The first Summerfest, in 1968, had a little bit of everything (yes, including rain)

Chris Foran
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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In its 51st year, Summerfest loves to tout its diversity: hip-hop, EDM, classic rock, pop, R&B, country. 

Summerfest No. 51 has nothing on Summerfest No. 1. 

The first Summerfest, held in scores of Milwaukee-area venues from July 20-28, 1968, had everything from polka music to Mexican ballet to psychedelic pop music to a classical orchestra to an air show.

What it didn't have, at first, was the name Summerfest. 

After a half-decade of planning for an ambitious Milwaukee summer festival, organizers initially landed on a different name: Juli Spass, German, roughly, for July Fun. On Feb. 8, 1968, Milwaukee World Festival, the body operating the event, decided that the name was too hard to say correctly (Juli was being pronounced "Julie," instead of the correct "You-lee") and that non-Germans had complained about being excluded. 

Their choice for a new name: Summerfest '68. (Two weeks later, they dropped the apostrophe.) 

"It's easy to say," Milwaukee World Festival board member Stanley Williams said in a Milwaukee Journal story published Feb. 9. "I can imagine people saying that they're going to Milwaukee for the Summerfest." 

Meanwhile, the festival's first director, Willard M. Masterson, left Summerfest in March after buying a controlling interest in an amusement park at Muskego Beach. Masterson — who renamed that venue DandiLion Park — was replaced by Edward G. Ball. 

While planning for Summerfest kicked into high gear, other major Milwaukee events got caught up in the heat of the times. Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co. announced April 19 that it had canceled the annual downtown circus parade because of "the mood of the country" (the circus' visit itself, then known as Old Milwaukee Days, was still on). A couple of weeks later, the U.S. Army blocked Summerfest and Old Milwaukee Days from using land near the Nike rocket launching installation at what would later become Summerfest's home on the lakefront, citing "increased civil disturbances erupting throughout our country."

Concert-goers gather on the grounds of the Milwaukee County Zoo to hear a free concert as part of Summerfest 68 on July 28, 1968. The concert, dubbed a "Zoo-mphony," actually was part of the summer-long Music Under the Stars series, one of several Milwaukee summer events pulled under the umbrella of the first Summerfest. This photo was published in the July 29, 1968, Milwaukee Sentinel.

While early plans included special programming aimed at African-Americans, young people and families, Summerfest 68 was framed, from the first, as a cultural event. The two biggest "gets" on the festival board's wish list were the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London and the National Ballet of Mexico — and the latter was signed up even though the festival didn't have the sponsorship money at first to pay for it. 

In addition to fine arts, Summerfest 68 lined up theater performances, including the Marquette University Players doing Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" in Humboldt Park; no less than three women's conferences; an international film festival held at the Palace Theater, then at North 5th Street and Wisconsin Avenue; American Indian exhibits at the new Milwaukee Public Museum; a full circus; a street carnival with rides and games; a German beer garden (complete with polka band) in what is now Zeidler Union Square; and more. 

There was lots of music, too. For starters, Summerfest's dates overlapped with the National Folk Festival, scheduled to be held in Milwaukee July 19-21, and the National Polka Festival. A number of events pulled under the Summerfest umbrella in 1968 actually were previously planned cultural and entertainment doings held at the same time, like the popular Music Under the Stars free outdoor concert series held mainly at the bandshell in Washington Park.  

One Music Under the Stars program, "Salute to the Afro-American," had an all-star lineup including singer Miriam Makeba, trumpeter Hugh Masekela and comedian Slappy White. 

Another act organizers were particularly excited to land was Up With People, the 200-plus-voice choral group that The Journal described as the "musical demonstration of the commitment, spirit and purpose that the young generation can give America and the world."

Members of the cast of Up With People perform in Milwaukee July 23, 1968, as part of Summerfest 68.

Up With People's six shows during Summerfest included performances at County Stadium and in Washington Park. 

The part of Summerfest 68 that most closely resembled Summerfest 2018, however, was Youthfest, staged on the land between Lake Michigan and the War Memorial Center. 

Youthfest had a lineup of up-and-coming local and national acts playing stage shows twice a day. Admission was $1.25, or 50 cents and three Seven-Up bottle caps.

Among the Milwaukee groups were two of the city's most successful from the 1960s: the pop-rock act the Robbs, who doubled as the backup band for some acts even though they were getting some national exposure at the time; and the Esquires, the R&B singing group fresh off its first hit, "Get On Up." 

National acts included singer Ronnie Dove, the New Colony Six ("I Will Always Think About You") and the Lemon Pipers, who earlier that year had a No. 1 hit with the psychedelic pop tune "Green Tambourine." 

Like any Summerfest worth the name, it didn't always go smoothly. A storm battered the festival on July 21, bringing down a huge tent at the Youthfest site and injuring 60 people. 

RELATED:Stingl: They survived a tent collapse at Milwaukee's first Summerfest

It rained again two nights later, leading to a slew of cancellations. But festival organizers were happy with the crowds, especially at the Youthfest site. 

"They were peaceful and happy and, when it was over, they just got up and went home," Paul King, business manager for Summerfest 68, told The Journal in a July 24 story. 

The first Summerfest, held in 1968, included an air show called Air Age '68 at Mitchell International Airport. These helicopters, shown on July 26, 1968, were bound for Vietnam immediately after the show closed two days later. This photo was published in the July 27, 1968, Milwaukee Sentinel.

But the real star of Summerfest 68 wasn't on a stage, or the grounds — it was in the air. 

Air Age '68, an annual air show sponsored by the Jaycees and added under the formal Summerfest banner, packed them in at Mitchell International Airport.

With a lineup including the Blue Angels, British bombers and state-of-the-art American helicopters — some of which went directly to Vietnam after their appearance in Milwaukee — Air Age '68 reportedly had more than 390,000 visitors, including 250,000 on July 28, the final day of the show and Summerfest. 

Summerfest 68 itself recorded an estimated attendance of more than 1.25 million overall, including the air show. The organizers called the festival a success, even with the rough edges. 

"From the crowds we had and the enthusiastic response we received, there can't be any question that Summerfest 68 not only met but exceeded our most optimistic expectations," Ball said. "This was a shakedown cruise. We developed a couple leaks but we never foundered or got beached."

Our Back Pages: 1968 

About this feature 

On Wednesdays this year, the Green Sheet's Our Back Pages will look back at 1968 in Milwaukee, sharing stories of the events that shaped and reflected a changing city as reported and photographed by the Journal Sentinel's predecessor newspapers, The Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.  

Special thanks and kudos go to senior multimedia designer Bill Schulz for finding many of the gems in the Journal Sentinel photo archives. 


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