“Hello, Wisconsin!” That’s what character Steven Hyde yelled at the end of the theme song in the first season of “That 70s Show.” In said theme song, the band Cheap Trick sings “We’re still rocking in Wisconsin; Oh yeah; We’re still rocking in Wisconsin; That’s right.”
Those lyrics aptly sum up Milwaukee’s 51-year-old Summerfest, running this year June 26-30 and July 2-7. It is dubbed “The World’s Largest Music Festival” and has been certified as such by the Guinness Book of World Records since 1999.
Entertaining between 800,000 and 900,000 adults, teens and children, Summerfest is a lakefront celebration of music, comedy, local food and beverage, shopping, acts and fun for all ages, and “Big Bang” fireworks.
Located at the 75-acre Henry Maier Festival Park, Summerfest features headliner and local musicians across 12 stages, including the 23,000-seat American Family Insurance Amphitheater. On July 3 at 7:30 p.m., megastar Jennifer Lopez will take the stage. Other big-name performers this year include Willie Nelson, Counting Crows, Jason Aldean, Lionel Richie, Lil Wayne, Snoop Dogg, and several more. In 1968, Summerfest’s inaugural year, actor/singer/songwriter George Jessel was the opening headliner.
Eastcastle Place, located in the heart of Milwaukee’s exciting, energetic East Side, is just three miles north of Festival Park, where many events and activities take place all year long. The East Side is a vivacious, eclectic mix of new and old and central to the best Milwaukee has to offer, including Lake Michigan, beautiful parks and the cultural mecca of Downer Avenue.
An easy drive and perhaps even a reasonable walk from Eastcastle Place, Festival Park is named for 1960s-era Milwaukee mayor Henry Maier. Maier himself conceived the idea of a large-scale summer festival after visiting Oktoberfest in Munich. Initially, the festival was called Milwaukee World Festival, followed by Juli SpaƁ (German for “July Fun”), then its current moniker of Summerfest.
A resident of Eastcastle Place, Larry Hammond, helped found Summerfest with Maier and secure the former Nike missile site that is now the Summerfest grounds. “It was a big mud hole with ammunition dumps in it. It had been pretty much abandoned and was a real mess. We took it over, spent a lot of time and money to cultivate it and get it organized, and it became the permanent home for Summerfest,” said Larry.
Before it moved to its site along the sparkling great lake in 1970, Summerfest took place at 35 locations throughout Milwaukee. That was the same year the iconic red smiley face logo was created, an insignia that exists still today and symbolizes the spirit of the happy summer celebration.
While superstars eagerly play Summerfest, including Paul McCartney in 2016, the festival also provides a chance for unknown artists to audition and perform. And, despite being the world’s largest music festival on record, Summerfest retains its unassuming Midwest vibe by remaining affordable, unlike the financially prohibitive Lollapalooza in Chicago.
Weekday passes for a single day are just $15, while a single day general admission pass is $23. Three-day passes are $57. Single concerts in the amphitheater range in price, according to seats. Shuttle service to and from the festival is very reasonable, including roundtrip bus fare from Madison for only $25.
That humble Midwest vibe also comes through in the way that Summerfest is this part of the country’s “best kept secret.” While the festival draws more people every year than any of its kind, it isn’t exactly universally known. “As a born and raised Milwaukee guy, I have a special place in my heart for Summerfest. It always surprises me how little it is known outside the Midwest,” said a man on a Summerfest review site.
But anyone who attends Summerfest will likely understand exactly what “Hello, Wisconsin!” means and want to return year after year to the biggest summer shindig anywhere.