Founding and Early Years of Summerfest:
Summerfest was originally a pet project of Milwaukee's mayor Henry W. Maier in the 1960s. Serving for 28 years from 1960 to 1988, he was the city's longest serving mayor. After years of panel discussion and feasibility studies, the first Summerfest was held in 1968 in 35 venues across the city. The second Summerfest in 1969 was less successful than the first and a financial failure. In 1970 Summerfest moved to its permanent location on the shore of Lake Michigan where it remains today, more than 40 years later. Although the arts and comedy have been a significant part of Summerfest from the beginning, it is best known as a music festival.
Henry W. Maier Festival Grounds:
The Henry W. Maier Festival Grounds is home to Summerfest and a series of ethnic festivals in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It was built on the former site of Maitland airport which served as a Nike anti-aircraft missile site. The first Summerfest at this permanent location was held in 1970 with makeshift stages in the middle of a grassy field and publicized with the red smiley face logo it uses to this day. Through the decades the site has been developed extensively including construction of the 23,000 seat Marcus Amphitheatre in 1987. A raised portion of Interstate 794 runs along the edge of the festival grounds. In 1998 land located between Summerfest and the open waters of Lake Michigan was designated Lakeshore State Park. It formally opened to the public nine years later in 2007.
The featured headliners at Summerfest have ranged widely across popular music genres. Among those who have been top acts at the festival are Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Sting, Whitney Houston, Prince, and Bon Jovi.
One of the most notorious events at Summerfest took place in 1970 during its first year at the Lake Michigan shore. This was also the first year of major national musical acts. A show by Sly and the Family Stone drew a crowd estimated at over 100,000. The huge audience made the headliner nervous and he took the stage at least an hour late while local DJs valiantly worked to keep the upset crowd under control. In 1972 another performance went down in history when comedian George Carlin was arrested after performing his legendary "Seven Words You Can't Say On Television" on stage.
World's Largest Music Festival:
In 1999 the Guinness Book Of World Records officially certified Summerfest as, "The world's largest music festival." It continues to hold that title. Currently more than 700 artists perform on 11 different stages over the course of 11 days. The total crowds are estimated at between 800,000 and 1,000,000. The daily admission charge in 2011 ranged from $8 to $15 depending on the time of day of arrival with a number of special promotions that could reduce the charge further. The day's headlining act performs at the Marcus Amphitheater for an additional charge.
The Summerfest Experience:
A key aspect of the Summerfest experience that sets it apart from many other top music festivals is the presence of permanent structures on the festival grounds. Individual stages are supplied with bleachers and sometimes picnic tables that provide comfortable seating for much of the day. Top late evening acts draw crowds of the size that will require close quarter standing.
There are permanent structures devoted to food vending, and many of the vendors represent some of the best known restaurants and local food that Milwaukee has to offer. Summerfest covers a wider range of music genres than most music festivals. On any given day the music presented can range from punk pop to classic soul, reggae, hair metal, or mainstream top 40.