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10 weird facts about Summerfest

  1. Summerfest was started by the government.

In order to bring money and people into Milwaukee’s declining downtown in the mid-sixties, Mayor Henry Maier decided that the city should throw a party. Almost 50 years later, Summerfest bills itself as “The World’s Largest Music Festival.” It remains its 501(c)(3) status and generates around $181.3 million in direct and indirect economic impact for Milwaukee every year.

  1. Summerfest was inspired by Germany.

Mayer Henry Maier was inspired to start Summerfest after visiting Germany’s Oktoberfest. An initial proposed name for Summerfest was “Juli Spaß” which is German for July Fun.

  1. The first two years were a total flop.

At the conclusion of the second festival the festival ended $164,000 in debt. Luckily, Midland National Bank gave Summerfest a $150,000 loan, without collateral, and Summerfest was able to continue.

  1. The grounds previously held nuclear weapons.

Previous to 1970, Summerfest was held at 35 different locations around the city. In 1970 a permanent central location, now Henry Maier Festival Park, was decided upon. But before it was the festival grounds it was a former U.S. Army missile site, where it held both Ajax, and Hercules missiles. The Hercules missiles were armed with W31 nuclear warheads.

  1. Summerfest paid $1 to lease the grounds in beginning.

In the first couple of years at what would become the Henry Meir Festival Park, the Harbor Commission leased the land to Summerfest for $1.

  1. The Summerfest grounds were almost turned into a Disney Theme Park.

Mayor John Norquist tried to entice the Walt Disney Company to develop a theme park on the Summerfest grounds. Mayor Norquist even sent Walt Disney Company chairman a Harley-Davidson jacket to wear as he read the Mayor’s proposal. Eisner sent back the jacket, saying, “As a government official, I trust you will understand.”

  1. (Most of) the stages face East.

In order to project noise away from the city and into Lake Michigan. This seems really obvious, but it actually a very practical feature.

  1. George Carlin was arrested at Summerfest.

After performing his now famous “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” MPD forces were waiting at the stage to arrest Carlin for disorderly conduct. Carlin avoided the police long enough to dispose of a bag of cocaine that he had in his pocket. The case was heard in court and the charges were dismissed by the judge.

  1. A riot almost destroyed Summerfest.

In 1973, fans waiting for the band Humble Pie to begin started to riot. All Hell broke loose when people started throwing bottles and cans, tore down tents, ripped up beer stands, vandalized the main stage, lit bonfires fueled by chairs and fences, beat up carnival workers, and stole more than 50 half barrels of beer.

  1. There was a Winterfest.

During the winter between 1989-1990, Summerfest organizers formed a festival throughout the city, with a central spot being an ice skating rink near Cathedral Square. Due to the cold, the festival was hardly as profitable. This ceased operation after the 1997-98 event