Imagine 11,000 screaming fans, the majority of them girls between the ages of 13 and 17, crammed into a ballroom with a legal capacity of just 2,500. This crowd would be the equivalent of the audience at the much larger Milwaukee Arena packed into a space the size of a large high school gymnasium on a muggy June evening in 1964. Kids surged forward to be near the stage with more than thirty being carted to a makeshift infirmary set up in a hallway behind the stage and eleven eventually being taken to the hospital. The next day, the city building inspector was quoted in a Milwaukee Sentinel cover story saying, “The whole thing was horrible. We’re talking about possible dead kids.” Surprisingly, the band on stage wasn’t the Beatles – they would not play their first Milwaukee show for another three months. No, the first wave of the British invasion to reach Milwaukee was The Dave Clark Five and the lessons Milwaukee officials learned from this nearly disastrous concert would set the template for future rock shows from that first Beatles show in September of 1964 to the present.
Previous shows at the Eagles Club (whose ballroom was officially dubbed “George Devine’s Million Dollar Ballroom” back then) had seen crowds in excess of 5,000, but in the aftermath of the Dave Clark Five show, city officials reportedly told the Sentinel that they “were unable to explain how the Devine ballroom has operated in excess of its reported capacity since it opened in 1934.” The promoter couldn’t say how many tickets had been sold, but the advance ticket sales numbered more than 6,000 according to his statement. The doors opened at 1 p.m. but fans had started to line up as early as 6 a.m., a full nine hours before the DC5 would hit the stage. Local bands warmed up the crowd from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m. and as the crowd surged forward at the start of the headliner’s set, officials were forced to drag some of the fainting girls on stage to help get them out of the crush from the crowd behind them. Drummer Dave Clark, all of 21 at the time, threatened to take the band off the stage if order was not restored. As it was, they were only able to perform for about 15 minutes before they departed this fiasco of a show.
Some news reports called it a “riot” with both the Sentinel and Milwaukee Journal publishing editorials critical of the dangerous situation the promoter had created. With The Beatles coming to town, the Sentinel scolded, “Such precautions must be founded on the painful acceptance of the fact that the wild teenager adoration of The Beatles and their replicas is here to stay, for the immediate present, at least.” Advice columnist Ione Quinby Griggs’ mailbox was so overrun with letters from teens whose parents were going to deny them a chance to see The Beatles after the bad publicity about the DC5 show, she had to limit how many she could publish. Griggs stated, “Numerous Beatles fans have written me asking to “sound off” about their troubles. There are too many to answer all in the column, but I will answer a few and hope this will help those whose letters cannot be published.” One couple wrote to implore concert goers to, “Not throw jelly beans at The Beatles or anything else! As George once said, ‘If you must throw something, throw kisses.’ Let’s have The Beatles remember Milwaukee for its considerate teens.”
The Beatles drew more than 12,000 fans to the Arena in September and the Journal reported that “the biggest challenge the police had was after the show was over, keeping girls from trying to touch the stage where the Fab Four had trod.” Things had definitely cooled off for the Dave Clark Five when they returned for another show at the Auditorium in December of 1964. This time they were greeted by 1,900 enthusiastic fans leading a concert reviewer to note, “Milwaukee teenagers apparently don’t love Britain’s Dave Clark Five in December as they did in June. The teenagers who were on hand did their utmost to make up, in enthusiasm, for those who were absent.”
As for The Beatles visit, they landed at what was then called the Milwaukee County Airport and taken to the National Guard headquarters on the east side of the field. Forced to leave hundreds of fans waiting for a glimpse of the band, they were driven by limousine to the Coach House Motor Inn with Paul McCartney later recalling. “The police told us we couldn’t go past (the crowd). It’s mean not to let ‘em have a wave, It’s a lousy deal, a dirty trick.” In the aftermath of the DC5 fiasco, it showed that the local authorities were taking no chances. The Journal later filed this report about the precautions: “Security was tight around the arena, as the Milwaukee authorities feared the effects of Beatlemania. The Beatles arrived in the city by aeroplane in the afternoon, and were met by around 700 fans. Fifty police officers and 30 county deputies had difficulty restraining the fans, despite makeshift fences being erected, and officers with fire hoses stood by. At one point around 100 fans broke through the cordon and rushed towards an approaching plane.” As for the show itself, the Journal went on to say, “Tickets cost between $3.50 and $5.50, and had gone on sale in April 1964. Within a week all 12,000 had sold out. Also on the bill were The Bill Black Combo, The Exciters, Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry, and Jackie DeShannon. During the show the Red Cross posted 18 people around the venue, armed with ammonia and other inhalants, and treated at least 10 fainting girls.”
Milwaukee has seen other concerts that have made headlines. British rockers Humble Pie appeared in 1973 and that show most decidedly ended in a riot. Set at the Summerfest grounds on the Lake Michigan shoreline, one blogger described an over abundance of drugs and beer mixed with the extremely hot weather as being the main contributing factors of the crowd melt down at the July 21, 1973 Humble Pie show. The end result they described as, “trashing and looting of beer tents; massive bonfires fueled by said tents; huge mud puddles of broken open beer barrels; and the ultimate result of the calling in of the National Guard; tear gas, billy clubs and over 300 arrests; a massive revamp of the Summerfest lineup in later years.” Indeed, the “massive revamp” mentioned was an intentional move by Summerfest away from hard rock for a number of years. Although he didn’t cause a riot, George Carlin’s arrest after his Summerfest performance of the “seven words you can’t say on TV” put the Milwaukee concert scene on the map again. It also raised Carlin’s profile to near mythic proportions which he thanked Milwaukee for in later years.
The 1980 episode called the “Black and Blue” concert saw Blue Oyster Cult open for Black Sabbath who at that time had Ronnie James Dio filling the vocalist’s spot. After the third Sabbath song, bassist Geezer Butler was hit in the face with a bottle thrown at the stage. This prompted the band to end the concert then and there, setting off a riot that damaged the venue, lead to multiple arrests and sent more than a few fans and police to the hospital.
Surprise special guest Elton John was actually booed during a concert celebrating Harley Davidson’s 100th Anniversary. Harley Davidson had booked a group of “biker friendly bands” sure to please their specific tastes such as Tim McGraw, Kid Rock, and the Doobie Brothers. HD officials hinted that there would be a “special guest” at the Veteran’s Park show and when John appeared, a hush fell over the packed crowd. One eye witness account painted a vivid picture of an audience reaction that no artist would like to be greeted with: “With the Harley folks clad in black, it looked more like a funeral as the stunned crowd stood motionless as John launched into his set of new, soft rock tunes and old favorites. Then, people started to leave. In droves. After a few new songs, John played his classics, like “Daniel,” “Rocket Man,””The Bitch Is Back” and “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues,” but the damage was already done. The once jam-packed crowd began to thin out. Perhaps, though this is just a guess, as many as 30 percent of the audience just went home. John didn’t help his cause by announcing to the crowd, “I’d play you a song about motorcycles, but I don’t have any.” This would presumably be the last straw that kick started the booing by the pro-motorcycle crowd.
After decades of concerts, some with tumultuous endings, perhaps it is fitting that the Harley event ended not with a riot, but with a fizzle. A glance at the line up of more recent Summer Fests suggests that they are no longer shy about bringing big acts into town, and yes, many of them are bands with British roots. With yet another large venue opening soon (the new Milwaukee Bucks arena), Milwaukee can be satisfied that the riotous shows of the past are history.
Top Piece Video – A snippet of the DC 5 invasion of the USA!