Michael Horne
Plenty of Horne

New Summerfest Name, New Amphitheater

American Family gets naming rights to Summerfest, helps pay for amphitheater.

By - Jan 26th, 2017 04:59 pm
American Family Insurance Ampitheater

American Family Insurance Ampitheater

So long, Summerfest! Those three syllables will be followed by 13 more, now that the “World’s Largest Music Festival” has sold its naming rights to an insurer.

Welcome, “Summerfest presented by American Family Insurance.”

Also, say goodbye to the Marcus Amphitheater, which will be substantially reconstructed and renamed the “American Family Insurance Amphitheater.”

This year’s 50th edition will be the last time for visitors to pass through the North Gate, which is to be integrated with the Lakefront Gateway Project soon to be underway.

Also, the Madison-based insurance company will participate in community youth outreach in certain Milwaukee neighborhoods.

Most “Significant Day” in 50 Years

The announcement of the changes was made at an event at Milwaukee World Festival Headquarters today by board chair Ted Kellner. He called it the “most iconic and significant day” in the 50-year history of the festival, and he was just getting warmed up with iconic references. The alliance with American Family is a “comprehensive and transformative sponsorship,” he also told media and staff in attendance.

Although terms were not announced, Summerfest CEO Don Smiley acknowledged that the reconstruction of the 23,000-person capacity amphitheater alone is budgeted at $30-35 million.

The agreement took six months of negotiations, Kellner said, adding that they were conducted in strict confidence and veiled in secrecy until that very moment.

The courtship was a very Wisconsin board bromance. Kellner has served on the Milwaukee World Festival board for 36 of its 50 years. He has also served 14 years on the board of American Family, a mutual firm that celebrates its 90th anniversary this year, and is chummy with its CEO Jack Salzwedel.

Well, one thing followed another, and before you know it, Summerfest and American Family officials were hammering out their long-term deal, the value of which was not revealed.

According to a media release, Kellner, 70, “had no involvement in contract talks between the two parties,” which would not be fitting for somebody whose firm is called “Fiduciary Management, Inc.” but all seemed nice and jolly as he was joined at the podium by Salzwedel, who confessed to being a musician on the side.

“I have a love for music, I play music,” Salzwedel said. He told the audience that at a recent concert he got a little bit carried away, and his wife had to tell him to shut up, explaining that the audience was there to hear “Jackson Browne and not Jack Salzwedel.”

Salzwedel said the agreement would be “good for American Family, good for our employees, good for our agents and good for our customers.”

As did Kellner, Salzwedel dropped the “I” word, saying “the iconic smile logo [of the festival] would be having its 50th anniversary” in the same year that his firm would be celebrating its 90th.

Salzwedel stressed that his firm intended to “reach beyond the Summerfest gates,” with particular emphasis on music education for Milwaukee youth.

Photo from the Event

New Amphitheater

Kellner also brought up a bit of Summerfest history, reminding the audience that in 1986 Stephen Marcus gave $1 million for the construction of the amphitheater that has now borne the hotel family’s name for 29 seasons.

Many “iconic” groups have played at the amphitheater, which has 18,000 seats and 5,000 lawn spaces, Kellner said, including “Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Cher, Britney Spears and Kenny Chesney.”

Rod Stewart played the amphitheater in 1998. However, in 2013 he played at the Milwaukee Theatre in a private party for Kellner’s 68th birthday. Kellner, who manages $5 billion in assets and owns 3,500 apartment units, clearly has connections.

Greg Marcus, now the head of the Marcus Corporation, took to the stage to say a few words. He was approached some time ago when the plans were in the works, and said “we completely understood it was time to relinquish our naming rights.” He called the moment “bittersweet.” He reminded the audience that his grandfather Ben Marcus arranged a loan to keep the early Summerfest “afloat.”

He also credited his father, who was not present, with “two key things.”

  • He brought in local food vendors, which “completely changed” the festival. Previously the food was commissary-style and provided by a single vendor.
  • He spearheaded the drive to make the grounds permanent.

Previously, Marcus said, the event was sometimes “Mudfest, not Summerfest.” The new alliance with American Family Insurance “is making Summerfest permanent for the next generation.”

Kellner acknowledged “tremendous gratitude for the Marcus family’s civic leadership and commitment to Summerfest, Henry Maier Festival Park and Milwaukee. Steve’s willingness to support us 30 years ago forever changed the course of the festival, allowing it to become The World’s Largest Music Festival.” Marcus was “pivotal not only in the creation of, but in the continuation of Summerfest.”

Kellner again gave thanks for the “iconic groups, iconic families and iconic companies,” that have brought us to this iconic day.

The Marcus Amphitheater is showing its age, and customers expect a new experience said Smiley. It will be new construction, although they might try to save the roof. The American Family Insurance Amphitheater will have the same footprint and be in the same location with the same number of seats. There are only so many changes that can be made to a patch of lawn that seats 5,000, and the emphasis will be on “customer-facing technologies and amenities,” he said.

The customers include performers, Smiley made it clear, pointing out that Summerfest competes globally, nationally, regionally and locally for the entertainment that represents a $187 million annual contribution to the regional economy. The needs of musicians and their crews have expanded considerably as performances have grown more complex. It takes a lot more than just a wig, an outfit and a microphone to get Cher on stage these days, and mega superstars don’t care to lounge backstage at picnic tables in cinderblock rooms. Construction is scheduled for 2019-2020.

In response to a question from Urban Milwaukee, Smiley said that news of the new amphitheater will spread very quickly in the entertainment industry, and should give him negotiating power when it comes to signing the big acts.

New North Gate

Smiley also showed off a preliminary rendering by Eppstein Uhen Architects of the North Gate, which is the Summerfest entrance closest to Downtown. It was last reconstructed in the early 1990s, when the infrastructure of Henry W. Maier Festival Park was rather rudimentary, with many wooden sheds in abundance; some even serving as bathroom facilities.

The rendering shows an elliptical structure that apparently is designed to complement the planned Gateway project that is to connect the grounds, the Milwaukee Art Museum, Discovery World and the new Couture building with Downtown, and to provide public spaces and amenities.


One thought on “Plenty of Horne: New Summerfest Name, New Amphitheater”

  1. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    At least the title still has the word Summerfest at its beginning (or no one would know what it is!). Great article, Michael Horne, with so much explanatory detail!

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