As can be expected for a place with the “City Of Festivals” nickname, Milwaukee isn’t exactly hurting for fun, unique, and downright strange events. Though residents always seem open to getting out and celebrating almost anything, not all Milwaukee festivals are able to weather the storm. Whether a case of poor attendance, organizers focusing their energy on other endeavors, or having to vie for limited local attention with dozens of other events, not all fests make it. Despite still having more of them than we know what to do with, here are some bygone festivals we miss.
African World Festival
After being a fixture on they city’s festival calendar for years, African World Festival organizers decided to cancel 2014’s and 2015’s festivities. African World Festival board president Mark Wade pointed to lack of sponsors, poor ticket sales, and too much focus on entertainment as some of the reasons the event struggled. Still, organizers promised African World Festival would return in full force in 2016. Sadly, that promise never came to fruition and Milwaukee will be without African World Festival for the third straight August.
Arab World Fest
After being on hiatus in 2011 and 2012, then cancelling last 2013’s affair because it overlapped with Ramadan holy observances, Arab World Festival returned in 2014 before promptly cancelling 2015’s festival and calling it quits altogether this year, citing low numbers of volunteers and commitments of organizers. The celebration of 22 Arab countries offered a vibrant marketplace of clothing and handmade accessories, traditional food, camel rides, art exhibits, an Arabic-themed film festival, and even rentable hookahs in early August.
If we’re being technical, this one never actually happened, but it had the makings of a wondrous event. In November 2014, evil triumphed and good was vanquished. We’re talking, of course, about the cancelation of what would have been the inaugural Awesome Con Milwaukee. The convention, which was scheduled for November 21-23 at the downtown Wisconsin Center, was to feature a host of geek-friendly panels and events, as well as celebrity guests like Casper Van Dien (Starship Troopers), John DiMaggio (the voice of Futurama‘s Bender and Adventure Time‘s Jake The Dog), and Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters). Citing sales that fell short of expectations, national organizer Ben Penrod decided to pull the plug.
Bay View Wine Fest
Fine wines improve with age; sadly, the same couldn’t be said for the Bay View Wine Festival. From 2005-2015, the wine, beer, and food-tasting event was a welcome, upscale staple in the neighborhood. 2016’s event was canceled, though the fest’s website notes organizers “hope to bring back the wine fest at a new location in Bay View in 2017.”
Started by Riverwest troubadour and Breadking Collective co-founder Myles Coyne in 2013, Breadfest was the epitome of a DIY music festival. The undertaking was originally started as a way to give local bands that were snubbed by Summerfest a place to play when the Big Gig was doing its thing; it moved to late July and early August in 2014 and 2015. The largely localized festival isn’t over per se, but Coyne—citing the growing number of local festival, as well as his “swamped” summer playing with Ladders, Brett Newski, and Hayward Williams—tells us he’ll push the date for Breadfest 4 back into fall and reduce it to two days (down from four) if he does it again.
With the intention of celebrating punk and hardcore bands based in the Central time zone, Direct Hit! singer-guitarist Nick Woods spearheaded the inaugural Dummerfest in 2015. On the first day of summer, 12 bands descended upon The Metal Grill in Cudahy for a half-day of all-ages fun, featuring 88 Fingers Louie, Masked Intruder, PEARS, Meat Wave, Tenement, a Juiceboxxx full-band set, Direct Hit!, a Get Rad reunion show, and more. Even accounting for a guy lighting his shirt on fire while he was still wearing it, the first Dummerfest was a huge success, but the festival was put on hold this year because Woods’ band is kind of busy putting out a tremendous album on Fat Wreck Chords and opening for the likes of NOFX and Blink-182.
Eastside Music Tour
In March 2013, Eastside Music Tour—a venture spearheaded by Art Milwaukee, a division of NEWaukee—invigorated Milwaukee with a one-day cure for cabin fever and placemade the shit out of Brady Street with 50-plus local acts crammed into countless bar- and shops-turned-venues on and around the East Side main drag. Thanks to a good lineup and a modest $15 cover, the inaugural “tour” sold out, making a return a no-brainer. Enter Mother Nature. A snow storm and a lack of parking (East Side is in the name, after all) brought fewer people out for round two, despite noted national headliners Why? and P.O.S joining an even larger accumulation of artists. Unwilling to put the massive undertaking into the hands of the city’s unpredictable winter conditions, Eastside Music Tour was rumored to be planned for last fall, but that show never materialized. With a quiet year, the future of what could be NEWaukee’s coolest event to date looks bleak.
Fantasticon’s one-and-done attempt can be blamed on a lot of things. Did the 2014 event’s lack of success have anything to do with Firefly‘s Adam Baldwin dropping out? Did the event’s unsavory airport-adjacent location impact attendance? Is it possible that Milwaukee simply doesn’t have what it takes to adequately support a Con? Sadly, the answer to all three questions is probably yes.
Kramp & Adler Comedy Festival
Say what you want about FM102.1’s Offspring-heavy music rotation and its tired morning zoo format, but the station sets itself apart from many of its contemporaries in the struggling medium by being on a very short list of Milwaukee media outlets that gives more than cursory coverage to stand-up comedy. For a short time, that commitment was displayed annually during the short-lived Kramp & Adler Comedy Festival that allowed the eponymous disc jockeys to recruit up-and-coming touring comics to perform at Turner Hall. The last single-show “festival” was in 2012, as Brian Kramp lost his job in 2013. While brief, the duo’s show booked a heft of humorists that went on to become household names, such as Nick Kroll, Marc Maron, Kristen Schaal, Nick Thune, Wyatt Cenac, and Eugene Mirman. Not bad! Last October, the station revived the concept with “Adler’s Fall Comedy Classic,” in which Nikki Glaser stole the show and The Sklar Brothers did that one thing they always do moderately well.
Midwest Rock Festival
The “Summer of Love” may have been embodied by Woodstock, but in Milwaukee, it was given form by the Midwest Rock Festival. On July 25-27, 1969—three weeks before Woodstock—the State Fair grounds played host to groups like Joe Cocker, The First Edition (featuring Kenny Rogers), MC5, Jeff Beck, and Jethro Tull. Oh, and Led Zeppelin. Thunderstorms plagued most of the fest, and, according to the Journal Sentinel, organizers were forced to “cancel seven of the day’s 10 featured performances, including Jeff Beck and Jethro Tull.” A so-called Phase II of the Midwest Rock Festival was held on August 30 at County Stadium, and featured a headlining gig from Chuck Berry.
Rappers seem to get all the glory. But what about the talented musical minds who craft the beats behind those bars? In the early 2000s, DJ Jordan “Madhatter” Lee put together the first Miltown Beatdown to, as he said, “bridge the hyper-segregated Milwaukee music community.” Following a decade of evolution, experimentation, and friendly competition, Lee felt that mission was accomplished last fall, which led to his decision to pull the plug on the event last November after 10 strong years. Local hip-hop is currently experiencing a renaissance, and events like Miltown Beatdown are at least partially to thank.
Before it was angering some (and delighting others) with its Milwaukee Taco Fest, local party-planning organization SWARMM Events was busy with the Milwaukee Carnival, a food, music, and carnie-themed blowout held at Horny Goat Hideaway in 2013 and 2014. Though the fest claimed it was reviving a tradition that dated back to 1898, it didn’t last: a hiatus was announced in 2015, and nothing has been announced for 2016.
Milwaukee International Film Festival
The always-awesome Milwaukee Film Festival will celebrate its eighth birthday in 2016. MFF’s predecessor, however, the Milwaukee International Film Festival, dates back a few more years. Founded by Shepherd Express publisher Louis Fortis in 2003, MiFF trucked along nicely for four years until hitting a snag: namely, a falling out between Fortis and future County Exec Chris Abele, whose Argosy Foundation was a major financial sponsor of the fest. A lawsuit ensued, and Abele quickly created the Milwaukee (non-international) Film Festival. And in an incredible coincidence, the Shepherd spent the next eight years relentlessly attacking Abele, who had once been named their “Milwaukeean of the Year.” Weird!
Milwaukee Midsummer Festival
Everything comes from something else—even an event as big and seemingly ageless as Summerfest. Way back in 1933, Milwaukee Mayor Daniel Hoan planted the seeds of the Big Gig with the so-called “Milwaukee Homecoming,” a low-budget (and free) fest on the city’s lakefront. Music, beer, fireworks, and “ethnic” festivities were all included—in other words, everything that’s included at today’s summer lakefront festivals, give or take David Seebach’s Wonders of Magic show. The event was renamed the Milwaukee Midsummer Festival in 1935. It ran until 1941.
M’WOKY Pops Festival
Say what you will about the music lineups of today’s summer festivals, but back in 1969, Milwaukee could do no wrong. On June 22 of that year, two months before the already-stacked Midwest Rock Festival, local Top 40 radio station WOKY-AM put on the M’WOKY Pops Festival at County Stadium. The Monkees (!), Stevie Wonder, the Guess Who, and more were on the bill. Nearly 30,000 fans turned out for the action. The fest ran for two more years, and attracted names like the Supremes, Bread, and Lobo.
Downtown’s RiverSplash was a trusted Milwaukee summer festival staple for 20 years, showcasing the city’s gorgeous Riverwalk and treating Milwaukeeans to free entertainment, food, beer, and the like. But as the fest grew so too did its problems. Bad weather dampened fest-goers’ spirits for a few years, and, sadly, a 2008 shooting set the city on edge. Though RiverSplash soldiered on in 2009, it’s reputation was in ruins; citing “challenging economic times combined with increasing administrative and operative costs,” organizers put the fest to rest after two decades.
Riverwest Fest was founded in 2010 by then-Cougar Den drummer and all-around Milwaukee music treasure Kelsey Kaufmann before she was even old enough to drink. She says she started it to “build community, garner attention for the lack of all-ages venues, and raise money for renovations for Jackpot Gallery and Eagle’s Nest.” Some unrelated life events and a departure from the neighborhood ultimately spelled an end to Kaufmann booking the grassroots festival in December 2012. Despite the three-year-old event’s abrupt end, the spirit of Riverwest Fest lives on. Arte Para Todos founder Josh Evert says he blatantly ripped off Kaufmann’s concept when planning his benefit, much to Milwaukee’s delight.
While not technically in Milwaukee, Waukesha’s ill-fated Rockesha in 2014 deserves a spot on any list of infamous concerts—Milwaukee or otherwise. The lineup for the inaugural fest on the Waukesha County Expo Grounds featured such ’80s bowling-alley-rock staples as Warrant, Quiet Riot, Lita Ford, Firehouse, and one of the dudes from Mr. Big. But due to poor ticket sales, Rockesha was cancelled mid-show, with only the Mr. Big dude putting in a performance. Bizarre and strangely personal excuses were subsequently offered by the show’s promoter—ones involving a shady business partner, a $15,000 check hand-off at a fast food restaurant, and a suicide attempt—but Rockesha attendees were left with nothing more than a vague promise of a refund and a criminal lack of “Kiss Me Deadly.”
Verge Music Festival
In 2010, Summerfest organizers created an event set on getting festival goers an early start on celebrating at the Henry Maier grounds with Verge, a music festival with an alternative and indie rock bent. From June 4-5, a respectable assemblage of nationally known acts like Weezer, AFI, Cold War Kids, She & Him, and Eagles Of Death Metal were joined by locals such as The Wildbirds, The Championship, and Red Knife Lottery for two days of youth-targeted fun, complete with music, beer, and extreme sports. Poor weather and far shorter notice than its more established big brother brought disappointing sales and forced the Summerfest appetizer to take 2011 off, with a promise to return in 2012. It didn’t, which spelled a silent end to something that had the makings of an encouraging festival.