The countdown is on! Starting on Memorial Day and ending at the stroke of midnight on Labor Day, there are exactly 99 days to celebrate the warm weather and feeling of boundless possibility that accompanies it. Now’s the time to celebrate, luxuriate, relax, cut loose and enjoy. Read on for our ideas on how to maximize the 2,376 hours of summer.
Do Summerfest like a rock star[toggler title=”CLICK TO EXPAND: Trapper Schoepp has a busy season ahead, but one date stands out. ” ]
— Lindsey Anderson
And though the 29-year-old troubadour is definitely psyched about playing the Big Gig, he admits that the thrill of touring wore off at some point during his recent trip to Europe, where he played several nights a week for nearly two months. “The first day there I hit a dumpster with my rental car because I wasn’t used to driving on the other side of the road,” he says. “Later, the cops searched that same car for drugs.”
Schoepp is back stateside for now, but he’s not about to take a break. He released his third album, Primetime Illusion, earlier this year and will be touring to promote the record for many months to come. Opening for Willie Nelson – and a slew of other folksy legends – at the Outlaw Music Festival at Summerfest is a highlight of his summer.
“My first time in Milwaukee was seeing Wilco at Summerfest in 2006,” says the former resident of Ellsworth, in western Wisconsin. “Summerfest is a bit of a gateway for out-of-towners to get a taste of the city. That one positive experience hooked me on the city.”[alert type=white ]FOR MORE on Schoepp’s latest album, and his collaboration with Bob Dylan, visit milwaukeemag.com/
Trapper’s Big Gig Best Bets
“She has a soaring voice and won a load of Grammys this year.”
BMO Harris Pavilion, June 28
Carlile dropped out of high school to pursue a career as a musician. She sold more than half a million copies of her 2017 album, proving in the process that sometimes taking a huge risk really can pay off.
“We’re kicking off Willie Nelson’s Outlaw road show, which is our first time at the amphitheater. It’s a mix of some of the best Americana acts classic and current, so it’s an honor to say the least.”
American Family Insurance Amphitheater, June 29
Conceived by Willie Nelson in 2016, the festival within a festival first came to the Big Gig in 2017. And it’s back by popular demand again this year, with A-list acts like Phil Lesh and Friends, The Avett Brothers, Alison Krauss, Counting Crows and Dawes.
Performers who make Summerfest more local
“Summerfest does an ace job of lifting Milwaukee acts up.”
American Family Insurance Amphitheater, June 29
The Milwaukee-born synth-pop band Ggoolldd has now received radio play around the country and will be a Johnson Controls Stage headliner. Other homegrown acts include The Squeezettes, Faux Fiction and Paul Cebar Tomorrow Sound.
Hop On & Explore[toggler title=”CLICK TO EXPAND: Use a new chapter in MKE’s history (The Hop) to delve into its past.” ]
— Anna Lardinois1. BURNS COMMONS
Before you board, check out this 1.5-acre county park. Created in 1847, the park features a statue of Robert Burns, a 1908 replica of the piece displayed in Kilmarnock, Scotland. Burns, celebrated as the Bard of Scotland, is best known for composing “Auld Lang Syne.”2. OGDEN AT ASTOR
Churches are everywhere in Milwaukee. At this stop, you’ll find two of particular interest: The First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee (1342 N. Astor St.) is an example neo-Gothic architecture completed in 1892. A block south is St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, a Richardsonian Romanesque-style construction with impressive Tiffany windows, including the largest ever created by the studio.3. CATHEDRAL SQUARE
A lot of history took place on this land, the site of Milwaukee’s first courthouse and jail and originally known as Courthouse Square. In 1854, imprisoned fugitive slave Joshua Glover was freed by a mob of 5,000 abolitionists opposed to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The land became a park in 1939, after the courthouse was razed. If you’re here on Saturday morning, visit the farmers market.4. CITY HALL
From its completion in 1895 until 1899, City Hall (200 E. Wells St.) was among the tallest buildings in the United States at 354 feet and remained Milwaukee’s tallest until 1973. Designed by H.C. Koch, the building houses an 11.5-ton bell named for Milwaukee’s first mayor, Solomon Juneau. On your way back to The Hop, swing by Fire Station 1 (784 N. Broadway). Founded in 1839 and in its current location since 1872, it’s the oldest company in the MFD.5. WISCONSIN AVENUE
Completed in 1892, the Romanesque revival U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building (517 E. Wisconsin Ave.) was designed by Treasury Department architect Willoughby J. Edbrooke. It originally served as the post office, courthouse and customs house. Lovers of Victorian architecture should stop by to see the building’s five-floor open atrium that is capped with a glass ceiling. Marble, mosaics and detailed ornamentation is everywhere in this gem!6. HISTORIC THIRD WARD
This neighborhood is Milwaukee’s oldest center of commerce and warehousing. If you’re ready for a snack or drink, you’ll find plenty to choose from here at the Public Market and beyond.7. INTERMODAL STATION
You’ve reached the end of the line for the Hop, but that doesn’t mean your exploration has to end. Board the Amtrak Hiawatha to Chicago and continue on![/toggler]
Plan a staycation[toggler title=”CLICK TO EXPAND: Spend a weekend discovering what’s new and hip – and explore a few classics, too.” ]
— Kristine Hansen
3 p.m. Check into Milwaukee’s newest (and only) arts hotel – Saint Kate, where even the lampshades are made by a local artist – and browse its Museum of Wisconsin Art outpost. Grab a flute of bubbles at Giggly Champagne & Wine Bar and scribble on drawing paper (from your room). You’re on vacation! 139 E. Kilbourn Ave., saintkatearts.com
5 p.m. You’ve always wanted to take The Hop? Hop on at Broadway and enjoy a free ride. Into history? See our Hop tour on page 47. thehopmke.com
6-7:30 p.m. Located in the Third Ward, Camp Bar’s newest sibling is Campsite 131, with fancy twig-motif white chandeliers, birch-trunk walls and a patio. Align yourself with the spirit of the decor with a Glamper Martini. 131 N. Jackson St., campbarmke.com
8-10 p.m. At View MKE’s tiered Back Yard in Brewers Hill, celebrate its second summer with killer Downtown Milwaukee skyline views at sunset, paired with indulgent eats like lamb ragu or octopus salad on the farm-to-table menu. 1818 N. Hubbard St., viewmke.com
10:30 p.m.-midnight You’ll find plenty of ways to entertain yourself at Punch Bowl Social. Located across from Fiserv Forum, it features bowling, table games, a vintage arcade and private karaoke rooms. 1122 N. Vel R. Phillips Ave., punchbowlsocial.com.
8:30-9:30 a.m. It’s hard to feel a lot of om when you’re hustling to and from the office or the kids’ activities. Yoga at Villa Terrace includes a Lake Michigan view (consider this your savasana). 2220 N. Terrace Ave., villaterrace.org
11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Pretend you’re in Miami Beach – not South Milwaukee – from the comfort of your cabana at Grant Park’s beach. And yes, you have a cabana boy (or girl) at your service. 100 Hawthorne Ave., South Milwaukee, bradfordbeachcabanas.com
1 p.m. Get a glimpse into lifestyles of Milwaukee’s rich and famous via Historic Milwaukee’s “North Point Mansions” walking tour, showcasing homes in the North Point neighborhood, including one designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. historicmilwaukee.org
4-6 p.m. Wave to the people as you (and up to four friends) cruise the Milwaukee River on a 1950s Glastron fiberglass boat. Retro Boat MKE’s two-hour rentals departing from the RiverWalk debut this summer. retroboatmke.com[/toggler]
Shop around[toggler title=”CLICK TO EXPAND: These locally owned boutiques, carefully curated by people in our community, stock everything you didn’t know you needed.” ]
— Jenna Kashou
401 E. Silver Spring Dr., Whitefish Bay
Whether you’re planning an urban adventure on the Oak Leaf Trail or traversing one of the national parks, Yellow Wood gear – high-end footwear and apparel for hiking, camping, climbing and more – has been tested by its friendly staff.
2635 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.
Rushmor has been slinging new and used vinyl for almost 50 years, specializing in indie and punk music from local and global musicians. The music-obsessed staff has plenty of recommendations, too.
805 N. 68th St., Wauwatosa
Half the fun of going to a toy shop is actually getting to play. At Ruckus & Glee, kids can test out the latest imagination-generating toys.
321 N. Broadway
Lela has an eclectic mix of designer and vintage styles for women of all ages. The engaging staff is always eager to help customers develop their personal styles – no pressure involved.
143 N. Broadway
Milworks stocks high-end, modern and rugged men’s apparel from brands like Filson, Levi’s and Wisconsin-made Thorogood boots. A collared shirt, raw denim and leather boots go a long way to make a man look polished.
1106 and 1110 S. First St.
These shops are chock-full of antiques and some strange treasures, too. Pluck a piece of art or an old sign off the wall to add to your collection.
907 W. National Ave.
Just when you thought you had too many Milwaukee T-shirts, the MilwaukeeHome Store moves into
a bigger storefront in Walker’s Point and comes out with fresh designs. There are hoodies, tanks and other accessories, too.
Lulu and Rocky’s Top Picks for Kids[toggler title=”CLICK TO EXPAND: These literary fox kit cousins have a knack for finding fun stuff to do, so we asked them to put together an itinerary.” ]
➸ Go to the Third Ward, where there’s a big market and lots of little shops. You can see a show or buy cool clothes.
➸ Head over to the RiverWalk, where you’ll find the very best place for a selfie: the Bronze Fonz. Ayyy!
➸ At Discovery World, learn about Lake Michigan, which is HUGE. You can even pet a big fish called a sturgeon.
➸ Nearby is the Milwaukee Art Museum. Rocky talked to a quiet janitor there. Turns out, he was a statue!
➸ A fish fry is a must. At Lakefront Brewery, everyone eats together at big, long tables.
➸ Northpoint Lighthouse is 84 steps tall. When you get to the top, look down and see teeny tiny Milwaukee.
➸ Veterans Park is a great place to smell the sunshine. Fly a kite, ride a boat, rollerskate or pedal a Surrey bike.
Chill Out[toggler title=”CLICK TO EXPAND: Eight creamy, cooling ways to beat the summer heat.” ]
— Ann Christenson1Tosa-made Scratch Ice Cream doesn’t hide its product under superfluous toppings. All you need is a crisp, homemade waffle cone. You won’t regret stuffing it with a scoop of salted caramel-waffle cone and another of Door County cherry. Find their scoop shop at Crossroads Collective. One to three scoops, $4-$6. (2238 N. Farwell Ave.) 2Leon’s, we bow to thee with a scoop of thick, nutty butter pecan in a cake cone. Two scoops? OK, twist our arm. Cones $2.12-$5.13. (3131 S. 27th St.) 3Don’s Diner takes over-the-top over the top with its ice cream shakes. Grab a friend and share a boozy chocolate-rum shake sprinkled with Oreo crumbs. And it’s crowned with a wedge of Oreo cheesecake! $12. (1100 S. First St.) 4Simple, fresh ingredients. Three words that define Pete’s Pops, whose avocado pop is creamy-lightly-sweet perfection on a stick. $2-$4. (3809 W. Vliet St.) 5Purple Door Ice Cream’s ice cream sandwich features two cookies from MKE’s Sugar and Flour Bakery and a great PD flavor. Can’t beat vanilla with chocolate chip cookies. (205 S. Second St.; Sherman Phoenix, 3536 W. Fond du Lac Ave.; and soon, Mequon Public Market, 6300 W. Mequon Rd.) 6The ultimate malt is heavy with extra malted milk powder. That creates the thick, sweet delight served at Tosa’s one-and-only Gilles. Try vanilla or hot fudge! $5-$7.50. (7515 W. Bluemound Rd.)
7The Mexican frozen mangonada is like a Slushie but it’s creamy and not as sweet. The fruity refreshment is packed with fresh chunks of mango, along with orange juice, a condiment called chamoy and chile-lime salt. It’s a specialty of La Michoacana. $5.50 or $6.50. (1224 S. Cesar Chavez Dr.) 8Don’t just get a sundae. Get a Special sundae, the majestic Kopp’s vanilla custard concoction topped with raspberry and pineapple sauces, sliced bananas, whole toasted pecans and hot fudge. $6.55. (7631 W. Layton Ave., Greenfield; 18880 W. Bluemound Rd., Brookfield; 5373 N. Port Washington Rd., Glendale)[/toggler]
Unplug[toggler title=”CLICK TO EXPAND: Stow away your smartphone and immerse yourself in a variety of experiences.” ]
— Adam Rogan
Instead of scrolling through Instagram for another hour, VISIT BLACK CAT ALLEY.
Consume a smorgasbord of street art (enter from Kenilworth Place near Axe MKE), then toss back a secretive spirit at adjacent Shanghai speakeasy.
Instead of blocking out the world with a pair of headphones, TAKE A MUSIC BREAK.
Every Wednesday, Hudson Business + Lounge (310 E. Buffalo St.) presents free “Jazz at Noon” concerts. On Thursdays, it’s Peck Pavilion (929 N. Water St.), with its lunchtime concert. And bring your PB&J to Steinway Piano Gallery of Milwaukee (11550 W. North Ave., Wauwatosa) on select Wednesdays at noon for its “Sandwich & a Steinway” shows.
Instead of playing Candy Crush, TEST YOUR SKILLS AT A BOARD GAME-FRIENDLY BAR.
At Oak & Shield Pub (600 E. Ogden Ave.) and Binary (9105 W. Lincoln Ave., West Allis), beer and burgers come with a side of gaming. For more relaxed gameplay, try to remember the rules of cribbage at Good City Brewing near Fiserv Forum (333 W. Juneau Ave.) or The Newport (939 E. Conway St., Bay View).
Instead of reading another Wiki article, TOUR MKE’S HISTORIC STATUES.
Try this three-mile beginners’ tour: Start with Honest Abe by the Milwaukee Art Museum, then walk or bike to East Kilbourn Avenue and North Cass Street and perch under the Birds of Knowledge of Good and Evil before waddling over to the mallard Gertie by the Wisconsin Avenue Bridge. See Gandhi in MacArthur Square and close with 1898’s Victorious Charge Civil War Memorial in Westown.
Instead of staying in with your Kindle, VISIT THE CENTRAL BRANCH OF THE PUBLIC LIBRARY.
Lose yourself in a book underneath the library’s 33,000-square-foot green roof. Or attend one of the twice-weekly tours of this vegetative space, rich with succulent plants.
Instead of stressing, START FLOATING.
The sensory deprivation chambers at Float Milwaukee (211 W. Freshwater Way) let you decompress (and de-stress) for up to 90 minutes in water treated with Epsom salts.
Instead of re-downloading Pokemon Go, EMBARK ON A TREASURE HUNT.
Look up a geocache online (ahead of time!), create a map of your own and go on the hunt with your phone turned off. Extra credit for using X to mark the spot and measuring the distance in paces.[/toggler]
Sweat It Out[toggler title=”CLICK TO EXPAND: Summer in MKE offers dozens of outdoor workout options. Find your path to fitness here.” ]
— Lindsey Anderson
Root, Root, Root for the Home Team…[toggler title=”CLICK TO EXPAND: … But which one? You already know the Brewers. Meet the Milkmen.” ]
— Tom Tolan
The Milwaukee Milkmen are part of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball, a league
that’s unaffliated with major league teams. They began play May 16, but their home opener is delayed until
June 24 (vs. the Gary SouthShore RailCats) because the cold winter slowed construction of their new stadium
in Franklin. Here’s how the new kids stack up against our town’s big-leaguers.
|Miller Park; capacity 41,900|
|Routine Field; capacity 4,000|
|Single-game prices are not fi xed. In late April, we found seats ranging from $6 to $200 apiece.|
|$9-$66, with top-end club seats including unlimited food and drink|
|Range from around $560,000 each for Brandon Woodruff and several other young players to $19 million for Ryan Braun. Total payroll is about $125 million.|
|The American Association has a team salary cap, and the average player makes about $1,600 per month during the season, with teams also putting up the players in housing, according to the league.|
|Miller Park offers ballpark classics like Johnsonville brats and Dippin’ Dots to local offerings like Zaffiro’s Pizza and Smoke Shack barbecue, new this year. Prices are … well, it’s a ballpark. At least you can still bring your own peanuts!|
|Many ticket options include concessions, like a hot dog and a beer or soda with a $13 bleacher seat or pricier tickets that include bottomless cups and all-you-can-eat offerings such as brisket, pulled chicken and mac and cheese.|
|The Brewers came within one game of the World Series last year and hope to again contend in the National League Central Division, which could well be the strongest division in MLB.|
On the Field
|The American Association says its teams would be competitive with minor league teams at the AA or AAA levels. As the league’s newest team, the Milkmen may or may not experience the growing pains common to expansion teams.|
|Milwaukee has fielded a baseball team named for its signature brewing industry as far back as 1902.|
|The Milkmen name was selected in a contest sponsored by the team, edging out the second-place Cropdusters.|
|Bernie Brewer is modeled after the mustachioed Milt Mason, who sat atop the County Stadium scoreboard for 40 days in 1970 – until the Brewers drew a crowd of 40,000.|
|The Milkmen mascots are a cattle couple – the guy a muscular sort named Bo Vine, the gal named Heifanie.|
Take a Walk on the Wild Side[toggler title=”CLICK TO EXPAND: There’s plenty of nature to observe, even in the center of the city.” ]
— Ken Leinbach
It usually goes unnoticed as we hustle and bustle about our human ways. But it abounds, even in the city: Nature! When one starts to pay attention, it’s impossible not to feel a sense of awe at the incredible complexity, beauty and rhythm of the natural parts of our urban landscape.
It has seasonal displays that can be pretty incredible. This time of year, there’s the 6-foot-high compass plant and its bright yellow, daisy-like flowers, attracting the similarly showy tiger swallowtail butterflies for feasts of nectar. In spring, the redhorse suckers climb the falls at Estabrook Park in flashes of determined silver; in fall, the chimney swifts congregate in black feathered funnel clouds that swoop into Milwaukee’s historic chimneys.
My favorite is watching the peregrine falcon as it dives at some 200 mph past the windows of our city’s skyscrapers. I’ve been in meetings where the whooshing flash goes by, followed by the slow flapping climb back up with pigeon in claw to feed the nestlings at the building’s top.
One of our many naturalists at the Urban Ecology Centers – or the many nature centers near our city – can help direct your attention to more nature in our midst, no matter what time of year. We love to share what we know.
Ken Leinbach’s Top Spots for the Urban Explorer
COYOTE HILL, RIVERSIDE PARK
Watching the sunset over the Milwaukee River and the St. Casimir steeple from the highest hill in the Milwaukee Rotary Centennial Arboretum, just west of the Urban Ecology Center, is a must.
THE 14-ACRE ISLAND IN THE MILWAUKEE RIVER
Few know about this public land and its large evergreen grove (rare in Milwaukee) and huge hollow willow tree. The island is reachable only by canoe or kayak; put in off of the Milwaukee River Parkway just north of Hampton Avenue.
The best experience for feeling the lake’s magnitude is walking over a quarter mile out into it on Government Pier near McKinley Beach. You may glimpse incredible wildlife emerging from the depths on fishing lines, or the rare snowy owl in the winter, and diving ducks the rest of the year.[/toggler]
Take a Nostalgic Trip[toggler title=”CLICK TO EXPAND: Memories of favorite summertime dishes from childhood” ]
— Ann Christenson
My childhood was marked by scorching, sunburned summers, heat that permeated the house, the kitchen being the stickiest spot of all. My mother, managing always to look put-together in her 1970s skorts and sleeveless cotton tops, based her food plans for the day on the temperature. If it wasn’t a day for lying around in front of a fan (not her, but us, her lazy kids), she might turn the oven on and bake. When blueberries were plentiful, she’d put together a coffeecake topped with a thick layer of streusel. More special were the days she’d sprinkle flour on a large wooden cutting board and roll out circles of smooth pastry for a blueberry pie. When the fruit-filled domes looked golden in the oven light, she’d pull them out to cool. In spots where she gently slit the top crust, the bubbling blueberry juice would dribble over the crust and sides of the Pyrex dish.
On the occasions when summer’s sweltering heat was broken by torrential storms (and trips to the basement during tornado warnings), our nightly family dinner might be cold “submarine” sandwiches or tuna pasta salad. Burgers on the Weber charcoal grill were a weekly routine, rain or shine. The foods that fueled my daydreams were low-brow culinary Americana, from the chocolate shell-encased Dairy Queen Dilly Bar to the jaw-straining double-patty Big Boy burger to a saltine-crust pizza slid inside a sweaty paper sleeve from the classic Zaffiro’s.
August would roar in, the hottest month, bringing a massive food project to our kitchen: pickle canning. My brothers and I were enlisted to clean the cukes before pickling. Leaning over the basement utility sink, we scrubbed tiny green gourds with a stiff brush under ice-cold water, leaving our palms frozen and raw. When my mom started the water-bath process, the stench of vinegar brine took over the house, sending us running outdoors.
Summer was the year’s great respite from winter, from homework, from the meatloaf and pot roasts I pulled every prank to avoid eating. I still crave those ritual summer foods, the flavor memories stored in my brain, the years making them ever sweeter.
Travel Back in Time With These Dining Options
The seasonal Nite Owl drive-in serves one of the best fast-food hamburgers in the city, opening each day at 11 a.m. and closing when the supply of ground beef (delivered fresh each morning) is all gone. No wonder the place is always mobbed. 830 E. Layton Ave.
Serving the trifecta of summer foods (frozen custard, burgers, hot dogs), 52-year-old Fred’s Custard and Grill keeps an under-the-radar existence in Washington Heights. But it’s Mecca if you’re one of Fred’s roast beef enthusiasts. 4726 W. Vliet St.
Lead-feet can make it down to Frank’s Diner in Kenosha in a half-hour, and it’s well worth the drive. Try the massive pancakes or the “garbage plate,” a filling platter of eggs, meat and such. The dining car was delivered by rail from New Jersey in 1926. 508 58th St., Kenosha[/toggler]
Explore Lesser Known Fests[toggler title=”CLICK TO EXPAND: Stray from the mainstream with these esoteric offerings.” ]
— Matt Hrodey
According to Dave Swanson, chef and owner of Braise, Milwaukee festivals often serve less-than-authentic food to attendees – even at large productions like Bastille Days, the annual French festival that takes over Downtown. “You’ll find anything but French food,” he says.
So several years ago, Swanson endeavored to start a small neighborhood festival with more deliberate food on Second Street in Walker’s Point, back before it was such a blazing hot spot in the city’s food scene. As a theme, he anointed garlic as the central ingredient, and everything bloomed from there: green garlic bloody marys, garlic cotton candy, Purple Door’s popular garlic ice cream. Garlic eaters waged battle over bowls of peeled cloves, and a vampire mingled with the crowd.
The little festival spread from a side street to Second Street itself and is gathering steam going into its eighth incarnation on June 23. Some 15-20 restaurants from inside and outside of Walker’s Point will sell garlic-inflected portions at $3-$6, and various local artisans and alcohol-makers will be on hand, including Milwaukee Brewing. A small stage will elevate two garlic-friendly bands and the radio partner, 91.7, and game-oriented people may choose to play Garlic Golf (putt-putt with a garlic bulb) and Garlic Plinko. There’ll also be a petting zoo organized by the Racine Zoo, for the young or young-at-heart.
To find out more, go to braiselocalfood.com.
More Lesser-Known Fests
When: June 8-9
Where: Downtown South Milwaukee
The people of South Milwaukee sure know how to have a good time. This two-day, polka-enhanced revelry will mark the birth of a bronze statue commemorating wrestler Reggie “Da Crusher” Lisowski.
Port Fish Day
When: July 20
Where: Port Washington
The “world’s largest one-day outdoor fish fry” is a massive celebration of fish, fun and music in an idyllic lakeside town. But please note this particular fish fry is on a Saturday.
Hip Hop Week
When: Aug. 19-25
Where: Various locations
2018’s inaugural Hip Hop Week was a striking success with performances, conversations and events all over town. Its theme this year will be “health, financial literacy and civic engagement.” Watch hiphopweekmke.com for more developments.
When: Sept. 21
Where: Henry W. Maier Festival Park
Sponsored by local Fromm Family Pet Food, Petfest transforms the grounds into a theme park for dogs and cats, with lure courses, dock diving, a Kitty City and more.[/toggler]
Hit the Town[toggler title=”CLICK TO EXPAND: Looking for a romantic way to unwind with Bae? Here are 16 date night (or day) ideas.” ]
Try to Set the Night on Fire[toggler title=”CLICK TO EXPAND: Meet the pyrotechnician behind some of the fireworks displays MKE is known for.” ]
— as told to Rich Rovito
Jeff Bartolotta, 59, is a pyrotechnician who creates choreography in the skies of southeastern Wisconsin. He led Bartolotta Fireworks Co., a business founded in Genesee Depot by his father, Sam, until 2017 when it became part of Michigan-based Wolverine Fireworks. Now with Wolverine, Bartolotta continues to put on shows from Festa Italiana and German Fest to weddings and winter carnivals.
I set off my first fireworks shell at a show in Sheboygan when I was 9 years old. I still remember what it felt like when that shell exploded. It knocked me on my ass! I didn’t want to do it again. My two older brothers said, “You’re getting back in there.” I did, and I’ve pretty much been doing it ever since.
That adrenaline rush gets in your blood. When you fire away, you feel the concussion when the shell comes out, you hear it. It’s like shooting a shotgun, but louder. And the smell? Everybody who does this loves that gunpowder.
If you don’t get nervous before a show – I don’t care what size it is – something is wrong. You are performing, and you never know if something is going to work the way it’s supposed to.
We look for things that can go wrong and plan for it. A shell can blow up inside a mortar – that creates a big mess – and we always monitor the weather. I’ve seen a whole fireworks display go up at once because a bolt of lightning came down. I’ve seen guys get hurt, burned.
There are still places doing shows manually, where you fire it up and walk away, but everything we do now is remote-controlled. We can be wherever we want and shoot the show. It’s much safer for the crew. We do a lot of shows on inland lakes. We used to run cables from a barge and through the water. Now, with wireless technology, you can sit in a boat and float around. When you hear the crowd cheering after a show, that’s your gratification. It’s still a thrill for me. I don’t think I’ll ever retire.
Booms on the Fourth – and Beyond
Henry W. Maier Festival Park
Henry W. Maier Festival Park
Downtown, great views from Veterans and Juneau parks
Henry W. Maier
Henry W. Maier Festival Park