The ABC's of Summerfest. Okay, just the B's...
Spent a sultry Sunday sucking in Summerfest.
Couldn't help but wonder what Rod Lanser or Henry Jordan would think if they saw the place today, much less namesake Henry Maier.
Lanser and Jordan are, of course, past directors of the Big Gig. holding court in much different times. There was no Marcus Amphitheater--just a giant yellow tent that served as a main stage. There were struggles as the fledging festival got its legs, became a destination for big-name acts and a local tradition that the community knew would be there year after year.
Beer is what lubricates the festival's run. And, to paraphrase Homer Simpson, it's also the answer to and cause of Summerfest's problems. Beer draws crowds (even though many grouse about the prices--which, by the way, held steady this year), makes people dance on picnic tables, sparks appetites (did I really NEED that second rack of ribs?), opens pocketbooks (did I really WANT that straw cowboy hat?) but also can be tied to some of the things that can make a day or night at the lakefront unsettling.
Blacktop brought civility to the former missile site grounds--no more schlepping through ankle-deep mud to see Sha Na Na, no more wet hay baking itself dry on a hot, humid July afternoon (with the accompanying stench). The value of pavement and it's contribution to the overall quality of the Summerfest experience can easily be taken for granted, but can't be over-stressed.
Backing greases the Big Gig's wheels, keeps the new stuff coming, helps maintain prices. It used to be the Pabst and Old Style's of the world that slapped their names on primitive side stages. Now it's Briggs and Stratton, BMO Harris Bank, Harley and a host of others lending their name to fancy venues (all of which are now aimed in the right direction--toward the water instead of at folks who live near the grounds. Fences make good neighbors, as do speakers pointed away from people). Sponsorship was a huge cog in Summerfest's development and is key as the event enters mid-life.
Bathrooms, like blacktop, helped bring a badly needed air of dignity to the proceedings. Time was when one could miss a band's entire performance just seeking out porcelain, much less waiting your turn to use same. Toilets are more plentiful and seemingly cleaner--at least when I was there during the day. Are there ever enough? Probably not, especially on a hot crowded night, but progress has been made over the decades.
And then there's Bo and Babisch...Bo as in Black And Babisch as in Bob. Everyone knows Bo and her stewardship is the bridge between the rough old days and the Big Gig we've come to appreciate. Babisch is the long time entertainment guru who has the unenviable job of trying to please the musical tastes of hundreds of thousands. Good luck with that. Some folks make an annual summer time rite of bashing the bands yet the size of most of the crowds suggests Babisch is hitting a lot of right notes.
The bus (or Freeway Flier) is a spectacular come-and-go option, if nothing else because it gives a lot of transit-shy locals an annual brush with MCTS. How much is a ride? Do I need exact change? Where's the nearest park-and-ride lot? Yes, they can look like the last chopper out of Saigon at the end of the night and the patrons at closing time can sound like some of the creatures in the "Star Wars" bar scene.t $6.50 buys you a round trip. The rest is free.
One more "B" to bring up: bazillion. Summerfest management no longer feels as though it has to draw bazillions of people. No more breathless hourly updates on how many people made it to the grounds. No more stressing if the entire run doesn't draw a million patrons. That was back in the day when folks worried about Summerfest hanging on. No such worries any more. The modern mindset: smaller, more comfortable crowds just might spend more money and even return. Granted, Saturday night was a mess from all accounts, and the Big Gig can become a hot, crowded mosh pit at night (especially for some of the hotter side stage acts). At least, that's what I hear. As a man in his sixth decade of life who has to be to work before sunrise, my ilk isn't often seen at Summerfest after sundown.
And that's the last "B": bar. Summerfest is like the corner tap where you have your high school reunion, or where old co-workers meet up once a year to chat up the good old days. And, like that tavern, it speaks to different folks at different points in the day--working folk before the street lights come on, teens and tweens and millennial after sunset.