Summerfest unveils plans for new main stage sponsored by American Family

Will replace the Marcus Amphitheater

A rendering of the planned American Family Insurance Amphitheater prepared by Eppstein Uhen Architects.

Milwaukee World Festival, Inc., the nonprofit organization that runs Summerfest, released plans this morning to replace the Marcus Amphitheater at Henry Maier Festival Park with a new main stage sponsored by Madison-based American Family Insurance.

The Marcus Amphitheater, which was completed in 1987 and cost $12 million to build, is the largest stage on the Summerfest grounds and seats around 23,000 people. The new amphitheater, to be called the American Family Insurance Amphitheater, also will seat about 23,000 people, said chairman Ted Kellner at an announcement this morning.

Milwaukee World Festival President and Chief Executive Officer Don Smiley estimated the new amphitheater will cost between $30 million and $35 million to build. Smiley said the organization is tentatively planning to select a contractor and begin construction in 2019.

Milwaukee-based Eppstein Uhen Architects is designing the new amphitheater, which Smiley said may incorporate the current Marcus Amphitheater’s roof, although final construction and design plans have not yet been determined.

The new 10-year partnership with American Family Insurance will also include three other components: The name of the festival will be modified to Summerfest presented by American Family Insurance; a new north gate community plaza will be constructed to connect the north end of the grounds to downtown, which is expected to be completed for the 2018 festival; and Summerfest and American Family will support an educational program in Milwaukee.

Don Smiley, left, presents Greg Marcus, center, with a microphone statue while Marcus shakes hands with Ted Kellner.
Don Smiley, left, presents Greg Marcus, center, with a microphone statue while Marcus shakes hands with Ted Kellner during the announcement Thursday morning.

The new partnership will put an end to the Marcus Corporation’s decades-long sponsorship of the Big Gig’s biggest stage. Marcus Corp. President and CEO Greg Marcus spoke during the announcement and said he understood it was “time to give up naming rights,” when Milwaukee World Festival Board of Directors Chairman Ted Kellner told him about American Family’s sponsorship offer.

“When Ted came to us and said ‘we’ve got this great opportunity and we want to put a new name on the amphitheater,’ we completely understood,” Marcus said. “It’s bittersweet that we’re moving on from here, I’m not going to lie, but we understand how important it is to the community.”

Smiley presented Marcus a microphone statue during the announcement in honor of the Marcus family’s support of the festival over the last five decades.

BizTimes broke the news in June 2016 that Milwaukee World Festival planned to replace the amphitheater. At the time, few details were available about the organizations plans, but Milwaukee World Festival President and Chief Executive Officer Don Smiley did say it was unlikely the new stage would be significantly larger than the current amphitheater.

The Marcus Amphitheater at Henry Maier Festival Park.
The Marcus Amphitheater at Henry Maier Festival Park.

“I think it’s a pretty good size: 18,000 seats plus 5,000 lawn seats,” Smiley said in June. “When you have a big, huge, mega-superstar, they can sell all 23,000 seats. Not many can. On other nights, when you have 15-, 16-, 17,000 people, the house still looks dressed; it looks full. So if you make it too big, there’s not that many artists that can sell that many tickets.”

The Marcus Amphitheater’s steep vertical seating rise has long been a selling point used by Summerfest’s booking agents to attract headliners, according to vice president of entertainment Bob Babisch. Its design was instrumental in booking acts such as Prince, The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney, he told BizTimes in a cover story published in June that examined the behind-the-scenes work that goes into organizing the festival each year.

“They loved the building because it rakes up real fast (in seating steepness) for an amphitheater,” Babisch said in June. “The selling point is, when you’re onstage and you’re at a sold out show, you feel like the audience is right on top of you.”

Smiley said in June the Marcus Amphitheater was nearing the end of its useful lifespan.

The Henry Maier Festival grounds have undergone millions of dollars worth of capital improvement projects since Smiley took over as CEO of Milwaukee World Festival in June 2004. The organization leases the festival grounds from the city through the board of harbor commissioners.

The group has completed $65 million in improvements since 2004, including a $35 million construction project from 2010 to 2012 that renovated the South Gate and box office, the Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard stage and the waterfront BMO Harris Pavilion stage.

Milwaukee World Festival leaders also announced in December a new U.S. Cellular stage is going to be built on the north end of the fairgrounds to replace the existing U.S. Cellular stage. Construction for that project is expected to be completed by 2018.

Milwaukee World Festival is also doing a major renovation to the Miller Lite Oasis.

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Ben Stanley, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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