Milwaukeeans have been devoted to Summerfest for half of a century now. But some are more dedicated than others.
Summerfest is a pillar of the music festival scene. There are thousands of “festies” — people who attend most days of Summerfest every year. There are some who attend the festival every day and have been doing so for years.
These four Milwaukeeans got their first job at Summerfest and have stuck around — either at the fest or in the music business, returning to Henry Meier Park each July.
Vic Thomas has worked every year of Summerfest since 1974. He started out picking up garbage as part of the grounds crew. Now, he is the associate entertainment director, meaning that he helps book bands, hire stage managers, etc. As a young teenager, before he started working full-time during the 11-day festival, Thomas played cowbell for the Ko~Thi Dance Company. “I couldn’t sleep the night before. I was so excited to play Summerfest,” he says.
Why he started to love the job: “I played drums and I always had aspirations, and this has kind of always given me the ability to be involved in both music and the music business.”
What keeps bringing him back: “I think the thing that has always excited me is the pace. After I worked the first year of Summerfest, I swore that I would never come back here. That lasted for about a month or two. And after that, I couldn’t wait to get back.”
Sarah Smith Pancheri’s first job on the grounds was as an amphitheater usher. Now, she’s worked her way up to the vice president of sales and marketing. If you’ve encountered the Summerfest displays at any of the Pick ‘n Save locations around the state, she was the one heading that promotional effort, as well as the historical exhibit at the festival this year.
What makes Summerfest special: “The spirit of the festival. It really is a festival for the people. It’s incredible that Milwaukee has supported a music festival for 50 years.”
What keeps bringing her back: All of the big name acts. “You’ve got everything from Chuck Berry performing at Summerfest in the 1970s to Whitney Houston in 1987 to Lady Gaga two years ago,” she says.
Barbian has been spending his summers at Henry Meier Park since he was five. He started working there as a teenager and hasn’t missed a Summerfest in 13 years. He can be found working behind the scenes when Summerfest needs him to. That is, when he finds time between promoting concerts and running his own music festival in his new home of Austin, Texas.
What makes Summerfest special: “In this day and age, when festivals cost a couple hundred bucks, it’s impressive that Summerfest has maintained such a low price. Usually there’s a way to get in free or discounted every day.”
What keeps bringing him back: “Here’s the problem: the lineup is phenomenal,” he says. This year, Barbian is excited about rock shows on the free stages, namely Marcus King, Bright Light Social Hour and The Revivalists.
Dominique Bellamy started as a ticket usher in the amphitheater at age 15. During college, she was as an intern with the entertainment department. She hasn’t left the entertainment biz either. She was Beyoncé’s dressing room coordinator in Chicago, she orchestrated catering for the NFL Draft and she also works with Lollapalooza’s promoters and sponsors. She’s 28 now, but still comes back every summer to work Summerfest.
What makes Summerfest special: “I do a lot of festivals. But, man, 11 days is like no other.”
Favorite part about coming back: “We’re just family. It’s like going to summer camp every year. It’s the two to three weeks you get to come home and see your family. All of the stage managers, the older guys, are all my uncles. The interns get more fun every year, and you always remember when you were the intern.”