Summerfest’s Big 50

As officials with Milwaukee’s Summerfest prepare for this year’s event – the festival’s 50th anniversary – memories of the past are blended with celebration and plans for the future.

Summerfest 1987
Courtesy of Summerfest
– Summerfest 1987
Summerfest attendees put on a happy face as they enter “Festival Park” – aka Henry Maier Festival Park – in Milwaukee in 1987.

The event, running June 28 to July 2 and July 4-9, started out to be then-Milwaukee Mayor Henry Maier’s plan to bring the diverse community together in 1968. It has since been deemed “The World’s Largest Music Festival” by Guinness World Records in 1999, secured a permanent location and continues its eclectic mix of offerings each year.

Summerfest, which draws between 800,000 and 900,000 attendees each year, was originally hosted at 35 different locations throughout the city in 1968.

From there, it was moved to an abandoned, 15-acre missile base near the lakefront in 1970. The location has since expanded to 75 acres and been christened Henry Maier Festival Park. Bob Hope, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Sly & The Family Stone, The Beach Boys, The Doors, The Grateful Dead, The Rolling StonesStevie WonderPaul McCartney, Judas Priest, Prince – the top acts that have played the festival are just too many to mention.

In 1972, George Carlin did his “Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television” routine at Summerfest, which led to his arrest on a disorderly conduct charge.

Summerfest 1978
Courtesy of Summerfest
– Summerfest 1978
Helen Reddy plays the Summerfest Main Stage in Milwaukee in 1978. The festival – and its main stage – has come a long way in its 50 years.

The case was later dismissed and Carlin got a lot of publicity from the incident. Entertainment Director Bob Babisch started working for Summerfest in 1977 and booked his first festival in 1978.

“I would say in those days we probably had six or seven stages, so there was probably 200 or 300 bands. We had various stages and some of them had other people booking them. But by and large, we did the lion’s share of it,” Babisch told Pollstar. “The amphitheatre wasn’t built until later so we had what we called a Main Stage. We had the biggest acts playing there, but it was included in the ticket price to get into the grounds.

“I think the price was seven or eight bucks and you got to see everybody for free. The difference now is that with the amphitheatre, it’s a hard-ticket show.” Babisch said this year’s festival has about 600 acts performing on 11 stages. Booking the extensive lineup each year can be a challenge for him and his staff.

– Summerfest

“Our competition turns out to be other festivals here that are trying to get the same bands and we’re in that time period when everyone goes to Europe,” Babisch said. “There’s CoachellaLollapaloozaBonnarooFirefly is like the second week of June. A lot of acts take off and start with Glastonbury, stay in Europe for a couple of weeks and come back and play the later summer run of festivals in America.”

Don Smiley has been president/ CEO of Milwaukee World Festival, Inc., the nonprofit that oversees Summerfest, since 2004. His previous experience as president of the Florida Marlins and chairman of then-Pro Player Stadium prepared him to handle “The World’s Largest Music Festival.”

“My focus is always on quality versus quantity. So, in that regard, I spend an inordinate amount of my time planning for and taking care of our fans,” Smiley told Pollstar. “[That] includes continuing to build a more permanent infrastructure on the Summerfest grounds.”

Both Babisch and Smiley said that with all the festival’s growth in size and attendance, one thing remains constant.

Summerfest 1982 Folk Stage
– Summerfest 1982 Folk Stage

“If it wasn’t for sponsorship, we couldn’t do our event at the ticket prices we deal with or go into the building process for renovating,” Babisch said. “A perfect example for this year is the Miller Lite Oasis is being rebuilt. Next year, the U.S. Cellular Connection Stage will be rebuilt. The year after that, we’ll completely rebuild the American Family Insurance Amphitheatre.

“To have this 50 years later and to have the ability to still do this kind of business and draw this many people… How many festivals last this long?”

Among this summer’s lineup at the 23,000-capacity  are Tom Petty & The HeartbreakersPinkRed Hot Chili PeppersPaul SimonLuke BryanBob DylanThe Chainsmokers, and the Outlaw Music Festival. There will also be special events highlighting 50 years of Summerfest history for patrons to enjoy along with daily promotions.

“These milestones keep our festival at the top and continue to enhance the experience of our fans,” Smiley said. “It’s truly a world-class music festival, hosting the best artists in a world-class venue.”