      Aquatennial Tennis Classic, 2nd Ave. and 5th St. S.

5-7:30 p.m.         Family Fun Night, Loring Park

5:30-7:30 p.m.   Wilderness Inquiry Voyageur Canoe Rides, Loring Park

7:30 p.m.             Twin Cities Orthopedics Torchlight 5K, Hennepin Ave.

8:30 p.m.             CenterPoint Energy Torchlight Parade, Hennepin Ave.

 

Thursday, July 21

8 a.m.-6 p.m.     Hennepin History Museum Aquatennial Exhibit, Cambria Gallery 625 2nd Ave. S.

9 a.m.-5 p.m.      Aquatennial Tennis Classic, 2nd Ave. and 5th St. S.

5:30 p.m.             Aquatennial Yoga, Target Field Station

7 p.m.                   Aquatennial Movie, “Overboard”, Target Field Station

6 and 8 p.m.       Twin Cities River Rats, Mississippi River between Plymouth and Broadway Bridges

 

Friday, July 22

8 a.m.-6 p.m.     Hennepin History Museum Aquatennial Exhibit, Cambria Gallery 625 2nd Ave. S.

9 a.m.-2 p.m.      Aquatennial Tennis Classic, 2nd Ave. and 5th St. S.

11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.       Aquatennial Zumba, Peavey Plaza

6 and 8 p.m.       Twin Cities River Rats, Mississippi River between Plymouth and Broadway Bridges

6-9 p.m.               Big Waters Classic Bike Race: Fulton’s Downtown Drag Race, North Loop

9 p.m.                   Aquatennial Movie, “Rocky”, Target Field Station

 

Saturday, July 23

11 a.m.-4 p.m.   Hennepin History Museum Aquatennial Exhibit, Cambria Gallery 625 2nd Ave. S.

11 a.m.-10 p.m. Twin Cities CariFest

6-10 p.m.             Pre-fireworks Event, West River Pkwy. near Portland Ave.

10 p.m.                 Target Fireworks, West River Pkwy. near Portland Ave.

 

By Cynthia Lueck Sowden

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