Summerfest turns 50
Exhibit spotlights memorabilia, memories


May 18, 2017


MILWAUKEE - From an autographed guitar by Tom Petty to a video of memories, including couples talking about how they met their future spouses at Summerfest.

Those are just some of the items on display at the Milwaukee County Historical Society as it commemorates the world’s largest musical festival’s 50th anniversary.

From banners to T-shirts to pins, the exhibit is bedecked with that familiar logo of the smiley face. Some came from the historical society’s collection, some from Summerfest and some from the public.

“It’s been the symbol since 1970,” historical society curator Ben Barbera said of the logo. “When you think of the various institutions that have rebranded aover the years and something so simple has lasted so long is pretty impressive.”

News clippings dating back to 1962 tell of Milwaukee’s signature event’s genesis by the city’s leaders that eventually wound up on the lakefront, growing into something that brings millions of dollars annually to the city, eventually leading to different ethnic festivals at the venue.

“We know Summerfest today as a major music festival,” Barbera said. “This is something they were trying to create out of nothing - what this was going to be and what it was going to called and the music that would be there,” he said

One of the inspirations was Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, but the event wound up uniquely Milwaukee, he added.

“It brings together this enjoyment of summer and outdoor activity and entertainment, and the food and the drink,” Barbera said. “Somehow they got the mix right.”

“It’s so Milwaukee,” said Mame McCully, the historical society’s executive director.

The excitement remains, but the grounds, food, beer, music and more change, McCully said. Among the changes this year is the new Miller stage, she noted.

It’s also personal for so many residents and visitors. McCulley started going to Summerfest when she was in day camp and later worked a popcorn wagon as a teen.

“Your relationship can change with the festival over time,” she said. “You can see things differently.”

The exhibit makes it personal with 300 video interviews exploring the first time at the Big Gig, favorite memories and meetings of future spouses, Barbera said.