Summerfest’s most talented booker Bob Babisch retires after 46 years

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After 46 years of booking the world’s biggest superstars at Milwaukee Summerfest, Bob Babisch is ready to say goodbye to his full-time gig with the Big Gig.

Officials at parent company Summerfest Milwaukee World Festival Inc. announced at a board meeting Thursday that Babisch, 71, will retire at the end of the year. He has been running the talent buying division since 1978, 10 years after the first Summerfest was held.

“This is truly a dream job,” Babisch said in a statement Thursday. “Looking back, it’s the connection between live music and the fans that has inspired me all these years.”

Babisch will continue to serve as a consultant to the Milwaukee World Festival after 2022.

Another Summerfest veteran of the talent buying team, associate director of entertainment Scott Ziel, will take over as director of entertainment following Babisch’s retirement, festival officials said.

As a member of the seasonal production team in 1992, Ziel became a consultant for the festival three years later, officially joining the team in 2015. Babisch groomed Ziel to succeed him, with Ziel directing some bookings for several stages, including the American Family Insurance Amphitheater and representing the festival at conventions.

“I am thrilled to continue our tradition of showcasing the world’s best talent as well as our strategy to deliver eclectic programming for Summerfest,” Ziel said in a statement. “We have an excellent booking and production team, who will continue to improve the live music experience for artists and fans alike.”

“Scott has been with me forever, he’ll do a great job,” Babisch told the Journal Sentinel on Thursday. “And this year we will do it together.”

Summerfest Entertainment manager Bob Babisch poses for a photo on the last day of the festival in 1989. He has been in charge of bookings for the Big Gig since 1978.

Helped Summerfest grow

Ziel is a natural successor, but he has big shoes to fill.

When Babisch first joined the festival in 1976 as entertainment director, his estate was the former Schlitz Country Stage and his initial starting salary was $13,000. (His most recent annual earnings were just over $208,000 in 2020, according to 2020 Milwaukee World Festival tax filings.)

In 1978, just two years after beginning work for Summerfest, Babisch became the head of the talent division and saw the festival become the largest in the United States under the direction of the festival’s late executive director, Elizabeth ” Bo”Black.

It was four years after Black was named to the festival’s top job that the 23,000-capacity Marcus Amphitheater made its debut, in part at Babisch’s request. From then on, Babisch really flexed his talent-buying muscles, booking superstars like Whitney Houston, Dolly Parton and Paul Simon for the amphitheater’s inaugural year.

The Marcus — renamed the American Family Insurance Amphitheater in 2017 and reopened last summer after a $51.3 million renovation — has been the site of several impressive bookings over the decades.

It’s where Prince played his last show in Milwaukee in 2004, and it was one of the only venues in the country to mark Kanye West in 2011 after the release of his masterpiece ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have performed in the Summerfest amphitheater 15 times – more than any other act – and the festival had a superb booking hit with the Rolling Stones in 2015, by far the smallest venue on the northeastern tour. American band that year.

After thanking the board, staff past and present, and the artists and managers he’s worked with over the course of his career on Thursday, Babisch recalled a moment last summer when he walked past the new Wall of Fame erected at the amphitheater listing dozens of acts who had played the venue since 1987.

“I was lucky enough to look up, and almost everyone, if not everyone, I was lucky enough to participate in bringing (them) here,” he said at the meeting of the board of directors.

“It’s hard to quantify Bob’s influence on the success of Summerfest over the past 46 years in a single board meeting. That said, there are only a handful of people in the industry. entertainment that have the same staying power,” said Don Smiley, president of the Milwaukee World Festival. and CEO, said in his salute to Babisch at Thursday’s meeting. “The festival has clearly benefited from both Bob’s longevity and his expertise and commitment to the festival.”

Beyond the big names, Smiley suggested that one of Babisch’s biggest contributions was keeping up Summerfest’s mission to offer something for everyone, offering one of the most diverse festival lineups on the musical and demographic plan in the world year after year.

“Bob has always maintained that Summerfest is the people’s festival. The people of Milwaukee talk about their Summerfest. We take it very seriously, and so does Bob,” Smiley said.

More headliners to be announced later this month

But now Babisch is looking to leave the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, to spend more time with his wife and on the golf course, although he knows he will “miss it terribly”.

“My daughter is in Oregon doing theater and I want to see all of it,” Babisch told the Journal Sentinel. “My son is at university; I want to spend more time with him. »

Speaking to the Journal Sentinel on Thursday, Smiley compared his relationship with Babisch to his days in baseball when he was president of the Seattle Marlins and worked with a general manager.

“He was in charge of the music and production, I was in charge of the venue and all other aspects of the business,” Smiley said. “I always considered him the general manager. We had a wonderful working relationship. I knew what he was good at; he knew exactly what my strengths are.

And Smiley said Ziel will bring a lot of his own strength to his new elevated role.

“He’s 25 with Bob,” Smiley said. “He’s on the right track. Scott knows this business inside out.”

Summerfest Vice President of Entertainment Bob Babisch, right, with Milwaukee World Festival President and CEO Don Smiley.

Babisch’s final Summerfest as VP of Entertainment is scheduled for June 23-25, June 30-July 2, and July 7-9.

Four Summerfest shows have already been announced for the amphitheater: Jason Aldean with Gabby Barrett’s opening night; Justin Bieber with Jaden, Harry Hudson and ¿Téo? June 24; Halsey with the Marias and Abby Roberts on July 2; and Rod Stewart with Cheap Trick on July 7.

There will be at least five other amphitheater shows at the festival, which have yet to be announced. At Thursday’s meeting, Babisch said the stadia headliner roster could be announced by the end of the month.

But some of Babisch’s booking work will also be apparent at next year’s Summerfest.

Is there one last dream band he wants to book?

“Yes, there are a few,” Babisch told the Journal Sentinel. “But you know, it’s not over yet. We book 2023 now. We have offers everywhere.”

Ethnic festivals set to return in 2022

In other news Thursday, the seven ethnic festivals traditionally held at Maier Festival Park each year are set to return in 2022.

Milwaukee Irish Fest, Mexican Fiesta, and a smaller October version of PrideFest took place last year, but Polish Fest, German Fest, Mexican Fiesta, and Black Arts Fest MKE were canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID- 19.

Contact Piet at (414) 223-5162 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @pietlevy or Facebook at facebook.com/PietLevyMJS.

Piet also talks concerts, local music and more on “TAP’d In” with Evan Rytlewski. Listen to it at 8 a.m. Thursdays on WYMS-FM (88.9), or wherever you get your podcasts.

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