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Summerfest is an annual music festival held at the 75-acre (30-hectare) Henry Maier Festival Park along the lakefront in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The festival lasts for 11 days, is made up of 11 stages with performances from over 700 bands, and since the mid-1970s has run from late June through early July, usually including the 4th of July holiday. Summerfest attracts between 800,000 and 1,000,000 people each year, promoting itself as "The World's Largest Music Festival", a title certified by the Guinness World Records since 1999.
Summerfest is operated by a non-profit board that hires the production staff to operate both the venue and main Summerfest event, which features local and nationally known music talent from a variety of music genres. The event also provides the opportunity to sample a wide variety of food from many Milwaukee-area restaurants. Other Summerfest attractions include comedy acts, shopping vendors, fireworks (including "The Big Bang" on opening night), other special attractions, family activities, and more.
Performing and Recording Artists make personal appearances on 11 sponsor-themed stages throughout the grounds from noon to midnight, including the 23,000-capacity Marcus Amphitheater. All shows are free with an admission ticket, with the exception of headlining acts at the Marcus Amphitheater. Admission is between US$11 and US$19, depending on the time of day. There are numerous promotions for discounted or free admission.
Summerfest was conceived in the 1960s by then-mayor Henry W. Maier. Inspired by his visit to Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, Maier envisioned a similar ethnic-themed festival in Milwaukee, and in 1962 formed a panel of business and civic leaders to study the feasibility of a large-scale summer festival. By the middle of the decade, the panel drew up a proposal for a 10-day multi-event festival with the proposed name of "Milwaukee World Festival," which was changed briefly in 1966 to "Juli Spaß" (German for "July Fun") and then to "Summerfest".
The inaugural Summerfest was held in July 1968 at 35 different locations throughout the city (including Milwaukee County Stadium and Milwaukee Arena), and its events ranged from concerts to a film festival, an air show, and even a pageant. The first Summerfest, produced by Dee Robb and Con Merten was regarded as a success; the second event in 1969, was less successful, as it was plagued by additional venues, inclement weather, and severe financial debt.
In 1970, a permanent central location was decided upon, and Summerfest moved to a former Nike missile site on the lakefront, where it continues to be held to this day. Also that year, Summerfest introduced its red "smiley face" logo, an insignia that has become synonymous with the event. The logo was designed by local graphic artist Noel Spangler.
It was also in 1970 that Henry Jordan, former Green Bay Packers defensive tackle, became executive director of Summerfest, a title he held during the event's early years until his death in 1977. After a few other businessmen were hired by the board for the executive director's job, Elizabeth "Bo" Black, who was formerly Henry Jordan's secretary, became executive director in 1984 after a ten year lobbying effort.
Summerfest celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2007. The event's history was the subject of "Summerfest Stories", a documentary that aired in June 2007 on Milwaukee Public Television.
In 2015, Milwaukee World Festival, Inc and ReverbNation announced a three-year agreement to use the online service as an audition to give musicians a chance to perform. Summerfest wanted to provide an opportunity for performers to get a chance to be one of the 800+ acts and allow new talent to be seen by over 900,000 people that attend.
In 2014, Summerfest managed to draw and host 851,879 patrons, an increase of 1.4% over 2013's 840,356 attendance, overcoming unseasonable weather challenges, including fog, intermittent rain and cool temperatures, along with significant highway and road construction projects in the immediate area. Food and beverage sales at the event increased by 6% over last year's totals in the same categories. Summerfest employed nearly 2,200 seasonal employees. Festival fans sampled over 45 diverse food and beverage vendors, which resulted in the consumption of 66,011 burgers, 20,799 brats, 17,842 eggplant strips, 96,344 mozzarella sticks, 38,202 ears of corn, 181,758 mini donuts and 33,728 ice cream.
Summerfest 2015 attracted 772,652 people, a 9.3% decline in attendance that the Big Gig blamed on big headaches ranging from road construction to chilly temperatures to the three-day Milwaukee County Transit bus drivers strike. An additional 23,000 fans attended the Rolling Stones' Summerfest kickoff June 23, the day before the festival began.
Uline Warehouse Located on the north end of the grounds, the Uline Warehouse can host approximately 5,000 - 6,000 fans and features an eclectic mix of acts from various genres including classic rock, country, hard rock, blues and jam bands.
U.S. Cellular Connection
The U.S. Cellular Connection stage is a moderately-sized free stage at Summerfest, and is often host to alternative and indie music bands. It is partially sponsored by the local alternative music station, Milwaukee FM 102.1.
Potowatomi is the name of a local casino that provided monetary support to the summerfest administration. As of summer 2013, the Potowatomi stage was renamed the "Johnson Controls World Sound Stage."
The Tiki Hut is a small lakefront stage that often features local but talented acts, with genres ranging from acoustic to electronic funk. The area often serves as an oasis for concertgoers looking to get away from the crowds and heat from the larger stages. Unlike most other stages, a single band may perform more than one act per day for a block of three to four days, which aids in developing a local following. The performers on this, and many of the smaller stages usually work for tips, as they are not paid to be there. Two current mainstays and crowd favorites of the Tiki Hut are Roster McCabe, a high-energy Minneapolis-based rock/rap/reggae/funk/electronic fusion group and acoustic guitarist Dan Rodriguez.
Miller Lite Oasis
The Miller Lite Oasis stage, completed in 2006, is the largest stage inside the Summerfest grounds without having to pay the extra for the Marcus Amphitheatre headliner.
Like the Tiki Hut, the Refugee stage features local acts of a variety of genres. The Refugee stage is just 15 feet from Lake Michigan and is a popular place to feel the lake breeze on hotter summer days and meet the musicians.
The Marcus Amphitheater is an amphitheater on the south end of the Summerfest grounds. The amphitheater was built after an extremely overcrowded concert in 1984 to carry crowds of 25,000 fans during concerts. It was completed in 1987, with the principal contribution from the Marcus Corporation. It is the venue for headlining acts performing at Summerfest. It is also the host to a variety of concerts and events during the spring, summer and fall.
Harley-Davidson teamed up with Summerfest to completely renovate their stage and area footprint for the 2008 festival season. The renovation improved sight lines, sound and lighting, while also increasing the area's capacity and providing for improved traffic flow in and around the stage area. Upgrades included large video screens for image magnification of performances and a comfortable seating area at the lakefront.
Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard
In 2011, a renovated Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard stage opened.
BMO Harris Pavilion
In 2012, the BMO Harris Pavilion finished construction. The new pavilion and stage, designed by Epstein Uhen, features a swooshing wave-like roof and replaces the temporary Classic Rock Stage on the south end of the grounds. It is the main project of phase two of Summerfest's two-year, US$35,000,000 redevelopment project.
The pavilion features a 10,000-person capacity, including 5,000 seats. A 17-by-10-foot video screen has been added to enhance viewing for standing-room-only patrons. Additional amenities include a lakeside sit-down restaurant and a "club bar" – with room for 200 patrons and a commanding view of the stage – open to the public during unsold time periods. Plans are also in the works to book concerts at the pavilion outside of Summerfest. There have been complaints that this is now the first ticketed venue in what was a completely general admission festival since the beginning of Summerfest in 1968, besides Marcus Amphitheater.
Concert history year by year
Summerfest has been most famous for its music, ever since the first festival in 1968, when acts such as Ronnie Dove, The New Colony Six, The Robbs and Up With People performed. Since then, musical acts from Bob Dylan, The Jonas Brothers, Maroon 5, Fun, Britney Spears, Tina Turner, and James Taylor to Christina Aguilera, Kanye West, Kid Cudi, Mary J. Blige, Wiz Khalifa, Imagine Dragons, and Nine Inch Nails have graced the Summerfest stages. Acts with Milwaukee and Wisconsin connections have had a prominent history at Summerfest, most notably the BoDeans, The Gufs, Danny Gokey, and Violent Femmes., The Sociables
The concerts have been mostly civil events, with two notable exceptions. In 1970, a performance by the late-arriving Sly & the Family Stone nearly resulted in a riot. In 1973, a performance by Humble Pie & the Blackberries resulted in a riot, a bonfire, and about 300 arrests. As a result of the latter concert, organizers shied away from rock bands for several years, and established guidelines for "family-friendly" acts and a ban on alcohol brought in by patrons. This was properly managed when Henry Jordan found the experienced booking staff to manage entertainment in-house, eliminating Cleveland's Jules Belkin Promotions, who were hired by Board Members Bernie Samson and Steve Marcus. Also at that time local manager Lou Volpano was hired to improve production, and book international superstars on what was a mere Local Rock Stage, where then the Ramones, UFO, and Judas Priest headlined
Live comedy acts have also been a part of Summerfest's history, even before a regular "Comedy Showcase" was first established in 1975. Bob Hope was the main headliner at Summerfest 1969, performing two shows at Milwaukee County Stadium. George Carlin (opening for Arlo Guthrie) performed his "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" routine at the 1972 event (and was subsequently arrested for violating obscenity laws). Prior to his arrest, he discarded a bag of cocaine to avoid further imprisonment.
Since 1975, comedy acts ranging from David Brenner and Henny Youngman to Jay Leno and Jon Stewart have performed at the event. Sandra Bernhard did TV and radio promos for its 1986 season when she was a performer there. Lewis Black has become a frequent performer at Summerfest, making near-annual performances since his first appearance in 1991.
For 2015, Linkin Park, Keith Urban, Ed Sheeran, Florida Georgia Line, Zac Brown Band , Kings of Leon, Kendrick Lamar, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, Carrie Underwood, and The Avett Brothers will attend the festival on Milwaukee's lakefront as headliners.
The Rolling Stones performed its first Milwaukee concert in 10 years, June 23 at the Marcus Amphitheater on the Summerfest grounds, as part of a summer run being dubbed the "Zip Code" tour. The band invited a 26-member vocal ensemble from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, that was featured during the concert. June 23 is technically the day before Summerfest's opening night, but the Big Gig promoted the Stones concert as "The Ultimate Kick-Off to Summerfest."
On April 20, 2015 it was announced Stevie Wonder would fill the June 27th headlining spot at the festival, his first Milwaukee concert since 2009.
The 2015 Summerfest ground stage headliners were announced on March 24 by Billboard. They include Carrie Underwood, Aloe Blacc, The Doobie Brothers, Sammy Haggar, Pat Benatar, Whitesnake, Third Eye Blind, Weird Al, and others.
Summerfest officials have announced Selena Gomes will open up the festival on June 29th. Country superstar Blake Shelton will headline on July 1st.
1968 Bob Hope
1969 Dolly Parton
1970 Sly and the Family Stone
1972 The Doors
1973 Steve Miller Band
1974 Johnny Cash
1975 The Beach Boys
1976 The Band
1977 Willie Nelson
1978 Grateful Dead
1979 Charles Aznavour / Jane Olivor
1980 Kenny Loggins / Jim Messina
1981 George Thorogood and The Destroyers
1983 Eric Clapton
1984 Huey Lewis and the News
1985 Bryan Adams
1986 The Go-Go's / INXS
1987 Paul Simon
1989 Rod Stewart
1989 Richard Belzer
1991 Whitney Houston
1993 Bon Jovi
1994 Janet Jackson
1995 Pearl Jam
1996 Alanis Morissette
1997 Dave Matthews Band
1998 Shania Twain
1999 Paul Simon / Bob Dylan
2000 Britney Spears
2001 Destiny's Child
2002 Nine Inch Nails
2003 Kenny Chesney / Keith Urban
2005 John Mellencamp
2006 Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers / Pearl Jam
2007 Steely Dan
2008 Stevie Wonder
2009 Bon Jovi / Lynyrd Skynyrd
2010 Tim McGraw
2011 Peter Gabriel
2012 Rascal Flatts Lady Antebellum
2013 The Avett Brothers / Violent Femmes
2014 Bruno Mars and Lady Gaga
2015 Florida Georgia Line / The Rolling Stones
2016 Selena Gomez
Beginning in the winter of 1989-1990, Summerfest organizers staged a colder (in the literal sense) version of Summerfest, known as Winterfest. Rather than being chiefly set at Henry Maier Festival Park, the event took inspiration from Summerfest's early days and spread its music, comedy, and other events throughout several downtown Milwaukee locations, the central spot being an ice skating rink near Cathedral Square. Due largely to undesirable Milwaukee winters, Winterfest was never as profitable as its older summer counterpart, and ceased operations after the 1997-98 event.
List of historic rock festivals
List of rock festivals
Henry Maier Festival Park
Official Summerfest website
Retrospectives by Dave Tianen in the June 24, 2007 and June 28, 2007 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
"Fun in the Sun" by Jeanette Hurt from Midwest Airlines "My Midwest" Magazine.
Other performers at this event: