Remembering Children’s Fest Day at Summerfest

June 9, 2022

By Bobby Tanzilo

This piece is exclusive to Milwaukee Recreation and cannot be reproduced elsewhere without permission.

Since its earliest days, Summerfest has included young Milwaukeeans in its programming and in 2021, it collaborated with Northwestern Mutual to create a massive overhaul of the children’s area at the Henry Maier Festival Park.

For many years, the festival collaborated with Milwaukee Recreation, a department of Milwaukee Public Schools, to bring summer fun to Milwaukee children.

For nine years, that was manifested in the annual Children’s Fest, which took place on the lakefront festival grounds in late July, before Summerfest brought the programming in-house and integrated it into the 11-day festival in late June and early July.

“With all the ethnic festivals at the Summerfest grounds we felt that at least one day in the summer should be dedicated just to children,” recalled Milwaukee Recreation resource staffer Rick Knack.

“(The goal was) to bring children from across the city to one place for a day of fun, games and attractions free of charge.”

To use 1990 as an example, organizers– Milwaukee Recreation and the Metro Area Park and Recreation Departments, Milwaukee Safety Commision, Summerfest and WTMJ-TV, Channel 4 – expected 25,000 attendees, along with another 600 to 1,000 who would attend the Aug. 1 event via Milwaukee Public Schools.

Gates opened at 10 a.m., for what was planned to be, “free, high quality, safe and wholesome recreational and educational activities for children 4-12 years of age from Southeastern Wisconsin communities and participating agencies at the Henry W. Maier Festival Park.”

There would be active games, like bowling, foursquare, scooter rides and two that are new to me: Doghouse and Earthball.

In addition, there would be an array of carnival games with a wide variety of prizes, and thanks to a surviving receipt, we know that hundreds and hundreds of those prizes were ordered, including 11 gross (a gross is 144) flutes, 15 gross Chinese yoyos, 20 gross ball and jacks, 30 gross super balls, 10 gross kazoos, 120 dozen bubbles and much more.

There were going to be appearances by familiar sports mascots, ice sculpting (in July!), a soccer demonstration, face painting and a LEGO display, and no fewer than 12,000 free half-pints of milk were to be distributed.

Performers included the Children’s Theater of Wauwatosa, Friends of Mime Theater, Travelcast Players, Professor Foolzum Magic Show, The Fabulous Feno, Kids Korps, Betty Salamun’s Dance Circus, West Bend Dance Tumbling Troupe, B-Boys Dance Ensemble, Willy Y’s Workout for Kids, Ron Fable and Kathie Magic Show, Sunshine Generation, Accompany of Kids, David Drake, Chuck E. Cheese and Friends and Milwaukee Recreation’s Trailer Theatre.

Performances would take place on stages near the Pavilion Tent (which housed the exhibits), the ethnic village (where the Trailer Theater set up), at the front and back of the central fountain area, in the lost children area, the sports area, at the Miller Gazebo, the Rainbow Tent Stage, the Children’s Stage and on the Pabst and Miller Stages.

There were also safety displays including a race car from Arie Luyendyke, Excalibur and Wally Rank and a Coast Guard helicopter, North Shore Fire Safety Home, Safety Tom and Big Boy Manners.

The event was a popular one, Knack recalled, “particularly because we closed down our citywide playground program for the day so all the staff could work the games and attractions and all the children who would usually be at those playgrounds were bused to the Summerfest grounds to participate.

“I remember the look of excitement and the smiles on the faces of the children,” he says. “But I most remember the carnival games area where most of the playground staff worked that day. They ran the games and gave out candy and prizes to the kids, while my job was to make sure that any game that ran low on prizes was supplied with more.

“I did a lot of running around to accomplish that but I couldn’t help but marvel at how the staff ran those games for 4-5 hours on a hot summer day and all the while gave smiles and encouragement to the kids playing the games. Those were some dedicated people.”

According to former Milwaukee Recreation director Mike Magulski, the relationship between Milwaukee Recreation and Summerfest was a long one and went back much earlier than the debut of Children’s Fest Day.

“When Summerfest moved to the original grounds in 1971, we were asked if we could participate in offering some type of programming,” he recalls. “We provided supervision in the children’s play area and staged performances with the children’s summer theater mobile unit.”

In 1973, as an example of the partnership, Milwaukee Recreation brought its Enviro-Mobile and Starwagon to the grounds for the entire run of the festival and also ran multiple shows each day from its Trailer Theater and Puppet Theater.

There were five-day tennis clinics and three-day basketball clinics, too, with more than 500 participants. Two track meets drew nearly 1,000 entrants and there was adult couples’ volleyball and the Golden Age Program even hosted a Grandparents’ Day for 500 attendees.

With more than 13,000 folks taking part in the Milwaukee Rec programming, a dedicated children’s event seemed like a natural progression.

Later, when, in 1984, Bo Black became executive director of the festival, that next step was taken.

“When Bo Black became executive director,” Magulski says, “I served on the Summerfest task force. The notion of Children’s Fest Day grew out of this collaboration.

“Bo (Black) liked the idea of organizing this event because it would make the grounds available to children and extend the services already provided by Summerfest. After developing the concept, we then invited other recreation departments to join us. Everyone loved the idea, and virtually every local suburban recreation department participated, including Cudahy, South Milwaukee, Wauwatosa, West Allis, and several others.”

After an initial burst of popularity, Children’s Fest Day attendance began to level off, according to Rick Knack.

“It began its decline at about the same time the playground program itself was greatly reduced and replaced by organized child care,” he says.“The fewer playgrounds we had, the fewer kids attended the event.”

The final Children’s Fest Day was held on Wednesday, July 28, 1993.

“For a time there wasn’t a Children’s Fest until Summerfest revived it in its current form,” said Knack. “Where the original Children’s Fest Day was held separately with the entire grounds hosting only that event, today’s children’s day is held as part of the overall Summerfest.”

The following year, Summerfest hosted its own children’sdayonJune26, during its festival run.

Gone were the days when tens of thousands of kids would get their own special day at the lakefront.

During its brief run, Children’s Fest Day was, as Gary Coplien – then-manager of MPS Recreation Department operations – told the Milwaukee Journal in 1992, “good, clean wholesome fun. We want(ed) to provide an activity that is children-oriented… no teenagers.

We don’t have enough activities to satisfy everyone at once,” Coplien remarked, noting that 30,000 kids had attended the previous year. “It does take up time (waiting in lines). But it doesn’t seem to have much effect on people. Thirty-thousand is almost too many people in one day, especially when most are under 3 feet tall.

“It’s a fun day,” he added. “It’s great to see a lot of smiling faces.”