Summerfest (also known as "The Big Gig") is a yearly music festival held at the 75-acre Henry Maier Festival Park along the lakefront in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The festival lasts for 11 days, and since the mid-1970s has run from late June through early July, always including the 4th of July holiday. Summerfest attracts almost one million people each year. It promotes itself as "The World's Largest Music Festival," a title certified by the Guinness World Records in 1999. Summerfest is run by the non-profit Milwaukee World Festival Inc.

Summerfest features both local and nationally known music talent from a variety of music genres. The event also provides the opportunity to sample a wide variety of food from many Milwaukee restaurants. Other Summerfest attractions include comedy acts, shopping booths, fireworks (including "The Big Bang" sponsored by US Bank on opening night), karaoke, children's activities, and more.

Live musical acts are offered on 12 stages throughout the grounds, including the 23,000-seat Marcus Amphitheater. All shows are free with an admission ticket, with the exception of headlining acts at the Marcus Amphitheater. Admission is between $8.00 and $15.00, depending on the time of day. There are typically numerous promotions for discounted or free tickets.


Summerfest was conceived in the 1960s by then-mayor Henry W. Maier. Inspired by his visit to Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, Maier envisioned a similar ethnic-themed festival in Milwaukee, and in 1962 formed a panel of business and civic leaders to study the feasibility of a large-scale summer festival. By the middle of the decade, the panel drew up a proposal for a 10-day multi-event festival with the proposed name of "Milwaukee World Festival," which was changed briefly in 1966 to "Juli Spaß" (German for "July Fun") and then to "Summerfest."

The inaugural Summerfest was held in July 1968 at 35 different locations throughout the city (including Milwaukee County Stadium and Milwaukee Arena), and its events ranged from concerts to a film festival, an air show, and even a pageant. The first Summerfest was regarded as a success; the second event in 1969, was less successful, as it was plagued by additional venues, inclement weather, and severe financial debt. In 1970, a permanent central location was decided upon, and Summerfest moved to a former Nike missile site on the lakefront, where it continues to be held to this day. Also that year, Summerfest introduced its red "smiley face" logo, an insignia that has become synonymous with the event. The logo was designed by local graphic artist Noel Spangler.

It was also in 1970 that Henry Jordan became executive director of Summerfest, a title he held during the event's early years until his death in 1977. Another public face in that position was Elizabeth "Bo" Black, , who became executive director in 1984. Through her fundraising and organizing, she became a local celebrity (and almost as much a recognizable part of Summerfest as the smiley face logo) until her ouster in September 2003.

Summerfest celebrated its 40th edition in 2007. The event's history was the subject of "Summerfest Stories," a documentary that aired in June 2007 on Milwaukee Public Television.

Concert History

Summerfest has been most famous for its music, ever since the first festival in 1968, when acts such as Ronnie Dove, The New Colony Six, and Up With People performed. In 1969, Led Zeppelin performed (see Midwest Rock Festival). Since then, musical acts from Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, and James Taylor to Christina Aguilera, Mary J. Blige, and Nine Inch Nails have graced the Summerfest stages. Acts with Milwaukee and Wisconsin connections have had a prominent history at Summerfest, most notably the BoDeans and Violent Femmes.

The concerts have been mostly civil events, with two notable exceptions. In 1970, a performance by the late-arriving Sly & the Family Stone nearly resulted in a riot, and in 1973 a performance by Humble Pie & the Blackberries did result in a riot, along with a bonfire and about 300 arrests. As a result of the latter concert, organizers shied away from rock bands for several years, and established guidelines for "family-friendly" acts and a ban on alcohol brought in by patrons.

Live comedy acts have also been a part of Summerfest's history, even before a regular "Comedy Showcase" was first established in 1975. Bob Hope was the main headliner at Summerfest 1969, performing two shows at Milwaukee County Stadium. George Carlin (opening for Arlo Guthrie) performed his "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television" routine at the 1972 event (and was subsequently arrested for violating obscenity laws). Since 1975, comedy acts ranging from David Brenner and Henny Youngman to Jay Leno and Jon Stewart have performed at the event. Lewis Black has become a frequent performer at Summerfest, making near-annual performances since his first appearance in 1991.

New Stages

In 2008 the "Harley-Davidson Roadhouse" stage opened up on the grounds as the newest stage at the festival.

Non-Summerfest Events

Though Summerfest never became the ethnic festival Henry Maier envisioned, a variety of other different ethnic festivals are held at the festival grounds at other times throughout the summer and into autumn. Some of these events include PrideFest, Polish Fest, Festa Italiana, German Fest, African World Festival, Irish Fest, Mexican Fiesta, Indian Summer, Asian Moon Festival, Arab World Fest, and several run/walk charity events.


Beginning in the winter of 1989-90, Summerfest organizers staged a colder (in the literal sense) version of Summerfest, known as Winterfest. Rather than being chiefly set at Henry Maier Festival Park, the event took inspiration from Summerfest's early days and spread its music, comedy, and other events throughout several downtown Milwaukee locations, the central spot being an ice skating rink near Cathedral Square. Winterfest was never as profitable as its older summer counterpart, and ceased operations after the 1997-98 event.

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