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Looking Back at 50 Years of Summerfest

Jun. 20, 2017
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Howard Schnoll, a Summerfest board member or advisor for all these years and chairman from 2004-2007

Summerfest was born in a time of unrest during the “long hot summers” of the late 1960s, but while the 1967 Milwaukee riot may have spurred the idea of providing the city with fun and distraction, Summerfest was actually conceived several years earlier. As Summerfest celebrates its 50th season this year, Howard Schnoll, a festival board member or advisor for all these years and chairman from 2004-2007, reflects on the event’s early days and its steady evolution into the world’s largest music festival.

“It was Henry Maier’s idea,” Schnoll says, crediting Summerfest to Milwaukee’s long-serving mayor (1960-1988). Inspired by Munich’s famed Oktoberfest, Maier toyed with calling it Juli Spass, German for “July Fun.” But common sense soon dictated a more inclusive if still vaguely Teutonic name.

Summerfest ’68, as the debut event was billed, became possible through the support of Milwaukee’s old guard corporate leaders. “Henry Maier would always talk to businessmen in the city,” Schnoll says. “John Kelly, the president of Midland Bank—Henry would literally call him at 2 or 3 in the morning!”

The festival’s early boosters included many of the region’s power brokers. Long before he was namesake for a ship (and a hit song), Edmund Fitzgerald of Northwestern Mutual lent his prestige to the nascent project. Ben Barkin, better remembered as founder of the Great Circus Parade, was a pillar in the early days, as was Ben Marcus. The beer barons of Schlitz, Pabst and Miller were on board, as was Vince Lombardi, whose Packers played half their season in Milwaukee.

“How did I get involved?” Schnoll continues. “Howard Meister was Summerfest’s original president. I was his accountant.”

At the time, Schnoll was a partner of Nankin, Schnoll and Company. He left accounting in 1990 and is now senior vice president with the Schilffarth Schnoll Krieg Group of RBC Wealth Management.

Summerfest’s first executive director, Willard Masterson, was chosen for his experience running the Wisconsin State Fair, Schnoll recalls. However, in its earliest incarnation, Summerfest bore little resemblance to the annual fair in West Allis. For one thing, Summerfest originally had no location of its own, but was scattered across 35 sites in a gesture of embracing the entire metro area.

The musical headliner that first year, the peppy singing group Up With People, certainly fell short of Paul Simon, Tom Petty and any number of acts that have filled the Marcus Amphitheater in recent years. But Summerfest ’68 also boasted 10 polka bands at the Milwaukee Auditorium, a stock car race at State Fair Park, a Downtown midway, a tennis tournament in Fox Point and a powerboat race from Milwaukee to Chicago. Summerfest included a “Youth Fest” with rock bands at Bradford Beach and a “Salute to Afro-Americans” with music and dance at Lincoln Park.

Summerfest ’69 followed a similar formula. It was a beautiful idea in its quirky way, a citywide festival with something for everybody, but, as Schnoll adds, “financially it didn’t work out at all.” The following year, Summerfest finally found its lakefront home at a recently decommissioned military installation, one of the Nike missile bases that protected Milwaukee during the Cold War from the Soviet air raid that never came.

The missile silos were still standing in 1970, ringed by snow fences to prevent gawkers from becoming casualties. The grounds were unkempt and muddy, which in the aftermath of Woodstock was no impediment to youthful revelers seeking rock music and high times in the open air. Summerfest stumbled onto its identity that year; although it had no permanent purpose-built stages until 1974, it became known as a music festival with a cavalcade of bands. 1970 was also the year when Summerfest adopted its grinning logo, the work of local designers Noel Spangler and Richard D. Grant. Former Green Bay Packer Henry Jordan took charge that year as executive director, a position he would hold until 1977.

The early ’70s were still madcap times with Schnoll, under police escort, racing in the early morning hours to the nearest First Wisconsin Bank night deposit box with the day’s receipts. Tickets were weighed on scales to estimate each day’s attendance. Beer sales flourished. After a few years, Summerfest turned to local restaurateurs for food service on the grounds. According to Schnoll, Saz’s, Venice Club, Major Goolsby’s and Wong’s Wok were among the early vendors. Trial and error continued. A midway operated for a few years until complaints over rowdy crowds shut the rides down. One year, the Great Circus Parade wound through Downtown and ended on the Summerfest grounds. “We just couldn’t support it,” Schnoll says. It became obvious that Summerfest’s future rode on music, beer and food.

In the ’80s, with the hiring of Bo Black as executive director and Bob Babisch as music director, attendance at the annual lakefront festival reached previously unimagined heights. Corporate sponsors rehabilitated the stages. The Marcus Amphitheater opened in 1987, making Summerfest more attractive to platinum-level performers.

But success had a downside by the end of Black’s tenure in 2003. Many complained that the grounds were too crowded, that walking through Summerfest became an elbowing, jostling, beer-spilling frustration. A course correction came after 2004 with the arrival of Don Smiley as Summerfest’s CEO. Schnoll credits him with opening more space on the grounds, “slimming down the crowds” and making the festival more family friendly.

“The biggest challenge was figuring out how we were going to do what we were going to do,” Schnoll says of Summerfest 50 years ago. “We didn’t have as clear a vision in those days. But we always wanted to make it accessible to Milwaukee. There were always lots of free tickets available through sponsors. To this day it’s still the best value out there with 800 bands—you can bring in canned goods and pay nothing. We have seniors day and kids day. It was always our intent that people get a good value.”

Wednesday, Jun 28
Henry Maier Festival Park

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