In 1971, the major cultural institutions along the Ben Franklin Parkway conceived of a street festival that would double as a fundraiser.
The basic premise: close the Parkway to cars for one Sunday and have a big party.
Because of local blue laws, Philly didn’t have a sterling reputation for Sunday entertainment. As W.C. Fields famously said: “I once spent a year in Philadelphia. I think it was on a Sunday.”
Super Sunday represented an effort to shed that reputation and revive interest in the city core.
Organizers picked Oct. 10 for the inaugural gathering. It was a real hodgepodge, combining carnival rides, food vendors, and flea market stalls. The fountain at Logan Circle was stocked with fish for people to catch. There was a boa constrictor named Goliath, Bavarian beer gardens, and the world’s fastest Ferrari.
Despite heavy rain, the first Super Sunday drew tens of thousands to the Parkway. And a tradition was born.
Soon, hundreds of thousands were coming to the annual event.
By 1974, Super Sunday was such a phenomenon that the New York Times dubbed it the “world’s biggest block party” in a feature piece.
The event had an anything-goes vibe. Attendees that year “found stands promoting antivivisectionism, the Boy Scouts, the Baptist Church, Buddhism, a rollback in the price of sugar, and the candidacies of three state legislators,” according to the Times.
Over the years, Super Sunday featured a wide array of entertainment options.
In 1973, you could see a 2,000 pound sculpture of an ice cream sundae.
In 1974, you could test a new device called the breathalyzer.
In 1975, you could play tic-tac-toe on a computer.
In 1978, you could honor the reign of France’s Napoleon III.
In 1981, you could watch a harness race on the Parkway.
In 1983, you could get free hugs from members of the Unity Church of Christ.
In 1987, you could cheer the “Miller Lite arm wrestlers” as they battled.
In 1988, you could get your picture taken with Alf.
In 1991, you could help set a record for most people simultaneously doing the “Monster Mash.”
In 1993, you could see the car used by the “Munsters.”
In 1995, you could meet the Exxon tiger.
Speaking of Exxon, in the 90s, the oil giant became the festival’s official sponsor. It was actually rebranded as Exxon Super Sunday. But in 1998, Exxon pulled its sponsorship. After that, the festival’s organizing committee announced the end of Super Sunday.
Exxon’s withdrawal was the final blow, but in many ways the festival’s demise was a result of its success.
Super Sunday had spawned many imitators, both in Philly and elsewhere. Festivals like Unity Day and Welcome America now dotted the city’s events calendar.
“It’s a shame,” deputy mayor Kevin Feeley told the Inquirer. “It was a terrific event, and I think that in a lot of ways, events that in some ways copied it have overtaken it.”
That’s how it often goes for trailblazers — Super Sunday being no exception.