Decades ago, when Mayor Henry Maier first thought of Summerfest, it looked like the thing was going to disappear.
Summerfest was held at over 30 sites around the city the first year and was a moderate success. The second year was an abysmal failure, plagued by lack of funding and bad weather.
City fathers were about to give up, but Maier insisted it was still a good idea, if they could just find one central site. The old Nike base at the lakefront was available the the city bought it and the festival is still there.
They weren’t out of the woods yet, though. Money was a problem. They had to spend money to get music acts to come, sponsorships were sparse and it looked like expenses exceeding revenues would doom the whole thing.
Riding to the rescue was Milt Kaufman and his "Million Dollar Midway." The Midway was a cash cow and although it wasn’t part of Summerfest, it operated adjacent to and at the same time as the music festival. In order to keep his midway going, he knew he had to keep Summerfest alive.
That began a number of years when Kaufman helped keep Summerfest alive with big financial donations in the form of a big cut from the midway revenues.
Showing very little gratitude, by the early 1980s, Summerfest decided it didn’t need the midway any longer and thought it projected an image that Summerfest didn’t want. They ordered the midway to leave.
Kaufman of course fined a suit to keep from being kicked out.
I was a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal then and took up the fight for the midway. The case ended up in the courtroom of federal judge Terence Evans, one of my closest friends. The end of June came and Summerfest was about to start. Evans was ready to announce his decision. I was in the front row along with both of my small daughters, hoping that the judge would see his good friend and the children and would rule for fun.
Instead he ruled that Summerfest had the legal right to decide whether to have the Midway or not. Bang! In the space of minutes, the midway was gone and Summerfest had it’s squeaky clean image restored.
There have been sporadic attempts to bring a midway back to Summerfest, but the festival has never been wholly supportive of the concept.
It’s unlikely that we will ever see a midway again unless there is some sort of people’s campaign to get it back. If anyone is interested, I’d be glad to help.
Here's what the OnMilwaukee.com Social Circle had to say about bringing back the Midway at Summerfest.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
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Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.