Summerfest at 40: My, how you’ve grown

Young man, when I was your age, gasoline stations didn’t stay open all night – not even when you were driving around Milwaukee. We learned that the hard way, by coasting into a parking lot, below empty and after midnight.

It was during Summerfest, a time of year when it was easy to get caught up in a fog of smoke, usually without fuss or incident. We’d stand for hours, not on some cushy floor, but on top of rickety wooden plank seats, in a mellow crowd of thousands, all content to sing poorly and sway.

I am old enough to remember when just about everybody had a pack of matches or Bic to flick, and that was the way we expressed our gratitude for good vibes, incredible company and a fine setting where lyrics met lakeshore.

Marshall Tucker or George Thorogood? Tom Petty or Tim McGraw? Those details won’t be important a few decades from now. It is the experience that you’ll remember more than a single act, because that’s what happens when you’re saturated with good music from all directions.

Ahhh, Summerfest. It is a place where everybody can fit in, the retirees with pleasant but hazy memories, the youngsters with high energy and expectation. You just need to tolerate the growing crowds as day turns to night.

Milwaukee’s jewel of a lakefront gathering – known as The Big Gig and the World’s Largest Music Festival – turns 40 this month. The Guinness Book of World Records in 1999 declared it the world’s largest music festival.

Attendance hit 1 million for the first time in 2001, and about 2,500 musicians – some of them the hottest rockers in the business – perform on stages spread out over 75 acres.

“We’ve really made an effort to develop a sense of community” this time around, says publicist Kristi Chuckel. “This is Milwaukee’s festival.”

Where was she when Summerfest began? Not born, she admits, and we laugh. Doesn’t matter. The event doesn’t belong to one generation.

A new exhibit at The Eisner American Museum of Advertising and Design, in Milwaukee’s Third Ward – near the lakeshore, is an easy way to get nostalgic and educated. Print and TV ad approaches are a large part of “40 Years of Summerfest,” in place until Sept. 30.

Summerfest souvenir T-shirts, a timeline and snippets of music are other elements that guide visitors back in time.

Milwaukee Mayor Henry Maier in 1961 suggested that a music festival might be a way to unite people who were unsettled because of the Vietnam War. Seven years later, the first Summerfest involved 35 venues around the city.

The headliner? Bob Hope, who appeared at Milwaukee County Stadium.

The next year, 60 venues were involved but rainy weather got the event into debt.

The headliner? Bob Hope, who appeared at Milwaukee County Stadium.

Admission was $1.50 per adult when the festival was moved to the core of its present location in 1970, an abandoned missile site on 15 acres of Lake Michigan shoreline.

The event had no rock music for several years, after a riot during the 1973 Humble Pie & The Blackberries concert. One year earlier, Milwaukee police arrested comedian George Carlin, who during his performance yelled out the seven words then banned on television.

Best trivia question: What band was the first to perform in Marcus Amphitheater, completed in 1987? Answer: The Washington Squares, opener for the Beach Boys.

The 40th Summerfest has a “Smile On” slogan and prize giveaways. Milwaukee Public Television is airing a one-hour Summerfest documentary this month, and a book of festival photographs has been produced by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

An anniversary party, with free cake and ice cream, occurs July 8, the last day of this year’s event. Country Music Television will film at Summerfest July 29 to July 1, for nationwide broadcast.

Milwaukee’s 40th Summerfest is noon to midnight June 28 to July 8. Tickets to all Marcus Amphitheatre acts still are available. The headliners are:

Steely Dan, June 28; Def Leppard with Foreigner and Styx, June 29; The Fray with OK Go and Mae, June 30; Ludacris with Chris Brown, Ciara and T-Pain, July 1; Roger Waters, July 2; John Mayer with Ben Folds and Brett Dennen, July 3; Tool, July 4; Bon Jovi, July 5; Daughtry, July 6; Panic at the Disco with Gym Class Heroes, The Academy Is and The Hush Sound, July 7; and Toby Keith with Miranda Lambert and Flynnville Train, July 8.

For more about festival admission fees, music acts and promotions that are a part of this year’s Summerfest:, (414) 273-2680. Avoid Marquette Interchange headaches by using public transportation from park-ride lots and downtown locations along Wisconsin Avenue; details are online.