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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014

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In Festival Guide Commentary

Bo Black (center) during a 2009 visit to Milwaukee.

Bo still knows Summerfest


After hearing about Summerfest director Don Smiley's large salary, it made sense to reach out and ask former executive director Bo Black what she thought.

After all, Elizabeth "Bo" Black was the name and face of Summerfest for about 20 years before she was let go in 2003 and replaced by Smiley. During her tenure, Black was regarded as a high-profile personality who sold Summerfest to fans through numerous media appearances on TV and radio.

Black, who was once featured on a Playboy cover in the 1960s, was the attractive blonde spokeswoman with rabid fans and critics alike who made the woman called "Bo" one of Milwaukee's most interesting figures for more than two decades.

But what really used to set people off about Black was her salary. Each time board members of the summer festival that started off small and grew over the years voted to raise her salary, many Milwaukeeans reacted with a mixture of outrage and resentment.

I covered several Milwaukee World Festival board meetings during Black's tenure and heard the chatter firsthand. This was before the days of social media, remember. I have no doubt, if Twitter had existed back then "Bo Black" would have been a consistent trending topic.

This week, a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel revealed that current Summerfest boss Smiley earned $772,575 in 2011 – including bonuses for running Summerfest – a salary way larger than any other public official in Milwaukee and nearly twice the paycheck of the President of the United States.

Many folks were surprised at such a substantial figure, given that Summerfest is an 11-day event that has actually gotten smaller since the days when Black was running things, albeit more manageable.

When Black left Summerfest, she was making about $244,oo0 after 19 years. During most of that time, she had to put up with lots of public scrutiny over what some claimed was an exorbitant paycheck.

When I reached Black at her current home in Arizona, we talked about her Summerfest experience and the controversy that always came up whenever she received a pay raise.

"When I started, I made $3,000," she told me, harking back to the her beginnings with the event. "When I left, it was about $240,000. It was always an issue with some people."

Smiley's big salary was defended by Summerfest board members who insist that it's a competitive wage for someone running a major music festival. The point was raised that if Smiley was in a comparable private business, the salary wouldn't be out of whack at all.

Black remembered making the same point when she was making a third of what Smiley is making. And, she noted the perks now are a lot more generous.

"The only time I had a car is if I did a commercial for it," she laughed.

Black, 67, is in ill health these days after suffering a stroke a few years ago. She said she wanted her friends in Milwaukee to know that she was "happy and in good spirits" even though she was still suffering some ill effects.

She still keeps an eye on Summerfest. She wishes some of the ethnic festivals that were a big part of the original concept for Summerfest were doing better and worries about the future of the event in its current location.

Black has seen the growth and maturation of a summer music event that started with a bunch of bands playing in a muddy field that grew so large it came to define Milwaukee for residents and visitors alike.

For a long time, "Bo" was the queen of Summerfest. She never got paid like the current king and there was lots more scrutiny on her but she cherishes the memories nevertheless.

Her message to friends in Milwaukee: ""I'm in a good place."

Good to hear, Bo.


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