Summerfest History - 35 Years

by Rachelle Blair
June 2007

Former Milwaukee Mayor Henry Maier from 1960-1988

Former Milwaukee Mayor Henry Maier from 1960-1988

Henry W. Maier had a vision to create a festival that would offer low-cost entertainment while revitalizing Milwaukee’s downtown area and bringing the community together. The Mayor of Milwaukee from 1960 to 1988 was inspired to create such a festival after visiting Oktöberfest, in Munich, Germany. This year Summerfest celebrates its fortieth anniversary.

“From advertising, exhibits, products and promotions, we are looking back at the tremendous history of the event and looking forward to a bright future all at the same time,” Don Smiley, President and Chief Executive Officer of Milwaukee World Festival, Inc. said in a press release.
“The people and businesses of our community have made this event what it is today, a world class event, and now in its fortieth year, there is not a better time to thank and celebrate all of them with promotions and the event itself.”

The first Summerfest was held at 35 different locations around the downtown area, including a six acre area on the lakefront. Bob Hope was the headliner at the Milwaukee County Stadium.
Hope was also one of the headliners at the second Summerfest, which was held at 60 locations in 1969. Dolly Parton performed in the Arena that year, and Maier premiered “The Milwaukee Summerfest Polka,” which then became the festival’s unofficial theme song.

The second Summerfest ended $164,000 in debt. However, President of the Summerfest Board of Directors John Kelly and other businessmen were able to get Midland National Bank to provide Summerfest with a $200,000 unsecured loan and saved the festival.

In 1972, The Doors performed the Summerfest main stage and comedian George Carlin was arrested by Milwaukee police after shouting seven obscene words which were forbidden on television.

The first permanent stage at Summerfest was built in 1974 and cost $34,000. In 1984, WMF announced plans to build a multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art amphitheater, and in 1987 the Marcus Amphitheater construction was completed and the Washington Squares were the first band to perform there, opening for the Beach Boys.

Over the years, Maier’s vision has evolved from a small festival into an annual event which brings entertainers, artists and approximately 900,000 people from Milwaukee and around the world together for 11 days.  In 1999, the Guinness Book of World Records named Summerfest the World’s Biggest Music Festival, and it has held the title ever since.

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