50 Years of Music on the Lake Michigan Shore

Photo by Milwaukee World Festival, Inc.

Founding and Early Years

Summerfest initially was a pet project of Milwaukee's mayor Henry W. Maier in the 1960s. He wanted an annual event that could rival Munich, Germany's famed Oktoberfest. In office for 28 years from 1960 to 1988, he was the city's longest-serving mayor. After years of panel discussions and feasibility studies, the first Summerfest took place in 1968 in 35 different venues across the city. The second Summerfest in 1969 was less successful than the first. It was a financial failure. Organizers decided that a centralized location would be a key to the event's long-term survival. In 1970 Summerfest moved to its permanent home on the shore of Lake Michigan where it remains today, nearly fifty years later. Although visual arts, comedy, and a range of other live entertainment have been a significant part of Summerfest from the beginning, it is best known as a music festival.

The first Summerfest stages were little more than sheets of plywood placed across cinder blocks. The first Main Stage is remembered for its yellow tent covering. It evolved into a more permanent yellow, arched roof. The rain was an enemy of the early years of Summerfest. When it rained, the grounds turned into something like a swamp. Straw was spread over the muddy walkways to try and keep the audience from sinking into the muck.

Henry W. Maier Festival Grounds

The Henry W. Maier Festival Grounds, located on the shore of Lake Michigan, is the permanent home to Summerfest and a series of ethnic festivals in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The grounds are built on the former site of Maitland airport first opened in 1927. It operated for more than two decades before conversion into a Nike Missile installation during the 1950s as part of Cold War defenses. One of eight such sites in the Milwaukee area, it was home to Ajax and nuclear-capable Hercules missiles. 

In 1969, the Army closed the missile sites to slash expenses from the federal military budget. The federal government sold the land to the city of Milwaukee and Summerfest organizers soon eyed the site as a location for the festival. A deal was worked out with the Harbor Commission to lease the Summerfest grounds for $1 a year. The city ultimately renamed the grounds in honor of the mayor who helped bring the festival into existence. 

Milwaukee's famous beer breweries were instrumental in the early development of the Summerfest grounds. In 1971, Miller built the High LIfe Jazz Oasis stage resembling a storefront on New Orleans' Canal Street. Not to be outdone by their rival, Schlitz and Pabst both built stages in 1974. 

The 1980s saw a construction boom. Paved walkways, new bathrooms, and upgraded food facilities appeared. The most significant project was the 1987 construction of the 23,000-seat Marcus Amphitheatre. In 1998 land located between Summerfest and the open waters of Lake Michigan became Lakeshore State Park. It formally opened to the public nine years later in 2007.

Notable Performances

The featured headliners at Summerfest have included some of the best-known musicians and entertainers of the past five decades. Among those who have been headlining acts at the festival are the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, ​Whitney Houston, Prince, and Bon Jovi.

One of the most notorious events at Summerfest took place in 1970 during its first year at the Lake Michigan shore. 1970 was also the first year Summerfest hosted significant national musical acts. A show by Sly and the Family Stone drew a crowd estimated at over 100,000. The vast audience made Sly Stone nervous, and he took the stage at least an hour late while local DJs valiantly worked to keep the upset crowd under control. In 1972 another performance went down in history when comedian George Carlin was arrested after performing his legendary "Seven Words You Can't Say On Television" on stage.

Organizers decided to try and change Summerfest from just a rock festival into a family-friendly event. In 1975, they invited local restaurants to provide food vending. It was a decision that led to a more convivial atmosphere and an event that settled in for long-term residence.

One of the most memorable performances in the history of Summerfest took place on June 28, 2009, just three days after Michael Jackson passed away. Stevie Wonder took the stage and dedicated multiple songs to the memory of the fallen legend. He changed the chorus of his legendary hit "Superstition" to "We love you, Michael. We'll see you in heaven." There were few dry eyes to be found that night at Summerfest.

World's Largest Music Festival

In 1999 the "Guinness Book Of World Records" officially certified Summerfest as, "The world's largest music festival." It continues to hold that title. More than 700 artists perform on eleven different stages over the course of eleven days in late June and early July. The total audience size each year ranges between 800,000 and 900,000. A recent peak was 851,879 counted for 2014. 

A three-day bus driver strike in 2015 drove the Summerfest attendance down. The year was notable because the festival was kicked off with a performance from the legendary Rolling Stones, but transit difficulties and cooler than typical weather marred the rest of the festival. Fortunately, attendance grew by over 4% the following year with Paul McCartney delivering a headlining performance.

The Summerfest Experience

A key aspect of the Summerfest experience that sets it apart from many other top music festivals is the presence of permanent structures on the festival grounds. Individual stages are supplied with bleachers and sometimes picnic tables that provide comfortable seating for much of the day. Top late evening acts draw crowds of the size that requires standing in close quarters.

Following the spirit of its founders, Summerfest aims to be inexpensive and accessible to the broadest audience possible. Daily tickets will cost $21 for 2018, and special discount programs mean that many fans will attend for significantly less. Tickets for the daily headlining Marcus Amphitheatre shows are an additional charge beyond general admission grounds tickets. 

The Henry W. Maier Festival Grounds includes permanent structures devoted to food vending, and many of the vendors represent some of the best-known restaurants and local food that Milwaukee has to offer. Summerfest covers a broader range of music genres than most music festivals. On any given day the music presented can range from punk to classic soul, pop, reggae, heavy metal, or mainstream top 40 music. A wide range of classic rock and pop acts from the 70s, 80s, and 90s appear at the festival.