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The Summerfest Follies

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					                   THE SUMMERFEST FOLLIES

                                        STEVEN J. KORRIS

                                                                                          “The money that

          Mayor John                                                                  you would pay for
          Norquist                                                                    rent is simply money
does not like what he                                                                 that would not go
cannot control, and                                                                   back into infrastruc-
he     never      liked                                                               ture," said William
Summerfest. As a                                                                      Drew, who as city
state Senator, he                                                                     development com-
introduced a bill that                                                                missioner helped to
would have opened                                                                     write the festival
its financial reports to                                                              lease that Maier
the public. He resent-                                                                signed in 1985. "The
ed the policies of his                                                                grounds require con-
predecessor, Mayor                                                                    stant renewal, new
Henry Maier, who                                                                      buildings, upgrades,
promoted and protect-                                                                 and stages. If you
ed Summerfest, and                                                                    don't do that, your
after replacing Maier                                                                 place rapidly falls
he chose an opposite                                                                  apart."
course.                                                 The old lease set a low rent, but it required
     First he tried to entice the Walt Disney       a compromise that added Milwaukee's mayor
Company to develop a theme park on                  and other politicians to the Milwaukee World
Summerfest's grounds. When that idea                Festival Board, which runs the annual 11-day
flopped, he ran a surprise slate of candidates in   festival. Drew did not anticipate the trouble
an effort to take over the board that runs the      that the compromise would cause, but over
festival. When that tactic failed, he dragged the   time he has realized that it was a time bomb.
board through four years of hostile lease nego-        Retired Wisconsin AFL-CIO president
tiations with the festival's landlord, the Board    John Schmitt, who signed the lease as presi-
of Harbor Commissioners.                            dent of the festival board, said, "There was no
     His approach was almost literally back-        problem until Norquist, who, for reasons
wards. Summerfest pulls a mighty tide of dol-       known to him, decided to stick his nose into
lars into the regional economy, while the har-      Summerfest.”
bor commissioners lose money every year on             Summerfest sprang from the mind of
their nearly dead port operation, yet Norquist      Mayor Maier on a German tour in 1961, as he
pushed for rent increase that would perpetuate
the port's inefficiency and put the festival at         Steven J. Korris is a freelance journalist.

                                                                                   Wisconsin Interest    43
walked the raucous streets of Munich during          and partly due to the pride in the community.
Oktoberfest. He could have drunk the beer and        Nobody wants to see the festival flop."
let it go at that, but instead he made up his
                                                         The board unveiled a smiling sun logo, but
mind that Milwaukee would put on an equally
                                                     the 1970 Summerfest opened under clouds that
grand celebration.
                                                     lingered for five days. When the sun burst
    He helped to set up a private World              through on the sixth day, masses swarmed to
Festival Board, which spent three years in           the lakefront, according to The Summerfest
planning and endured three years of delays.          Success Story, 1968-89, by William C. Carey.
On November 24, 1967, the board announced            Additional ticket booths were set up, several
that it would sponsor nine days of entertain-        more portable toilets were rushed to the
ment the following July. They named their            grounds, and more security was added near
event Summerfest.                                    the main stage area.
    They forgot one thing. To the surprise of            Summerfest caught on at once, and the
the board, Black musicians did not want to           excitement nearly boiled over. More than
sign contracts with an all-white organization.       100,000 young fans showed up for a Sly and
When board members resisted integration, sec-        the Family Stone concert, and they turned
retary George Watts resigned. Properly               rowdy when the show did not start on time.
shamed, the board made room for WAWA                 As police in riot helmets began making arrests,
Radio general manager O. C. White and city           O. C. White took the microphone and pleaded
schoolteacher Bennie Graham.                         that the group would not appear until the
                                                     crowd settled down. The fans cooled off and
    Summerfest opened on July 20, 1968, to the
                                                     the show went on.
thunder of aerial bombs. Visitors crowded into
the Arena for the National Folk Festival, and             When the music stopped, the bookkeepers
swirled among dozens of activities all over the      tallied the accounts and declared a surplus of
city. One night, high winds on the lakefront         $136,476. Summerfest had turned the corner. It
toppled a Youth Fest tent with 2,800 inside,         posted a surplus of about $48,000 in 1971, and
and sixty suffered minor injuries.                   came out about $31,000 ahead in 1972.
    In 1969, uncommon heat spoiled the fun,               Still, rampant abuse of alcohol and other
and rain completely washed out the last day.         drugs kept the festival teetering on the brink of
When the bookkeepers finished their work,            chaos. On July 21, 1973, fans waiting for the
they found a debt of $164,000.                       rock group Humble Pie went berserk. "All hell
                                                     broke loose," Carey wrote, "when youths start-
     Maier would not give up. He asked hotel
                                                     ed throwing bottles and cans, tore down tents,
owner Ben Marcus for help, and they recruited
                                                     ripped up beer stands, vandalized parts of the
a 12-man rescue squad from business, labor
                                                     main stage, stole more than 50 half barrels of
and the professions. Midland National Bank
                                                     beer, broke into food buildings and scattered
loaned Summerfest $150,000, without collater-
                                                     supplies." Roaming youths set bonfires and
al, and festival board members elected bank
                                                     fueled them with chairs and fences. Some
president John H. Kelly as their president.
                                                     climbed the towers of a tram ride. Others
    Together, Maier and Kelly visited executives     invaded the circus area and beat two carnival
of Milwaukee's big companies. They laid out a        workers who tried to keep them from swing-
plan to bring the scattered events to the lake-      ing on trapezes. Police cleared the grounds
front, charge an admission fee, and shower cor-      with clubs and tear gas. The mob injured seven
porate sponsors with publicity and free tickets.     officers and two security guards.
The executives paid $335,000 for sponsorships.
                                                         The riot forced the World Festival Board to
Kelly told reporters that, “There is no reluctance
                                                     reinvent Summerfest as a family event for
to contribute, partly due to the new approach
                                                     1974. First, the board declared that visitors

44               Spring 2001
could no longer bring bottles or cans into the     exported more wheat than any other port on
festival. Next, it signed Gladys Knight and the    earth, according to The Quest for Milwaukee's
Pips, Johnny Cash, Helen Reddy, Charlie Pride      Port Policy, a dissertation that University of
and Sha Na Na. Workers paved the dirt walks        Wisconsin-Milwaukee historian Mackie Gilbert
and planted grass, flowers and trees. The          Westbrook wrote in 1965.
changes paid off, barely, and Summerfest
                                                        "When railroads came to the West, howev-
closed with a surplus of $4,695.
                                                   er, their owners chose Chicago as their hub,
    But the cleaner and quieter festival soon      leaving Milwaukee 100 miles from the main-
captured the public's heart. Attendance stayed     line. The first railroads built out of Milwaukee
above 500,000 a year, and the annual surplus       ended in Chicago," Westbrook wrote, "and
grew. In 1979, under the leadership of board       every mile of track they added merely
president John Schmitt, Summerfest made            strengthened         Chicago's       commerce."
$423,034, bringing its cash balance to             Milwaukee also lost trade to Duluth, which
$1,101,385. This result so pleased board mem-      was as close to the East by water, and closer to
bers that they discarded a tradition of rotating   wheat-growing regions. Manufacturers and
the presidency and start-                                                 merchants thought they
ed a tradition of electing                                                could reverse the swift
Schmitt. Looking for                                                      decline of harbor com-
ways to invest the hefty       Unfortunately, [the                        merce, with help from
balance in continued                                                      local taxpayers. In 1881,
growth, he decided that a    Summerfest Board] had                        they called for construc-
big amphitheater would                                                    tion of a new harbor,
attract the best possible    put their success in the                     extending beyond the
shows. He convinced his                                                   small area already in use.
members, and they
                                   hands of an                            The U.S. Army Corps of
announced in 1983 that
they would build it.
                              organization with an                        Engineers rejected a series
                                                                          of outer harbor proposals,
    They had spoken too        unbroken record of                         but in 1910, the engineers
                                                                          reversed their stance.
soon, however, for their
lease on the grounds
                                     failure.                               Milwaukee's leader-
would run out within two                                               ship took this occasion to
years. They could not                                                  initiate a decade of agita-
secure a long-term loan                                                tion favoring fanciful and
without a long-term lease, so they would have      ill-conceived attempts to recapture the city's
to make a deal with their landlord, the Board      past greatness, Westbrook wrote. The mayor
of Harbor Commissioners. Unfortunately, they       set up a Board of Harbor Commissioners, the
had put their success in the hands of an orga-     Common Council approved a plan, voters
nization with an unbroken record of failure.       passed a bond issue, and workers built an
                                                   outer harbor. Unfortunately this was a begin-
     In the midst of the greatest trading oppor-
                                                   ning which should have been made in 1881, he
tunities the world has known, the port is virtu-
                                                   wrote, for by 1920, Milwaukee's ship had
ally dead as a passageway for raw materials
                                                   already sailed.
and manufactured goods. Milwaukee ranks
26th on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes in            Traffic did not increase at all. In a 1952
commerce, between Marblehead, Ohio, and            book, The Port of Milwaukee, University of
Alpena, Michigan. (See table.) Its meager traf-    Chicago geographer Edward Hamming wrote
fic consists mostly of inbound shipments of        that commerce had remained remarkably sta-
salt and coal. At its origin, the harbor held      ble at about seven million tons a year since
great promise. After the Civil War, Milwaukee      1910. He ranked Milwaukee 16th among Great

                                                                           Wisconsin Interest     45
     Port                                      Thousands of tons
     1. Duluth-Superior                              42,443
     2. Chicago                                      25,958
     3. Detroit                                      19,454
     4. Cleveland                                    17,865
     5. Ashtabula, Ohio                              15,602
     6. Indiana Harbor                               14,910
     7. Lorain, Ohio                                 14,166
     8. Toledo, Ohio                                 13,229
     9. Two Harbors, Minnesota                       13,223
     10. Presque Isle, Michigan                      10,483
     11. Calcite, Michigan                            9,389
     12. Stoneport, Michigan                          9,114
     13. Gary, Indiana                                9,083
     14. Burns Waterway Harbor, Indiana               9,006
     15. Taconite Harbor, Minnesota                   8,761
     16. Escanaba, Michigan                           8,530
     17. Conneaut, Ohio                               7,786
     18. Saginaw, Michigan                            5,609
     19. St. Clair, Michigan                          5,533
     20. Port Inland, Michigan                        5,489
     21. Silver Bay, Minnesota                        5,182
     22. Sandusky, Ohio                               4,334
     23. Marine City, Michigan                        4,252
     24. Port Dolomite, Michigan                      4,095
     25. Marblehead, Ohio                             3,975
     26. Milwaukee                                    3,108
     27. Alpena, Michigan                             3,078
     28. Fairport, Ohio                               2,880
     29. Green Bay                                    2,353
     30. Buffalo, New York                            2,341
     Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

46       Spring 2001
Lakes ports, and first in exports of heavy          revert to the state if not used for navigation
machinery and equipment. He admired the             and they asked the city attorney to back them
variety of commerce, which included grain,          up. Deputy city attorney Harry Slater
building materials, coal, petroleum, car ferries,   answered that the city could use it for other
a luxury liner, and Nash automobiles made in        purposes, but only on a temporary basis.
Kenosha. On the other hand, he found only
                                                        This gave Kelly and Maier a leg to stand
one industrial concern on the harbor, and no
                                                    on, and they swiftly killed the import center
shipyard or dry dock in the city.
                                                    plan. The commissioners meekly gave
    Westbrook, 13 years later, found com-           Summerfest a year's extension, at $1. They did
merce diminishing in volume and variety.            the same for 1972, but Maier wanted a lasting
Summarizing 55 years in a sentence, he wrote        arrangement. If the law would not allow a per-
that, "The harbor commission's failure since        manent festival, the law would have to change.
1910 to formulate realistic policies based on       In 1973, the Wisconsin legislature gave him the
accurate research has nullified most of its own     freedom he wanted.
efforts and propelled the city on a fruitless
                                                        The commissioners and the Summerfest
course to commercial lassitude. "
                                                    board soon signed their first two-year lease. A
    Commissioners com-                                                   few months later, they
pounded the error,                                                       tore it up and signed for
spending millions to get                                                 five years at low rent,
ready for European trade                                                 with an option for five
that they believed would           When genuine                          more years. Summerfest
move through the new St.                                                 president Sydney Kohl
Lawrence Seaway. In a         opportunity knocked at                     announced that the board
1967 Ford Foundation                                                     would spend up to $1
study, Eric Schenker          last, the commissioners                    million on permanent
wrote that, “In the long                                                 stages and seats, dining
run, it seems quite obvi-      tried to chase it off the                 areas, landscaping and
ous that the port's growth
prospects depend on its
                                      property.                          plumbing.        Seefeldt,
                                                                         according to Carey, con-
ability to utilize the St.                                               ceded that Summerfest
Lawrence Seaway.” He                                                     was here to stay. The port
was right, because the                                                   director's sour attitude
Seaway fizzled, and the                                                  did not improve, for
port did not grow.                                  Summerfest continued to thrive and the port
                                                    continued to wither. Commerce dropped
     When genuine opportunity knocked at
                                                    below five million tons in 1974, and plunged to
last, the commissioners tried to chase it off the
                                                    3,500,000 tons in 1975. A ship full of cement
property. In 1970, after the first successful
                                                    plunged, too. The E. M. Ford sank in the har-
Summerfest, they arranged to lease the festival
                                                    bor on Christmas Eve, 1979, in a mishap for
grounds to a company that wanted to build an
                                                    which the city would pay millions in damages.
import center for foreign cars. According to
Carey, port director John Seefeldt suggested             In 1982, commissioners asked maritime
that Summerfest search for an alternate site.       economist Nat Simat to recommend changes
                                                    that could reverse their fortunes. He stunned
    Commissioners asserted that only they
                                                    them by declaring that commerce could triple
could plan the future of the harbor. The city
                                                    in ten years, if they would disband. He urged
had received the land from the state of
                                                    them to take the initiative in creating a region-
Wisconsin in the 1930s, and state law required
                                                    al harbor board. "The port is a valuable region-
that it be used for harbor purposes.
                                                    al asset that must be managed as a business,
Commissioners insisted that the land would

                                                                            Wisconsin Interest    47
without political pressure," Simat wrote. "The          On the last hectic day, the festival board
current city agency form of port administra-        cracked. In return for easy rent, at two percent
tion is inappropriate; because the city cannot      of net income, the board agreed to dissolve. A
afford to subsidize the port and it will be only    new board would take over, with seats for the
a matter of time before the city begins to see      mayor, the Common Council president, the
the port as a financial liability." The commis-     comptroller, an alderman picked by the Council
sioners ignored every word.                         president, two department commissioners, a cit-
                                                    izen picked by the Council president, and the
    They listened more closely when the
                                                    Milwaukee County Executive. These eight
Summerfest board announced its amphitheater
                                                    would elect 13 other board members.
plan in 1983. If the festival could afford that,
they figured, it could afford to solve the port's       The politicians had the good sense to bring
problems. The commissioners recommended a           along most of the old board, and when the
30-year lease, at $464,000 a year.                  new board assembled, the members elected
                                                    Schmitt to continue as president. The 24,000-
    Maier again knocked them back into line.
                                                    seat amphitheater, named for Ben Marcus,
Within a month, he signed a Common Council
                                                    lived up to Schmitt's expectations, and
measure directing the commissioners to rene-
                                                    Summerfest ran more smoothly as ever.
gotiate the old lease and extend it at $1 a year.
To boost the $12 million amphitheater project,          After Maier ended his 28-year reign, the
he directed development commissioner Drew           lease continued to produce the results he want-
to arrange for the city to issue tax-exempt         ed. Attendance climbed 30 percent in ten
industrial revenue bonds.                           years, from 671,412 in 1986 to 873,235 in 1996.
    Maier's generous guardianship infuriated             As the festival continued to grow, board
some Council members. According to Carey,           members began planning a new round of capi-
they were leading a drive to open all               tal improvements. Once again, they would
Summerfest records to the public, protesting        need a long-term loan. Once again, they would
the board's lack of accountability and that no      need a long-term lease. This mayor, however,
elected officials served on the 20-member exec-     would not cooperate.
utive board. Carey did not name the snipers,
                                                        First, he went looking for a tenant more to
but he identified the state senator who intro-
                                                    his liking. After meeting Walt Disney
duced a bill that would have compelled the
                                                    Company chairman Michael Eisner, Norquist
board to open its records — John Norquist.
                                                    sent him a fawning letter on December 18,
     The future mayor and the Council critics       1996. "Frankly, we'd like you to consider merg-
may have wanted to see the records, but they        ing your design expertise with Milwaukee's
did not need to see them. The city would not        traditional urban strengths by letting us help
spend a penny on the project. There was no          you locate a Disney entertainment property
direct subsidy by the city, Drew said in a          here," he wrote.
recent interview. It was a federal government           To convey his eagerness to please,
tax break. Indeed, members of Congress had          Norquist sent Eisner a Harley-Davidson
grown weary of giving up revenue every time         motorcycle jacket. "It would give me great
a city issued tax-exempt bonds. They passed a       pleasure for you to wear a Harley jacket while
law that set a limit on the volume of industrial    taking a first-hand look at Milwaukee with
revenue bonds, effective January 1, 1986. Lease     me," he wrote. Eisner sent it back with a state-
negotiations, which had stalled for two and a       ment of company policy and a gentle admoni-
half years, suddenly turned urgent. If the          tion that, "Being a government official, I trust
Summerfest board and the harbor commission-         you will understand." Thus it came to pass that
ers did not agree by the end of 1985, the           the private ethics of Hollywood surpassed the
amphitheater plan would fall apart.                 public ethics of Milwaukee.

48               Spring 2001
     Next, Norquist launched a sneak attack on             Board members apparently expected the
the festival board. At a meeting on February           plan to inspire city officials to get the lease
27, 1997, after the board's nominating commit-         talks rolling. Executive director Bo Black told
tee recommended candidates for four vacant             the Journal-Sentinel that, "We are hoping they
at-large positions, a surprise slate popped up.        won't be able to help themselves. They will be
Public works director Jim Kaminski nominated           begging us for a lease.”
Norquist fundraiser Barb Candy, businessman
                                                           Norquist and his harbor commissioners
Anthony Palermo, and Police Chief Arthur
                                                       did not budge. The Summerfest board waited
Jones. Alderman Wayne Frank nominated
                                                       for two months and then formally requested
Greater Milwaukee Committee president Bob
                                                       lease negotiations in a letter to Norquist and
                                                       the Common Council. The mayor and the
     Board president Valerie Daniels-Carter            council adopted a resolution by which they
called a recess, so that someone could prepare         would appoint a special committee to research
ballots. After 33 minutes, the meeting resumed         the lease and start negotiations. For some rea-
and 20 members made their choices. Two of              son, however, the committee did not meet
Norquist's picks got eight votes, and two got          until January 14, 2000.
seven. The nominating
                                                                               As the committee
committee's candidates,
                                                                           inched forward, festival
Mike Houser, Keith
                                                                           president Frank Busalacchi
Mardak, Jim McKenna
                                                                           dropped a bomb. He
and Joan Stein, prevailed.
                                                                           announced               that
     In response, the                                                      Summerfest would begin
mayor's aides suggested
                                 …Summerfest would                         looking for a new home.
that they might fire
Summerfest's           staff.
                                begin looking for a new                    Maybe one of these com-
                                                                           munities is willing to come
"Everything is up for                    home.                             in and subsidize this thing
grabs," Kaminski told the                                                  and share costs, fifty-fifty,
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel,                                                he told the Journal-Sentinel.
"This event could be put
                                                                              George Watts, who
on by any number of dif-
                                                                          was running for mayor
ferent people." Norquist's
                                                                          against Norquist, told the
chief of staff, Bill
                                                                          newspaper that if elected,
Christofferson, said that,
                                                       he would direct the harbor commissioners to
"If the city is to be a partner, it has to be a full
                                                       meet the festival's needs and give it a new
partner. We have to play a real role in setting
                                                       lease. Speaking of Norquist, he said that,
policy. If that doesn't work, we are willing to
                                                       "Anything he cannot control, he seems to be
look at others to run Summerfest."
                                                       envious of. I will leave success alone and
    These comments poisoned the lease negoti-          cheer."
ations before they started. Summerfest's board
                                                            Christofferson responded by mocking
nevertheless pushed ahead with its Millennium
                                                       Watts and practically accusing Summerfest of
Momentum Plan, prepared by Eppstein Uhen
                                                       trying to rip off the city. "Summerfest would
Architects of Milwaukee and presented to the
                                                       just roll right over him," he said. "Who is going
public on February 25, 1999. The plan called for
                                                       to look out for the taxpayers? That's supposed
an indoor amphitheater with 4,000 seats, two-
                                                       to be the mayor's job."
story restaurants, an amusement park, a pavil-
ion near the main gate, lights, benches,                   In May, the special committee called for
restrooms, paths, kiosks and fences.                   the harbor commissioners to work quickly on a
                                                       new lease. In June, the commissioners voted to

                                                                               Wisconsin Interest    49
start negotiating. Their president, Daniel                Amid smiling faces on both sides, the city
Steininger, said, "We will get this lease done."      and Summerfest announced in March that it
Busalacchi said, "This is not rocket science.         reached agreement on a 20-year lease. The
Once you get the parties together and every-          lease dramatically raised the festival’s annual
one knows the issues, I think it would take a         rent payment, from $30,000 or less to more
day to do."                                           than a $1 million a year. In turn the festival got
                                                      borrowing help from the city and fewer city-
     Still, the talks went nowhere. In
                                                      appointed board members. The city also
September, Norquist repeated the rip-off
                                                      backed away from plans to impose specific
refrain in an interview with the Journal-
                                                      ticket or beer fees on Summerfest, leaving it up
Sentinel. The festival has grown and become
                                                      to the festival board to decide how to find the
more successful over the years, so it doesn't
                                                      additional revenue.
need subsidies like it used to, he said. I think it
is fair for the city to defend its financial posi-         But the Summerfest Board had apparently
tion. He spoke pure hogwash, for the city has         approved the new deal over the objections of
not subsidized Summerfest.                            its own executive director, Bo Black.
    In December, the harbor commissioners                 Appearing on a radio show hosted by the
proposed to collect a 25-cent tax on every beer,      editor of this journal, Black said that the
a 50-cent tax on every admission ticket, and a        Summerfest Board had been pressured into
$1 tax on every Marcus Amphitheater ticket.           going along with the deal, believing that it had
When the festival board said no, the commis-          no choice but to accede to the city’s demands.
sioners announced the proposal to the public,         The price tag for that deal, Black warned,
apparently expecting the community to                 would be high. Not only would it mean scaling
applaud. The community did not applaud.               back Summerfest’s $75 million improvement
                                                      plan, she said, it would also deplete the festi-
    But pressure on the Summerfest Board
                                                      val’s financial reserves.
continued to mount.
                                                          Should the festival be hit by the sort of bad
    Even though Norquist was widely seen as
                                                      weather than plagued it early years, warned
politically weakened after he confessed to an
                                                      Black, Summerfest could find itself at risk. And
affair with a former aide, board members
                                                      without the support from City Hall that had
believed that they had no choice but to give
                                                      once saved the festival.
the city most of what it wanted if Summerfest
was to survive.

50               Spring 2001

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