Mr. Festival

Mr. Festival

One man’s obsession with music, meetups and mirth. And how he’s attended hundreds of days of Summerfest.

This article appears in our 2012 City Guide issue. Click here to subscribe.

Photo by Adam Ryan Morris, illustration by
Kathryn Lavey

Nearly four decades later, the mud is still figuratively fresh. Jeff Wilcott’s shoes were covered in it. Pants, too. And his shirt was spattered with dollops of slop.

It was July 3, 1975. He’d gone to his second Summerfest to see the Beach Boys and left with this impromptu spa treatment. Back then, Summerfest didn’t sport its familiar sea of blacktop, so when the rain was generous, so were the seas of mud. And on that July day, the sky was particularly generous. But few cared. “We were young, out there jumping on benches, listening to music we liked and getting wet,” Wilcott recalls. “And I thought, ‘Oh God, this is so cool.’”

For Wilcott, it was a complete about-face. Just two years earlier, he moved to Milwaukee, saw televised images of the festival’s Ferris wheel and dismissed it as a glorified fair. In ’74, he caved and sampled a handful of Summerfest days. But he needed the Beach Boys to fully come around and dig the Big Gig. The 62-year-old has barely missed a day since. Literally.

Any day the fest’s gates are open, barring unforeseen circumstances, he’s walking through them. “It’s my favorite thing to do,” says Wilcott, who’s on track to pass the 400-day mark this summer. “It’s live music, and I love it. And it’s even nicer if it’s outdoors.” He’s a walking, breathing Summerfest advertisement, right down to his hearing aids. He owns a ball cap covered in pins from Summerfest and the other area festivals he frequents. He even speaks with the speed of someone giving commercial legal disclaimers. And if you squint, the combination of his thin, weathered face and mop of brown hair brings to mind Mick Jagger.

Wilcott missed Summerfest’s infancy – its 1968 debut at sites scattered about Milwaukee, its 1970 migration to the lakefront and those early-1970s growing pains, infamous George Carlin arrest included. But since that seminal experience in 1975, Wilcott has grown up right alongside the World’s Largest Music Festival, which marks its 45th season this year.

He’s seen the vast infrastructure improvements, the mud disappear under pavement and the number of stages grow to 11. He’s watched the beer stands exchange their flimsy tarp roofs for permanent structures, and he’s waved farewell to the Ferris wheel. He’s heard the music sail far away from acts like the U.S. Navy Steel Band and arrive at today’s modern mix.

If Wilcott’s memory and calculations are accurate, he’s attended 394 days of Summerfest. And the man makes his living as a certified public accountant. “I could’ve missed four or five days in the mid-’70s and don’t remember,” he concedes. “But I know from the late ’70s on, I’m solid. I’ve missed 13 days.”

There was opening day in 1986, nixed because his CPA review class went long. “The instructor wouldn’t shut up.” There were two Mondays in the 1990s when his office computer systems crashed. “I couldn’t quit. No one would’ve gotten paid.”

 There was the Fourth of July when a friend drove him to a party in Port Washington, then wouldn’t leave. “I didn’t want to pay a couple hundred bucks for a cab.” One day, the Summerfest grounds flooded, and no one else was allowed in. Twice, he was sick. Another time, he just couldn’t make it down to the lake. And for five days in 2004, well, there was the cancer.

It was Hodgkin’s. Wilcott runs a hand along the right side of his face, just in front of the ear, to show where doctors cut him open that February and removed part of a gland. Radiation treatment followed, running through March and into April, and his 5-foot-8 frame withered from 160 pounds to 130. When Summerfest arrived in June, his strength hadn’t fully returned, and some days, he was just too tired to attend. “I sat on my deck so I could hear some of it, and I felt bad I wasn’t going.”

The next year, he was back, bouncing from stage to stage, band to band, always finding something worth seeing. Often, he’s close enough to the stage to become part of the show. Which happened back in 1978. He was in the front row at the Pabst Stage, singing along with the Sound of the Coasters, when the frontman put the microphone in his face. “I started singing,” he says. “I knew the words, so he let me finish the whole rest of the song.” By the time he met up with friends at his neighborhood bar, they’d exaggerated the tale and had him finishing the whole show.

These experiences have helped Wilcott forge strong opinions of his beloved obsession. He’s not big on seeing children at late-night shows. “A couple years ago, 11 at night, people are jumping to the music, and a lady’s telling them to stop because they’re disturbing her kid,” he recalls. “It’s 11 at night, lady. The kid doesn’t belong here.” And he has no patience for people’s complaints about acts that don’t fit their favorite genre. “If they only catered to one type of person, Summerfest couldn’t be financially successful. Shut up. It’s a bargain.”

His festival love doesn’t stop when Summerfest does. Pick an area festival – be it ethnic, church or otherwise – and you can meet him there. “Sometimes you think there’s two or three Jeffs because he’s everywhere,” says friend Ellen Angelo, who calls him “The Ambassador of Milwaukee.” His passion for other events doesn’t quite reach the everyday extent of Summerfest, but it’s big enough for Wilcott to boast of knowing everything that’s going on every weekend. A couple years ago, friend Sue Zuelke put him up to it and asked that he send emails detailing what’s happening in the area. Challenge accepted.

Now, what once was a few words distributed to a few friends has grown into a weekly year-round email sent to 100 people, who pass it along to their friends. Wilcott estimates a readership of 300. An early-April edition featured a countdown to festival season, off-color quips, and events ranging from Easter egg hunts to sporting events to bands at bars like the Milwaukee Ale House.

That’s where he and some friends are on an April weekend, passing time until festival season by listening to The Jimmys blast bluesy funk. Most of the friends, like Wilcott, are in their 60s. And most, like Wilcott, are single. “Never been married,” he says. “If I met the right woman, fine. Nothing against it.”

Tonight, he’s dancing with a woman named Maureen who’s over 50 but going on 22. Friends warn that Wilcott’s been known to do the splits, but that move doesn’t materialize. Maybe because he’s holding a Miller. Still, Jagger might approve of his downward shimmies and shaking hips. He sets the beer on a nearby table and waves his hands high over his head, then thrusts them down with force.

It’s a preview of what he’ll be doing for 11 days starting June 27, and definitely July 1, when the Beach Boys play their first Summerfest since that mud-caked 1975 gig. Wilcott will be on the grounds, perhaps even in the Marcus for the reunion show, and no doubt thinking it’s all still so cool.



Howie Magner is a former managing editor of Milwaukee Magazine who often writes about sports for the magazine.