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That '70s Airshow

Business, babes, and barnstormers. For awhile, Reading, Pennsylvania, had it all.

By 1970, more than 200 companies were returning every year in the first week of June to wedge their exhibits into eight- to 16-foot-wide booths set up in surplus Army barracks. Up to 650 airplanes parked on the ramp. Exhibitors would plop down $3,500 for a hospitality chalet for the week—mobile homes with porches and canopies—“basically one big room with a bartender,” says Cianci.

“All the major manufacturers served free beer and noshes, all hours,” remembers Sheldon “Torch” Lewis, a columnist with Business and Commercial Aviation, who flew to Reading in the early ’50s as chief pilot for Thatcher Glass and later as a sales rep for Gates Learjet. “There were open houses at the motels too.” Dick Aarons, former editor and now editor at large of Business and Commercial Aviation, adds, “In those days, aviation was a hard drinking crowd. Chalets were more an excuse for a bar.”   

Reading had taken on a life of its own. It was a “transistorized Paris,” according to Lewis, attracting the same big deal makers but cramming them into a small, come-as-you-are city, where the specialties were Macadamia nut pancakes, not coq au vin. The show is remembered today more for its social atmosphere and the aura of deal making than for the deals themselves. People who attended tell stories of cocktail parties, lawn parties, motel hospitality room parties, and chalet bars. With each memory, you get the equivalent of a roguish wink that tells you this was aviation’s good time for its mostly male sales force, behaving in this central Pennsylvania town the way they’d never behave at home.

Take, for example, the celebrated annual appearance of the Marathon Battery Girls, sporting Marathon Battery’s slogan, “The Pilot’s Bosom Buddy.” They dressed in satin hotpants with matching jackets, the backs of which were embroidered respectively with “Faster,” “Cooler,” and “More Often.” “Some of those girls were ahead of their time,” observes Breithaupt. “They would roam the ramps in twos or threes and later in the afternoon, it would seem the T-shirts got wet. Accidentally. Though it happened every year.”

The trade press loved Reading. Air Progress magazine lent its name to one of the most popular affairs: a cocktail party on the Tuesday night of show week at posh Stokesay Castle. On Wednesday nights, everybody went to a bash at Reading Motor Inn, hosted by Ziff-Davis, then publisher of Flying and Business and Commercial Aviation magazines. “We would have 2,000 people at a Reading cocktail party,” says Dick Aarons.

Jack Czarnecki remembers what the influx of partiers meant to the town of Reading. In 1916, his grandfather, Joe Czarnecki, had opened a bar in the town, later selling it to Jack’s dad. “Joe’s Restaurant” became one of the more upscale establishments in Reading, famous for dishes featuring locally grown mushrooms. According to Jack Czarnecki, his father transformed the business into a fine restaurant “when the Reading show started building” and later sold it to him. Czarnecki cherishes a letter he got one year from Moya Lear, wife of the energetic businessman who gave the world the Learjet, raving about the food and hospitality.

(Dick Aarons remembers Joe’s: “A mushroom restaurant on the first floor of a Victorian house. Every dish had some component of mushroom and the walls were hung with mushroom portraits. Joe’s martinis were served with a mushroom garnish. It was hard to find a mushroom tough enough to stand up to a martini.”)  

“I think exhibitors would return every year for the food and parties, not the airshow,” says Czarnecki. “During show week it was like every night was Saturday, a party. You would have large aviation fuel companies like Texaco and Mobil, airplane design companies. This was the day of the three-martini lunch and no end in budget,” he says.

Cessna’s representative at the 1978 airshow defended such expense to the Reading Air Show Daily News, saying, “There’s talk about the high costs of attending shows like Reading, but our dealers invite prospects here as their guests and show them some of the models that they might not have in stock. We are convinced that the resulting sales more than offset the cost of the [hospitality] program.”   

“I don’t remember that we sold anything at Reading,” admits Torch Lewis. “We developed good pros-pects, especially if Bill Lear came. He was a great attraction.”

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