Thrilling musical acts performed by great bands of all genres fill eleven stages for eleven days of musical ecstasy. Crowds swarm Henry Maier Festival Park to take in one of the greatest compilations of music that summer has to offer year after year. Welcome to Summerfest.
Summerfest is known as the "World's Largest Musical Festival", and deservedly so; it's collection of premier musical talent attracts close to a million fans from late June to early July to its location by the shores of Lake Michigan summer after summer. The affordability of the event is a huge draw. Music fans have the opportunity to be entertained by hundreds of musical acts on eleven stages for eleven days for a very low ticket price. They don't have to select just one act to attend, but rather can browse all acts performing at a given time, something basically unheard of at other music venues.
So, when did Summerfest begin? Whose idea was it anyway?
Inspired after a trip to Munich, Germany and his experiences at Oktoberfest, in the early 1960s, Milwaukee's mayor at the time, Henry W. Maier, proposed the idea of introducing such a festival to his city. After selling his idea to a panel of business and civic leaders and engaging others in his "big idea", the preparations and planning for this great event began, eventually acquiring the name, "Summerfest", after two other ideas were dismissed, Milwaukee World Festival and July Fun.
After six years of tireless effort, Summerfest finally made its debut in July, 1968, however the festival was vastly different than the one today. At the first Summerfest, events including concerts, exhibitions, a film festival, an air show, and a pageant were held at thirty-five different locations throughout the city of Milwaukee. The novelty of the event attracted a great many citizens of Milwaukee and its surrounding area as well as several visitors, however the second event, the next year, was a great deal less successful and it was clearly apparent that drastic changes had to be made to save the event, still in its infancy.
1970's Summerfest brought the event to the lake front at a site chosen as a permanent central location that would be more accessible and inviting to those interested in attending; this is the site where Summerfest is still held yet today. This move was very integral in encouraging the expansion of Summerfest into the great summer event that it is now.
Although Mayor Maier originally envisioned Summerfest as an ethnic festival, it's concerts became its major draw and soon became its focal point. Acts including: Bob Dylan, Up With People, James Taylor, the BoDeans, Led Zeppelin, Christina Aguilera, the Violent Femmes, Tina Turner, LeAnn Rimes, Phil Vassar, the Village People, Silverchair, Collective Soul, Hootie and the Blowfish, Deana Carter, Mary J. Blige, Nine Inch Nails, Alicia Keyes, and many, many others have graced its stages in its forty year history. Beyond the music, food and beer have also come to be closely associated with the festival. Many of Milwaukee's breweries, both large and small, sell their beer to festival goers year after year as do food vendors from many of Milwaukee's famous restaurants. The unique variety of food available is a hit with those in attendance as it's common to find everything from bruschetta to fried squid to sushi to a great availability of ethnic dishes.
The festival is known for its civility unlike some other music events regularly held around the country where people are known to go wild and crazy. There's only been two times in Summerfest's history where a riot almost occurred and where one actually occurred. In 1970, Sly and the Family Stone, arrived late which angered fans and nearly caused a riot and in 1973, a Humble Pie and the Blackberries concert resulted in a riot, including a bonfire and over three-hundred arrests. After these events, wanting to keep Summerfest a family-friendly event, its organizers went to the practice of prohibiting festival goers from bring in outside alcohol and carefully selecting rock band performers as this genre seemed to bring in the most wild and violent crowds.
Summerfest is a Milwaukee tradition and an excellent outdoor music venue. With so many shows on so many stages, there's no doubt you'll find at least one performance that catches your interest. I happened upon the event in 2006 during a visit to Milwaukee without really knowing what it was and thought it was awesome. If you are looking for a summer adventure and happen to be in or planning to visit the Milwaukee area, Summerfest is definitely an event that you should take in.