City historian looks back at the beginnings of Chicago Air and Water Show

CHICAGO (WLS) -- As the Chicago Air & Water Show gets ready to celebrate its 60th year this weekend, city historian Tim Samuelson sat down with ABC7 to take a look back at how it all began in 1959.

"There was an idea to enhance Chicago's lakefront. I mean now Chicago's lakefront had transformed itself from a working lake into a place of high-rise skyscrapers and recreation," Samuelson said.

The show started out small but has always been about spectacle.

RELATED: 60th Annual Chicago Air and Water Show Week

"Right from the start in 1959 they knew how to put on a show," Samuelson said. "This is real showbiz and using air and water and started out relatively modestly and over the years just amplified and amplified," Samuelson said.

EMBED More News Videos

ABC7 flying with the performers at the Chicago Air & Water Show through the years.

Even before 1959, Chicago flexed its aviation muscles by hosting an international air meet.

"By that time, all different manufactures from around the world came to demonstrate and compete for prizes in 1911 over what is now Grant Park," he said.

RELATED: Special Olympics coach Kate Grant honored as Chicago Air & Water Show's Hometown Hero

In the beginning, there was a greater emphasis on water than air, with skiers and unique boats and even a diving board into Lake Michigan.

"It was like going to Vegas, you would have a little a motor speed boat with not just one female water skier in a bikini, but a whole line of them, and then maybe the next year you would have a line of them but they would pyramid on top of each other," Samuelson said.

As the show grew, so did the crowd. The original location of the show was closer to Navy Pier and Grand, but then moved to North Avenue Beach in the 1980s for the comfort of the sand and more space for families.

RELATED: Warbird Heritage Foundation Museum in Waukegan features historic military planes

From then to now, the main changes are only technology and a change of focus from the water to all eyes turned to the skies. But 60 years later, it is nothing more than good ol' family fun.

"How often do you get a chance to gather up the family, be on the lake in a beautiful lakefront city and watch something. Even though it's some of the same features you have seen before there is the unknown of you don't know what is going to happen. There is a natural built-in thrill that you don't get in everyday life," Samuelson said.
Copyright © 2022 WLS-TV. All Rights Reserved.