Maureen Bradley waved a hand toward the laid-back crowd of wine sippers at Pere Marquette Park for a River Rhythms concert in early June. She surveyed the serenity before her and asked, "If you can go to something like this, why mill around with 100,000 of your closest friends?"
It was her way of explaining why Summerfest doesn't see her coming around anymore.
The annual party we call Summerfest has 11 days of food, fireworks, shopping, martinis and 10 stages of non-stop music. They accept major credit cards. And did we mention they have martinis?
So what's not to like? For Bradley and other prodigal partyers, it's the crowds — and a few other things.
Understandably, Summerfest president Don Smiley would much rather talk about the 900,000 or so people who do come to the festival each year. Still, it's his job to bring people in, and that includes Summerfest dropouts — especially slightly older people, a group he has said he'd like to "re-invite" to the Big Gig. Last year he called them "people right in the sweet spot of life that have disposable income."
As he heads into the 39th Big Gig, Smiley qualifies that a bit.
"In a nutshell, we're interested in all groups," he says. "We pride ourselves on having music and entertainment that really is attractive to all demographics. Maybe I misrepresented what was on my mind . . . , but it just felt very, very young when I showed up here in '04."
In contrast, much of this year's music is a boomer's dream, with Tom Petty, Paul Simon and Steely Dan among Marcus Amphitheater headliners, and grounds stage shows by the likes of Elvis Costello and Ray Davies.
Still, what about those folks who've sworn off Summerfest for years? What has kept them away? And what would bring them back?
It's more like beer everywhere, says 23-year-old Terrisha Randle. She doesn't go to Summerfest because she's "not a beer fan" and doesn't see the point in hanging out with people who "get sloppy drunk."
Same goes for Katelyn O'Neil, a 20-year-old University of Wisconsin-Green Bay student who hasn't been to Summerfest in three years.
"The drinking, the whole social scene, it's not me," she says. "Just regulate it a little better."
And 62-year-old Mike Toffler, who joined Bradley's party at River Rhythms, says he favors the crowds at Festa Italiana and other ethnic fests "because they're not stupidly drunk."
Keeping the drinking under control is a priority for Summerfest, Smiley says. All bartenders must complete a course on responsible serving.
"We want people to enjoy themselves but not get crazy intoxicated," Smiley says. "We'll cut them off."
But he notes that with crowds of up to 90,000 in a day, "it's going to happen here and there."
And, yes, about those crowds.
"We don't want to be trampled by hordes," says Bradley, who won't give her age but describes herself as a baby boomer.
"I just don't like to be shoulder-to-shoulder," says her pal Toffler.
"It's just too much," says grade-school teacher Lyn Lopez, 30. "It's too hard to walk around. It's not enjoyable because of the crowd — the real drunk, intoxicated late-night crowds."
Smiley agrees that bigger crowds aren't a measure of success for Summerfest. But he adds, "It is the world's largest music festival. We are going to draw crowds."
If that's an issue for you, come before 6 p.m. "There's plenty of room to enjoy the grounds," he says.
Staggered start times
Summerfest is always considering the crowd issue, he says. He notes that the new Miller Lite Oasis area not only has better sight lines, new lighting and sound, but is better positioned to avoid "bottlenecking."
Last year Summerfest began to stagger the start times of acts so people didn't all try to get off the grounds at once. Some of this year's headliners have earlier start times, too, particularly on Sunday nights, when people are mindful of the work week ahead.
That's good news for Sandy Manthei, 53, a Thiensville resident who once went to Summerfest "probably 10 out of 11 days." She hasn't been there in four years.
"Most of the main side stage acts start at 10, so it's just not convenient enough," she says. She'd like to see an 8 p.m. start time so she's not tired for work the next day. And she'll find that this year.
And of course, with any music festival, the quality of the acts is always a point of contention.
"Last year they didn't have anyone I wanted to see," Randle says. She'd go to Summerfest if it had rapper T.I. or R&B singer Keyshia Cole, she said.
"If they had more popular music; I'd like to see the Spill Canvas and Damien Rice," O'Neil says. In her view, Summerfest seems to "get bands popular five years ago." She calls them "I remember them" bands.
"They should have more new, up-and-coming people," she said.
To Bradley, it's just the opposite. "It's really geared toward young people," she says. "They could have one night that's just reserved for the middle-agers. Bring in Diana Krall, Peter Cincotti, Michael Bublé."
Music and money
For 40-year-old Angela Hayes of Shorewood, it's about both music and money.
"I'd pay the high admission price (and) deal with the parking if there were musical acts I wanted to see," Hayes says. "I feel it's too pop-based, too popular and mainstream. I would deal with the crowds to see Tori Amos, Joe Jackson or the Producers" (a college circuit band from a few years back).
Her husband, Nick Hayes, 44, explains their absence this way:
"We're just past that age group that seems to be targeted by the place. Loved it, did it when we were kids, but now we have kids," he says. "We would pack up our kids and take them down there if music from our genre was being played or if it were fun for kids. That's where we are in life."
Summerfest entertainment director Bob Babisch thinks people get an impression of the lineup one year and tend to stick with it. He's surprised at Randle's comment about the lack of rap and hip-hop.
"There's all kinds of good stuff — Anthony Hamilton, Chris Brown, Common, Mary J. Blige," he says. He concedes that there's no "hard-core hip-hop" but says he's not sure it would fly at Summerfest. "You have a situation where you have families," he says.
Of Bradley's belief that Summerfest is aimed at the young, he says, "She has to go look at our schedule." He rattled off acts that would appeal to boomers: Davies, Creedence Clearwater Revisited, Foreigner.
Bookings depend on who is touring and whether they fit into the 11-day window of Summerfest. Babisch says he tried for both Cole and Bublé but they weren't available.
"We put a little puzzle together here," he says. "You try to make it as eclectic as possible."
As for ticket prices, Smiley points out that the $15 ticket price (up from $12) applies only on weeknights and weekends at the gate. From noon to 4 p.m. weekdays, adults pay $8 at the gate (and that's reduced from the $12 it had been). Besides, if you plan a bit you can get in free on special admission days, he says.
But in the end, Smiley knows he can't bring every one-time Summerfester back.
"Some of those people, you'll never turn 'em around," he says. "They just don't want to get in the car."