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

Jim Stingl
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

There are people who claim they were at the very first Summerfest in 1968, much like the Ice Bowl or Woodstock or the Beatles at the Arena.

So to find people who truly were there when it all began 49 Summerfests ago, I looked through news coverage from that time on microfilm. Hmm, I thought, there have to be some names of early festival-goers in these articles.

Suddenly, there it was, in the July 22, 1968, Milwaukee Journal, a listing of 57 people who were certifiably at Summerfest for its second day.

A front page from the Milwaukee Journal features a photo and story on the 1968 tent collapse at the first Summerfest.

The story's ominous headline: "Hospitals list tent victims." A huge tent housing the lakefront musical performances collapsed during a storm on July 21, and the newspaper felt the need to tell the whole town the names, ages, home addresses and injured body parts of everyone who got hurt that day.

Many were teenagers or young adults who had come to the lakefront, just north of the War Memorial Center, to hear The Robbs and New Colony Six. Summerfest was scattered at locations all over metro Milwaukee the first two years before settling at the current grounds in 1970. The 300-foot music tent was called Youth Fest.

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With the slow death of telephone land lines, it's harder to contact people after half a century. Women are particularly difficult to track down because many changed their last names.

Relying on the White Pages online and an actual phone book from a few years ago, I found some possible numbers and started cold calling.

"That would be me," Jack Covert replied when asked if he, by any chance, had been crunched by a falling tent at the first Summerfest.

Now 73, retired and living in Brown Deer, he recalls being on stage as a hanger-on with The Robbs. He suffered a cut on his foot when the tent came down.

He was the first of several people who told me what arrived in the mail a couple weeks later. Summerfest sent get-well gifts to all the injured, a plastic case holding three medals commemorating that first fest. Some have kept them.

Sandy Haro, who was 17 back then and a Heimermann, said the tent poles lifted out of position and started swinging wildly. One of them hit her head, though she escaped serious injury.

Michael Steinbacher shows off the commemorative coins he was given after a tent collapse on him and others at the first Summerfest.

"I know my glasses were knocked off," the Brookfield retiree said. "I still remember calling my parents and saying, 'I'm OK and I'm at the hospital.' "

When I reached John Seizer, he joked, "I'm one of the survivors of the first Summerfest! It was primitive then. They just set up big circus tents."

Now 70 and living in Whitewater, he, too, was hit in the head but not badly hurt. He remembers people leaping from folding chairs and screaming.

"We were sitting," recalls Michael Steinbacher. "The wind started blowing and the tent started flapping away, and the next thing you know my buddy yelled at me, 'Look out!' And here came the back side of the tent. There were about 2,000 people in there. It was pretty packed."

He was grazed in the head by a pole. "I laugh about it now," said Steinbacher, who is 69 and living in the Town of Vernon.

What a thrill it was for 15-year-old Debra Moglia and her friend, Marilyn, to be at Summerfest. Well, at least until she was hit in the head by a wind-blown chair and suffered a mild concussion.

She wanted to go back the next night to see the rescheduled New Colony Six. "My dad wouldn't let me. I cried and cried, but it didn't help," said Debra, whose last name is now West. She has been gone from Wisconsin the past two decades, first in Seattle and now in Aurora, Colo.

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All of these early adopters went back to Summerfest in the years since, some more than others. Not a one plans to go this year for the 50th celebration.

"Now I'm so old I can get in for $8," the senior rate, Seizer said. He likes the Moody Blues, but not Summerfest-style. "At this point in my life, if I can't get a good reserved seat up close, I won't go."

"It's just that I don't like crowds," said Covert, who is happy to see how Summerfest has thrived.

Steinbacher hasn't been there since the mid-1980s. He prefers the ethnic festivals.

"We used to go a lot, but not so much anymore," Haro said. "The music has changed. Back then you followed the music more."

Out in Colorado, West finds herself talking up Summerfest. 

"I just think it's a great thing about Milwaukee. I miss living there sometimes," she said.

High praise from someone who was conked on the head during her first visit.

Contact Jim Stingl at (414) 224-2017 or jstingl@jrn.com. Connect with my public page at Facebook.com/Journalist.Jim.Stingl