Summerfest - The World's Largest Music Festival
We celebrated our 50th Summerfest in 2017 and the 50th wasn't only a celebration of our history as one of the longest running music festivals in the world. It was about what this festival continues to offer to our community of beloved fans decade after decade. Independently owned and permanently hosted on the shores of beautiful Lake Michigan, Summerfest is run by the non-profit organization Milwaukee World Festival Inc. and positively impacts the local economy with $187M in annual economic impact.
Maybe you saw your first concert here. Or, perhaps you share an annual tradition with your best friend of trying the craziest new ‘deep-fried” or “on a stick” food. Maybe it's just the exhilaration of the live music experience that keeps you coming back for more. Whatever your favorite Summerfest memory is, there wasn't a better time to relive it, or make a few more, when you joined us for our 50th celebration in 2017.
Want to learn more? Below are some of our favorite Summerfest memories throughout the years.
1960s – A Festival is Born
The vision for Summerfest was the idea of the late Mayor Henry Maier in the 1960s. Following a visit to Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, Mayor Maier dreamed of a festival for the people that would revitalize Milwaukee's downtown and bring the community together. In 1967, the event was officially named Summerfest leading to the opening of its gates for the first time in 1968. Summerfest was originally held at 35 separate locations around the downtown area, including a 6-acre site on the lakefront, Milwaukee County Stadium, Pere Marquette Park and Washington Park.
- The second Summerfest was held in 60 locations around Milwaukee. Its future existence was threatened by low attendance caused by cold rainy weather (1969).
- Headlining performers included Bob Hope and country singer Dolly Parton (1969).
- "The Milwaukee Summerfest Polka," became the festival's unofficial theme song.
1970s – Summerfest and Missiles?
Summerfest experienced a wildly successful comeback as the festival moved to, an abandoned 15-acre Nike missile site along Milwaukee's lakefront. It ranked among the five biggest festivals in the country within just 4 years of operation. All three Milwaukee Breweries - Pabst, Schlitz and Miller sponsor stages that consisted of wooden platforms raised on concrete blocks at the festival. It was at, the Main Stage where a riot broke out in the stands during a performance by Humble Pie & The Blackberries with Jo Jo Gunne (1973). Beer carts and police cars were overturned and over 300 festival fans were arrested. This incident forced Summerfest management to rethink what the festival was; ending the Rock & Roll music format at the festival for several years.
By the middle of the decade permanent stages and structures began making an appearance and more aesthetic improvements were made. Summerfest was granted the right to use 30 acres of lakefront property prompting the addition of three more stages including a new Comedy stage and a new marketplace. Local area restaurants were invited to take part in the festival, greatly increasing and diversifying the options at the festival.
In 1978 Summerfest celebrated its 10th anniversary and Bob Babisch rose to Entertainment Director. His tenure as head of entertainment continued to shape Summerfest as a major music festival.
- The Summerfest smile logo, which is currently still used, was created by Noel J. Spangler & Richard D. Grant (1970).
- Comedian George Carlin shouted the famous seven obscene words (which were taboo on television) (1972).
- Phil Donahue taped the first of several shows at Summerfest (1974).
- Comedian Billy Crystal headlined the Comedy Stage (1976).
- A Wildcat strike by truckers caused Waylon Jennings to honor the picket lines and not perform. Journey replaced Waylon as a Main Stage headliner 24 hours prior to his show (1978).
1980s – Summerfest Begins On A Positive Note
By the 1980s, a long-term lease agreement was reached with the City of Milwaukee prompting more permanent structures to appear on the grounds ensuring the future of Summerfest was bright. In 1983 Bo Black was hired as executive director and turnstiles were added at the admission gates allowing for accurate attendance tracking. Guests enjoyed everything from their favorite artists paired with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra to the popular annual "Mr. Summerfest Body Building Competition. In 1984, record crowds attended a Huey Lewis concert on the “Main Stage” (estimated 25,000+ people in a space only meant for 15,000), and proved that a larger performance space was needed. Therefore, with the help of Stephen H. Marcus of the Marcus Corporation and Russell Cleary of G. Heileman Brewing Company the construction of a multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art amphitheater was announced.
In 1987 the seats were still being installed in the newly built Marcus Amphitheater the day before the Washington Squares and The Beach Boys were set to open Summerfest. Other headliners that year included Paul Simon, Run DMC, Duran Duran, Whitney Houston, The Bangles and John Denver. Towards the end of the decade Summerfest was invaded by MTV with a Marcus Amphitheater performance in 1989 featuring Paula Abdul / Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam / Ton Loc / Milli Vanilli / Information Society / Was (Not Was), and the Downtown Julie Brown MTV Dancers.
- The first of many great appearances in years to come, Santana headlined the Main Stage (1982).
- Then up-and-comers, R.E.M. appeared on the Rock Stage (1983).
- Comedienne Sandra Bernhard was featured opening night in the TV 6 Comedy Cabaret (1986).
- On the final night of Summerfest, the Go-Go's played the last show on the Main Stage, while headliner INXS had to cancel due to a torrential downpour. Guests were diving off picnic tables into the rising waters and some actually swam out of the Main Stage entrances once the show was cancelled (1986).
- John Cougar Mellencamp and Sting were featured headliners in the Marcus Amphitheater and a trio of well-known comedians - Dennis Miller, Rich Hall and Gilbert Gottfried - headlined at the Comedy Cabaret (1988).
1990s – Summerfest "The World's Largest Music Festival"
1990 began with a bang as a long-range, $15 million capital improvements plan was proposed. It included a bridge to Summerfest Island off the north end of the grounds as well as new North, Mid and South Gates. A Summerfest fan favorite, the Saz's Sampler Platter, was also introduced. The original sampler included hand rolled mozzarella sticks, sour cream and chive fries and clam strips. In addition, Summerfest offered sponsored admission promotions to give patrons the ability to get in free on specific days and began holding a local talent search to recruit local bands to play at the festival.
Comedian Drew Carey headlined the Comedy Pavilion in 1994 while the Amphitheater boasted an amazing line-up, garnering exceptional media attention. Headliners included Janet Jackson, Salt `N' Peppa / R. Kelly, Stone Temple Pilots, Metallica, Soundgarden, Traffic, Depeche Mode, Bonnie Raitt and Brooks & Dunn. In addition, Children's Fest Day started as part of the festival, aiming to add more family friendly activities to the Summerfest array.
Celebrating 30 years in 1997 an additional $2.3 million in capital improvements were made to the grounds. Included was a permanent space frame roof structure at the Comedy Stage, which was moved here after the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, GA. At the same time the Ethnic Gardens (north end of the grounds) opened, offering a variety of local ethnic fare to guests. Capping off the 90’s, the Guinness Book of World Records named Summerfest "The World's Largest Music Festival" in 1999.
- Pearl Jam became the first band to play two shows in the Marcus Amphitheater during Summerfest. This performance was in the midst of their iconic battle with Ticketmaster in which they canceled the majority of their tour, but were convinced to keep the Marcus Amphitheater dates due to low ticket cost and fees in the Amphitheater (1995).
- Annual skateboarding competitions were held at the festival.
- Summerfest introduced an official mascot, Festy, an Alaskan malamute.
- Summerfest experienced a single day record breaking attendance of 138,854 on the second to last day of the festival (1998).
2000s – Smile On
Major improvements to gates, facilities, and vendor buildings continued to be made on the grounds, including a new stage and plaza area. In 2004 Don Smiley was named President and CEO of Milwaukee World Festival, Inc. the same year Prince And The New Power Generation, Kenny Chesney / Uncle Kracker, John Mayer / Maroon 5 headline the Marcus Amphitheater. Summerfest saw a 4% increase in 2005 turning the tide from several years of declining attendance. This momentum continued and 2006 marked an exciting year for Summerfest. A new $3.5 million Miller Lite Stage made its debut, with a nearly doubled viewing capacity. Unfortunately the power went out for several hours on opening day showing that Summerfest was not immune to growing pains. Still there was good news as Country Music Television (CMT) taped a concert series from Summerfest that aired multiple times nationally to CMT's 82 million subscribers. Featured artists included Lynyrd Skynyrd, Hank Williams, Jr., and Dierks Bentley.
Summerfest celebrated 40 years in 2007 with the ad campaign "Smile On," which allowed festival fans to audition to be featured in the fest's advertising and collateral. Roger Waters and Bon Jovi headlined the Marcus Amphitheater, with Bon Jovi bringing in the largest audience in the Marcus Amphitheater in Summerfest history. In addition, 2008 saw the introduction of the new Harley-Davidson Roadhouse stage. The design incorporated real motorcycles in signage and on stage, displaying a little Milwaukee muscle.
- The Dead headlined a show at the Marcus Amphitheater with Willie Nelson & Family. Bo Black steps down as President (2003).
- Summerfest partnered with African World Festival to create a gospel music contest among area church choirs (2006).
- KISS, George Strait, No Doubt and Kenny Chesney played the Amphitheater while Judas Priest, Matisyahu and The Offspring rock the grounds stages. BBC World News (London) profiled Summerfest and its economic impact for the community (2009).
Present – Summerfest leading up to the big 50
Summerfest continued to reinvest in Henry Maier Festival Park starting with a new Briggs and Stratton Big Backyard Stage, a new South Gate/Box Office, restaurant buildings, restrooms, and parking for guests in 2011. For the first time in the history of the event, Summerfest closed on Monday and added a Wednesday to the operating dates. The Summerfest Foundation, Inc. was founded in June 2011 and the Rock ‘n Sole Run (which would later become a charitable event for the Foundation) debuted. In 2013, keeping the community in mind, Summerfest focused more on daytime enhancements, headliners, and activities that catered to different tastes.
The Rolling Stones book Summerfest in 2015 making them the biggest rock 'n roll act to play in Amphitheater history. Due to the needs of the show, The Rolling Stones perform the night before opening day, and a "pre-party" is scheduled for ticket holders with the south end of the grounds opening a night early. For the first time, Summerfest Foundation, Inc. awards $25,000 in music education grants to area schools and organizations.
2016 is another banger year as icon Sir Paul McCartney rocked the Marcus Amphitheater and celebrity super group, Hollywood Vampires (Joe Perry, Alice Cooper and Johnny Depp), headlined the BMO Harris Pavilion.
2017 has already been an exciting year for Summerfest with the renovation of the Miller Lite Oasis opening in time for the 50th and the historic announcement of the new partnership with American Family Insurance. The biggest sponsorship deal in festival history and first-ever presenting sponsorship the festival will now be known as Summerfest presented by American Family Insurance and included in the deal is the construction of a new Amphitheater scheduled to begin in 2019.
- On opening night, the Summerfest Big Bang Fireworks show was heard in Michigan. Marcus Amphitheater headliners included Kanye West, Katy Perry and The Black Keys (2011).
- A study conducted by Tourism Economics, an Oxford Economics Company reported that Summerfest generated approximately $226 million dollars in positive economic impact for the State of Wisconsin, $187 of which positively impacted the City of Milwaukee (2013).
- The Marcus Amphitheater and Grounds Stages hosted one of their most talked about and celebrated lineups to date, including Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga, Outkast, Zac Brown Band, Motley Crue, Usher, Fall Out Boy, Brad Paisley, New Order and the Arctic Monkeys (2014).
- Polk Street was officially renamed Summerfest Place, cementing its importance in Milwaukee history (2016).