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Summerfest Celebrates 50 Years
A look back at Milwaukee’s favorite festival, plus what’s in store for its future

Photos courtesy of Summerfest

June 2017


For 50 years, Summerfest has brought together people from all backgrounds who share a passion for music. It’s what Summerfest has striven for since the start, says Bob Babisch, vice president of entertainment. “Let’s get all the people from Milwaukee to get together and celebrate the summer and good vibes, if you will, and great music and all the different cultures,” he says.

Don Smiley, president and chief executive officer, says the longevity of the festival is due to early and continuing support of fans and sponsors. “Without that support, I’m not sure we would have made it 50 years,” he says.

It wasn’t until two years after its inception, in 1970, that the festival locked in the lakefront location it still holds today. While Babisch joined Summerfest years later, he’s happy with the strides the festival has made in that spot, adding that it’s evolved from a very temporary spot to one with permanent stages and restrooms.

 “And it’s been a site for not just the Summerfest period, but the entire summer,” Babisch notes, referring to the plethora of cultural and ethnic festivals held throughout the season on the Summerfest grounds.

For Milwaukee-born musician Steve Miller, who will play July 2, it doesn’t get much better than Summerfest. “The festival has always been an integral part of (the) Milwaukee and Wisconsin music scene(s),” he says. “I’ve seen the venue change quite a bit, and (I’ve) seen the city grow up.” He says that when his band first started playing at the festival the city wasn’t sure whether it liked Summerfest or not. “Then, as time went on, it became part of the cultural scene of the city,” he says. “It’s a much bigger audience for live music now.” In fact, he says he plays for music lovers from four generations today.

Milwaukee native Victor DeLorenzo, who is best known as a founding member of the Violent Femmes and, more recently, of the band Nineteen Thirteen, has played at the festival on and off for 40 years. He first attended when he was 16 years old, in the early ’70s.

“I remember going as a young kid, and I liked it because the whole idea of an outdoor rock festival or music festival just seemed really exciting,” he says. “Especially in the early years, you really got to see some good stuff and didn’t have to pay an arm and a leg to see it. In those days, it was a great place to meet up with your friends. And you could still afford to buy a beer.”


Every year Summerfest makes changes to make the festival experience even better. Adding new stages over the years has made a big difference, says Bob Babisch, vice president of entertainment. “And the new amphitheater is going to be the icing on top of the cake,” he says. Look for:

-New 23,000-capacity American Family Insurance Amphitheater to replace the current 30-year-old amphitheater. Expected construction date: 2019, expected completion date: 2020.

-A newly designed Miller Lite Oasis stage, with a better viewing area and new sound, lights and hospitality areas

-New major sponsorship making the festival now formally known as Summerfest presented by American Family Insurance. “(The sponsorship) enables us to keep ticket prices low for our fans,” explains Don Smiley, president and chief executive officer. “It also allows us to rebuild the North Gate, which will coincide with the Lakefront Gateway Project in Milwaukee.  And it gives us the opportunity to rebuild the amphitheater.”

-A new North Gate and community plaza, which will link the festival to downtown Milwaukee. Expected construction date: later this year, completion date: 2018.

-A complete rebuild of the U.S. Cellular Connection Stage for a larger performance area, more seats, improved access and a backdrop of the Milwaukee skyline and the lakefront. Expected construction date: later this year, completion date: 2018.

-Traveling and on-site historical exhibits detailing decades of festival highlights.

The Art of Booking a Gig

Over 40 years, Vice President of Entertainment Bob Babisch has more or less perfected the art of booking music at Summerfest, filling more than 350,000 slots. The process begins shortly after the end of each year’s festival, when Summerfest officials announce that they’re taking electronic press kits for the following year. Babisch and a booking committee sift through these acts and find the ones they feel belong at the festival and fit certain days.

“We put those deals together, and at the same time we’re looking at all the other bands locally and regionally that have played here or (at) other events that we feel are important to the integrity of the festival,” he says.

They strive for an eclectic lineup, so attendees can experience multiple music genres. “We try to have as broad of a stroke as possible with the lineup. We try to hit every single genre every single day of the week,” Babisch says.

He admits that it’s easy to fall into repetitive habits. In addition to being hard to fill an 11-day festival, they like to bring back artists who have a good track record of selling tickets, especially for the amphitheater. “Putting a show on sale that sells out — you want to do it again,” he says.

The way he books hasn’t changed a lot, and local and regional acts are still essential bookings, Babisch says. “It behooves us to put bands that are local and regional and up-and-coming in front of (headlining) bands,” he says. “It gives them an outlet to be seen and heard. You also want to hit all the national up-and-coming acts, because you want them to remember they got their start here at Summerfest and come back.”

For his part, musician Victor DeLorenzo feels the process of getting a gig is more professional these days. His band Nineteen Thirteen opened for The Avett Brothers on the festival grounds prior to last year’s Summerfest.

“Everything is run on a tighter schedule,” he says. “Decades ago ... everything seemed a bit more colloquial and a little more neighborhood-y. Now it’s pro all the way, especially with the acts that they’re getting.”

The biggest thing Babisch has learned is that booking is very fluid and can change in an instant. “A lot of time you think you’ve got a show done and it’s ready to go, but it doesn’t happen,” he says. “You’ve got to make sure you have something in your pocket, just in case.”

Up-and-comers to Watch

These five fresh acts are worth seeking out.

Car Seat Headrest
The rock band from Seattle will play July 2

Horseshoes & Hand Grenades
The Americana group from Stevens Point, Wis., will play July 1

Big Thief
The Brooklyn, N.Y., rock band will play July 2

Milwaukee’s own electronic pop group will play June 29

The Chicago rock group will play July 8

Photo by Daniel Topete


This story ran in the June 2017 issue of: