Fun in the Sun
Lollapalooza attracts 60,000 fans, Bonnaroo boasts an attendance of 80,000 people, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival brings in 200,000 music lovers. Sounds like a lot of people, but all of these crowds combined doesn’t compare to Milwauk ee’s Summerfest.
Celebrating its 40th anniversary, Summerfest draws anywhere from 850,000 to more than one million fans every year. With 12 stages and 700 performances by more than 550 bands over the course of 11 days, it’s the world’s largest music festival, and it’s right on the shores of Lake Michigan. This year’s dates are June 28 to July 8.
“This is like a dozen music festivals strung together,”
says Brian Miller, a Milwaukee fan who shuts down his architectural firm to take his employees to the festival. “When you start talking about all those different stages and huge attendance figures, it’s like the national debt—numbers you can’t relate to. When someone tells me that their city has a music festival, I ask them, ‘How many people live in your town?’ If they say 200,000, then I tell them, ‘We can fit your entire town inside our festival.’”
The number of people attending the festival is not the only thing that garners attention; the diversity of the acts is also newsworthy.
Everything from jazz and country to hip-hop and hard rock—even accordions—make an appearance on at least one of the Summerfest stages. “When you look at our history, the best talents on the planet have performed here over the years,” says Howard Schnoll, president of the Summerfest board and volunteer for 40 years.
The Jackson 5 and Judy Collins performed in 1971. The Go-Go’s and Huey Lewis and the News headlined in 1984. Public Enemy rapped, and Milli Vanilli lip-synched on stage in 1990. And the Indigo Girls and Keith Urban rocked in 2002. Take any given year in Summerfest’s history, and it’s a veritable “who’s who” of pop, country and jazz of the time. It’s always a mix of who’s hot, who’s emerging and who was hot back when you were in high school (no matter what year you graduated). This year’s lineup includes The Fray, OK Go, Roger Waters, Bon Jovi, Ben Folds and John Mayer.
The eclectic mix that defines Summerfest can be traced back to its roots. In 1968, Milwaukee Mayor Henry Maier went to Munich for Oktoberfest and decided he wanted his town to have an affordable music festival.
The first two years were a bit chaotic, with dozens of concert locations spread throughout the city. In the second year, the festival almost went under because of extreme heat and then a deluge of rain, causing organizers to fall more than $164,000 in debt.
The next year, a group of business leaders rescued the fledgling festival with loans and sponsorships, and the event converged into a single, lakefront location: an abandoned Nike missile site. The stages were barely more than wooden platforms, and there were no tables or seating. “There really wasn’t a backstage to speak of,” says Daryl Stuermer, a Milwaukee musician who plays guitar for Genesis and Phil Collins, and who has performed at Summerfest.
“There were no dressing rooms so we’d have to change in our cars.”
Dressing rooms, along with permanent stages, were added over the years, and slowly, more than $50 million worth of improvements to the grounds were completed. The festival now attracts an average of 875,000 fans. But, its mission remains the same: To bring the best names in music to one place. “It’s really not something you can compare to anything else,” Stuermer says. “The beauty of the festival is that once you get in, you can see bands you never would have seen or even thought about going to see. That’s why it’s such a great venue for both the bands and the fans.”
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Summerfest’s all about having a good time, but if you’re not a native Milwaukeean, it can be a little bit daunting to navigate the world’s largest music festival.
IF YOU’RE STAYING DOWNTOWN, it’s easy to walk to the festival grounds. If you’re staying a little further out, your best bet might be to drive to one of the park-and-rides and catch a bus. Though there’s ample parking around the grounds, traffic can get jammed, especially if you leave at midnight when the festival shuts down for the night.
LOCALS KNOW that while general admission is reasonable ($15 evenings and weekends, $8 weekdays), plenty of bargains abound. From bringing in box tops from ice cream to cans of food to feed the hungry, there’s a special promotion almost every day of the festival’s 11-day run. This year, to celebrate its 40th anniversary, there’s free admission for everyone July 8 from noon until 4 p.m. Free cake and ice cream will also be served to the first 4,000 visitors.
SUMMERFEST IS HELD at the Henry Maier Festival Grounds, 200 N. Harbor Dr. Go to summerfest.com to buy tickets, sample the music and discover freebies.
Music to your Stomach
A ton of eggplant a day. One thousand strawberries a day. More than 500 cases of alcohol in a week. Summerfest might be all about the music, but food is never shunted to the side.
In fact, there are more than 60 different local vendors that offer more than 250 menu choices, including 26 different types of chicken dishes. “Whatever you’re in the mood for, you’ll find it,” says Lori Presser Murphy, owner of Ultimate Confections, which serves more than 125 pints of strawberries a day. “It’s a total adrenaline rush to work here.”
When Summerfest was founded, there was only one vendor. The only food available was typical festival fair—burgers, brats and fries. In 1975, the city switched to hiring locally operated restaurateurs, and the variety of food has grown ever since. But, unlike many music festivals, every menu item offered by every vendor must be approved—and reapproved annually—by the festival’s food committee. “You have to bring them in a sample of what you want to serve,” says Jerry
Cohen, owner of Major Goolsby’s, one of the original vendors. “They don’t allow you to over-charge; your prices can’t be different from what you’d charge at your restaurant.”
Efficiency becomes important, says Casper Balistreri, owner of the Venice Club, another original vendor. Balistreri and his crew of more than 80 workers serve a ton of eggplant every day. “We become the largest processor of eggplant in the world for those 11 days,” he says.
The other challenge is to come up with a new menu item every year, says John Vukelic, owner of Crawdaddy’s, who serves more than 25 tons of alligator sausage. “We spend all winter thinking up new ideas,” he says. “This year, we’re unveiling Cajun eggrolls.”
Joseph “Jo Jo” Fugarino, owner of Jo Jo’s Martini Lounge, says he will also be unveiling a special Summerfest martini to celebrate its 40 years. He and his crew of 100 different bartenders go through 500 cases of alcohol, mixing up martinis in five-gallon barrels. “It’s intense, and there’s no down time,” Fugarino says. “You have to be ready to perform, even if you’re not on a stage, but it’s the best time ever.”
EVERY YEAR SINCE 1991, LEWIS BLACK HAS PERFORMED AT SUMMERFEST.
In fact, his first year was the first time he performed outside a comedy club. “It was brutal,” he says. “I could have done as well if I was sitting on the Ferris wheel, which at that time, Summerfest had.” Despite the intense heat and uncertain vagaries of the crowd, he kept returning, and by about his fourth Summerfest appearance, Black was met with success. “Each year it got better, and the first time I got really good at it, where I really had them, it started thundering and lightening and raining, and I had to get off the stage,” Black recalls. “I thought it was a practical joke. I was just having the biggest night I’d ever had, and then, ‘boom.’” Black will, of course, perform again this year. “It’s still nuts being outside, but I like it a lot,” he says. “I get to see bands, and I like Milwaukee. Summerfest is one of the best parties I’ve ever been to, and if you don’t like a band, just walk and find another. For the entertainment dollar, there’s nothing like it in the country.”
The first Summerfest is held at 35 locations throughout Milwaukee. Bob Hope, Up With People and The Lemon Pipers headline.
Bob Hope returns; Dolly Parton, The Bob Seger System and B.B. King also headline, but 60 different venues, combined with extreme heat and a deluge of rain, put Summerfest $164,000 in the red.
Summerfest moves to a former Nike missile site on the lakefront, and business leaders step up, create sponsorships and get the fest out of debt.
James Brown, José Feliciano and Procol Harum perform, but fans waiting for Sly and the Family Stone almost riot when the band doesn’t start on time. Summerfest’s smile logo also debuts.
Too many profanities uttered on Summerfest’s main stage put George Carlin in the slammer for violating the state’s obscenity laws. David Cassidy, Aretha Franklin, The Doors and Glen Campbell perform— and don’t get arrested.
Sammy Davis, Jr., the Steve Miller Band and The Doobie Brothers perform to rave reviews, but fans of Humble Pie riot, tearing down tents, stealing 50 kegs of beer and setting fires.
Summerfest board of directors sets up family-friendly rules, no longer allowing patrons to bring their own alcohol. Johnny Cash, Helen Reddy, and Gladys Knight and the Pips perform.
The festival begins to use local restaurant vendors, and the first half-barrel of Miller Lite is poured.
Bee Gees, Chuck Berry and Joan Baez take the stage.
Plans for an amphitheater are formulated. Rick Springfield, R.E.M., Donna Summer and Eric Clapton perform.
Attendance climbs past 650,000, with Night Ranger, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Willie Nelson taking the stage.
Doors open to the Marcus Amphitheater with Paul Simon, Duran Duran and Run-DMC headlining.
Lewis Black, in his first performance outside New York City, comes to Summerfest; he has returned every year since.
Summerfest celebrates its 30th anniversary. It invests $2.5 million in grounds improvements, including two new stages, bringing the total to 12. Dave Matthews Band, Foo Fighters, No Doubt and Weezer headline.
The festival hits a record attendance of more than one million people. Destiny’s Child, Tom Petty, 3 Doors Down and Prince headline.
Alan Jackson, Carrie Underwood, Mary J. Blige and Tom Petty perform. Several international music journalists attend. The festival’s Web site is visited by people from more than 105 countries.