Summerfest, also affectionately referred to as "The Big Gig," is an annual music festival held at the 75 acre Henry Maier Festival Park along the lakefront in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Summerfest runs for 11 days from late June though early July (always over the 4th of July) and attracts nearly one million people from all over the United States. Summerfest has held the Guinness World Records title as the "World's Biggest Music Festival" since 1999.
Summerfest was the brainchild of the late Milwaukee Mayor Henry W. Maier in the 1960s. Following a visit to Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, Mayor Maier dreamed of a festival for the people of Milwaukee that would re-energize the downtown and provide the community with an affordable vacation right in their hometown during the height of the summer season. Held in 35 locations around the downtown area, the first Summerfest was a success. In 1970, a central location was decided upon, the abandoned 15-acre Nike missile site at Milwaukee's lakefront, and the Summerfest grounds were born. It is where the festival has been held ever since.
Initially, Summerfest's stages consisted of wooden platforms raised on concrete blocks and picnic tables for audience members. By the middle of the decade more permanent stages and structures, such as restroom facilities and restaurants, began making an appearance. More aesthetic improvements were also made as the festival gained momentum. Summerfest began to gain renown as a world famous music festival, both amongst local fans and out-of-towners.
Legendary performances of the 70s include: Sly and the Family Stone, B.B. King, the Jackson Five, The Doors, Little Richard, Bo Diddly, America, Dionne Warwick, Edgar Winter, Sammy Davis Jr., Blood, Sweat and Tears, Journey, Seals & Croft, Johnny Cash, James Taylor, Earth, Wind & Fire, Joan Baez, the Bee Gees, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Miller Band, Willie Nelson, The Bar-Kays, Cameo, Dolly Parton, The Beach Boys, Allman Brothers Band, and the list goes on and on. As the decade progressed, many of the top performers of the day wanted to make Summerfest a stop on their summer tour schedules.
By the time the 1980s rolled around, and even more permanent stages and structures sprung up, a long-term lease agreement was reached with the City of Milwaukee, and the future of Summerfest was bright. In 1983, turnstiles were added at the admission gates allowing for accurate tracking of festival goers entering the grounds. In 1983, 657,429 patrons attended Summerfest and by the end of the decade that number rose to 830,500.
One of the most eventful improvements to the Summerfest grounds came along in 1987. The Marcus Amphitheater, a 23,000-seat, state-of-the-art outdoor entertainment venue opened and would soon be host to the top touring attractions in the world. The first concert at the Marcus Amphitheater was the opening night of Summerfest on Thursday June 25, 1987 with the legendary Beach Boys. Big time concert events of the 80's included: Jackson Browne, Kenny Loggins, Squeeze, Billy Squire, Ramsey Lewis, Hall & Oats, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble and R.E.M. The tradition of Summerfest featuring stellar entertainment continued throughout the 80s.
As the festival moved into the 90s, constant improvements to the Summerfest grounds were made and the popularity of the festival continued to grow. New stages and stage areas were constructed, the lakewalk on the north end of the festival site was re-landscaped, a new admission gate was erected at the north entrance, and a permanent first-aid treatment center was introduced.
Today, nearly one million attendees visit Summerfest each year. The festival boasts 11 stages that are filled with exciting performances from noon until midnight each day. People come from all over the country and Summerfest has become the gold standard for outdoor music festivals. Imitators have sprung up everywhere trying in vain to replicate the subculture that Summerfest has become.
Besides all the top notch live music, Summerfest provides the opportunity to sample a wide variety of food from many Milwaukee restaurants with over two dozen different eateries setting up shop on the grounds. And of course beer is a favorite of fairgoers.
Summerfest has certainly exceeded founder Maier's wildest dreams. Of the one million folks who walk through the turnstiles each year, the overwhelming majority are from metro Milwaukee. Roughly 19 percent come from out-state Wisconsin, and about 11 percent seep across the border from Illinois, but they're all the same once inside the park. The economic boost to Brew Town is estimated at more than $126 million annually, supporting 1,720 full-time jobs. Summerfest grounds crews typically collect over 85,000 pounds of garbage and patrons use up to 7,800,000 feet of toilet paper - that's 1,477 miles!
As Summerfest enters its 39th year it looks poised to remain a world famous festival for years to come.
Maier Festival Park - Summerfest
200 N. Harbor Dr.
Milwaukee, WI 53202