What one word is guaranteed to bring a smile to people’s faces? Not sure? What legendary event has a smile as their logo – that always attracts smiling faces? Give up? It’s Summerfest!
The Midwest’s leading outdoor musical extravaganza! Copied, mimicked, but never truly replicated. A brilliant idea was born out of desperation, which would change our world for the better – summer after summer.
The summer of 1967 the heat was on, the weather, Race Riots, Vietnam War, Women’s Lib, Grey Power, LGBT Power and Baby Boomers were finding their voice and their place in society.
Our Mayor, Henry Maier, was proposed with the concept of something to bring our community together. Unity, harmony, balance – was needed, how to achieve this? What better way to find a solution than through the arts. Music will calm the savage beast.
And so the summer of 1968, Red Arrow Park across the street from what is now the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts – was filled with the music of Sly and the Family Stone and Summerfest was born.
Everything, once it became reality, had to be polished, honed and nurtured to grow. Of course I was too young to attend “a rock concert” per my parents tucked away in the suburbs. But the city was abuzz about this midsummer night’s dream with Henry Jordan and my childhood idol Elizabeth “Bo” Black as they parented this extravaganza into an annual, must see, festival of summer, music and life!
Of course National attention helps, booking larger, A-list entertainers, Phil Donahue doing his daily chat-fest, George Carlin – the brilliant word smith/comedian getting arrested for his ultra-risqué “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” routine done live. Truly nurtured this Fest into what it is today.
Fast forward to July 3, 1976 – the Bi-Centennial year and my first Summerfest! I went with my cousin, Candy, to see fabulous funny man David Brenner. He didn’t get arrested, but he had a SRO in the “Comedy Tent” on the far south end of the Grounds in hysterics.
Carlin and Brenner are both gone and Donahue is retired – but Summerfest continues to grow. A decade later, as an adult, I am a Summerfest regular. Partying at the Fest with friends from The Cream City Chorus (Milwaukee’s premiere LGBT Choir) enjoying our summer by the lake. In those days, Summerfest opened at noon and we would stand en masse, waiting for the seating to open at the Main Stage. Seating was wooden, backless benches – and at 5:00 pm, the stage area was open, and at no additional cost, than your time, you were invited to sit and wait until 8:00 pm for the concert. The fun we had, taking turns in line, the people watching, the comradery, and such warm memories. Here is where I saw Patti LaBelle, The Manhattan Transfer, The Pointer Sisters, The Milwaukee Symphony, and the flawless fireworks.
The Marcus Amphitheater (now: American Family Insurance Amphitheater) was built and Summerfest had finally grown up – a real legit, outdoor theater, our “Hollywood Bowl”. It is here I saw Liza Minelli and Marvin Hamlisch, Whitney Houston, Tina Turner with Cyndi Lauper as her opening act! It was this stage that the Cream City Chorus ( and me) sang with Barry Manilow – twice!
So when I think of Summerfest, I can’t help but smile and think of friends, memories, summers past and summers yet to be, but most of all the music. Summerfest has grown, transformed, and matured and so has our city, my friends and hopefully me!
Happy Summerfest 2018!!!