About This Festival
Summerfest started in 1968 by Milwaukee’s mayor Henry W. Maier, who was inspired by his visit to Oktoberfest in Munich, but it had been in the works for most of that decade as the city undertook studies to determine its feasibility. (In fact, the city had been angling for a large-scale festival dating back to 1898.) Initially inspired by Oktoberfest, the event was first named Juli Spass, which means “July fun” in German. The name never stuck, because people wanted something a little more inclusive-sounding than a German festival. The first festival sprawled among 35 locations throughout the city and included events as seemingly disparate as an air show, a film festival and a pageant—in addition to all the music.
In 1970, Summerfest moved to its permanent location on 75 acres by Lake Michigan, where it has remained ever since. Given its expansive nature—you can find almost any kind of genre of music at work here—and its 40+ year longevity, its lineups over the years read like a who’s who of 20th century music. Bob Dylan. Violent Femmes. Led Zeppelin. Tina Turner. Sly and the Family Stone. Kanye West. Maroon 5. Nine Inch Nails. Huey Lewis and the News. Jimmy Buffet. Julio Iglesias. Dolly Parton. You get the idea. It also earned the moniker “World’s Largest Music Festival” from the Guinness Book of World Records in 1999.
Over the years, the festival has morphed into the site it is today, adding permanent stages and structures; turnstiles to help track accurate admission; Marcus Amphitheater, a 23,000 seat facility for headlining acts, and a covered pavilion near the lakeside, among other improvements. These days, Summerfest is run by the non-profit organization Milwaukee World Festival and spans 11 days, starting on the last Thursday in June. It typically attracts nearly 1 million people per year who come to hear 800 bands perform more than 1,000 times on 11 stages.
It’s Impossible to Be Bored
The array of things to do at Summerfest—other than listen to music, of course—is so vast it would take you days to experience all of it. For example, since its inception, Summerfest has always dedicated space to comedy. In 1968, long before its first “Comedy Showcase” in 1975, Bob Hope appeared as a headliner, and George Carlin, David Brenner, Henny Youngman, Jon Stewart and more. In recent years Lewis Black has been a staple of the fest, appearing on one of the newest stages, the BMO Harris Pavilion to headline a day of comedy (the comedy stage itself is no more).
Additionally, wandering the festival grounds will typically yield experiences that include but by no means are limited to the following: playing mini golf, soaring over the grounds on a zipline along the waterfront, cooling off in a splash pool, playing tennis, getting a new tattoo, viewing a parade, watching BMX stunt bikers and kids play with guitars and drums, climbing a rock wall, and drinking lots and lots of Miller beer. That ought to keep you busy. Whatever you do, bring your appetite for the wide array of foods available, from doughnuts to spaghetti and everything in between—including your standard fried festival food—you can find it here.
With such a long history, crazy things are bound to have happened—and indeed they have. In 1970, the first year of its permanent home on the lake, Sly and the Family Stone were nearly an hour late and the crowd was getting restless. But that crowd was also large; Sly was reportedly intimidated by it. Three limos came to pick up him and the band, and finally the band performed, but not before an hour or so was killed by emergency emceeing from local deejays who were just trying to keep the peace. A few years later, in 1972, comedian George Carlin was arrested for disorderly conduct after performing his infamous bit “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television.” His microphone went silent, and a woman reportedly stormed the stage and demanded he get off.