Polish Fest kicks off ethnic festival season
TCD talks with first year director Jane Riley Best about this year's Polish Fest, June 15-17 at the Summerfest grounds.
On any given summer weekend, there can be as many as four or five, or more, different festivals, bazaars, or block parties occurring at once in Milwaukee. While Summerfest tends to take up much of the festival season spotlight, locals know the city’s many ethnic festivals are just as important as The Big Gig.
Chief among them is Polish Fest, opening its 31st year today and running through Sunday, June 17 at Henry Meier Festival Park. Polish Fest is not Milwaukee’s oldest ethnic festival—Festa Italiana was first held in 1978 and GermanFest began in 1981, a year before Polish Fest—but it’s not just Milwaukeeans who find it a big draw.
“I have tried to bring to Polish Fest what I think the savvy festival goer wants to see,” she said. “Knowing what makes people in Chicago and Minneapolis tick is what we have tried to implement into Polish Fest for our 31st year.”
The perception is that ethnic festivals skew to an older audience, but Best said that isn’t necessarily the case. “Polish Fest is a destination for a large audience in their mid-20s and up. There is such a variety [of activities] and we have focused on stressing that as well as what makes us unique.” In an effort to appeal to that younger demographic, Polish Fest has taken to social media, establishing a Facebook page for real-time updates and information.
This year the Cultural Village is hosting a traveling exhibit from the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow called “Polish Heroes: Those Who Rescued Jews,” as well as a history of the Polish military from the 17th Century through World War II, including a photo presentation of the bombing of Warsaw.
For those interested in the experiential more than the historical, there is no shortage of options. The popular vodka tasting returns to the Sobieski Vodka Lounge, giving visitors the opportunity to learn about and taste different varieties of Polish vodkas, meads (a sort of a honey wine), and liqueurs. Tastings occur at various times on all three days of the festival.
Polish Fest is also unique in that they have imported beer directly from Poland.
“Tyskie has arrived and came on a freighter from Poland,” said Best. “We are the only ethnic festival in Milwaukee to actually import beer from the homeland.”
Jimmy Sturr & His Orchestra return yet again to fill the park with polka, and cooking and dance exhibitions will continue throughout the weekend. The band of the late Mark Shurilla, who passed away one month ago, will perform “Mark Shurilla’s Greatest Hits” as a tribute.
Traditional cuisine, such as kielbasa, pierogi, and bigos, as well as American food, will be available from Crocus, Polonez, Mader’s, and others.
MCTS is providing shuttle service to and from the festival grounds, extending along Wisconsin Ave (except for the bridge detour) from the Mid-Gate to N. 6th Street, stopping at all bus stops marked with the Summerfest “Smile” logo. Shuttle fares are $3 round-trip for adults or $1.50 for children 6-11 (under 6 free) and seniors 65 and over.
Festival hours are noon to midnight on Friday and Saturday, noon to 10 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $10 in advance or $12 at the gate. To order or for information about other discounts and events, contact the Polish Center of Wisconsin at 414-529-2140 or visit Polishfest.org.