Elizabeth ‘Bo’ Black, 74, guided Summerfest in its early years and helped make it an international juggernaut

She was Milwaukee’s one and only, the irrepressible, unconquerable Elizabeth “Bo” Black.

Black presided over Summerfest, taking it from a local extravaganza to an international juggernaut, giving Milwaukee something out of the ordinary, a glitzy, gotta-be-there event that lured the biggest names in music.

“She was a pistol, pal, she was a pistol,” said her husband of 20 years, former Milwaukee Brewers manager Tom Trebelhorn.

Black, who had been in declining health for several years and was in hospice care in recent days, died Friday morning at her home in Scottsdale, Arizona.

She was 74.

“I think she was ready to go,” Trebelhorn said.

Trebelhorn said Black will be long remembered for her influence in building up Summerfest.

He called her “a dynamic administrator of probably the greatest family neighborhood venue in the history of the Midwest. She provided terrific entertainment at a reasonable cost. She loved the ethnic festivals, celebrated the diversity of the city.”

“It’s so sad,” said Blake Lindemann, one of her three children. “She was a colorful, firecracker of a lady.”

He said his mother moved to Arizona when she left running the Big Gig in 2003, but Milwaukee was always on her mind and in her heart. She loved the diversity and excitement of Summerfest and kept track of what was going on there each year.

“She always made everyone feel special, whether it was the Summerfest board or the janitor who was just picking up trash on the grounds,” said Stephanie Anderson, one of Black’s two daughters. “That’s a remarkable quality that I hope my kids take from her.” 

RELATED:‘She was a force’: Remembering Summerfest’s Bo Black

Summerfest officials mourned her death and said that under her leadership the 11-day event experienced expansive growth, earning the distinction of being “The World’s Largest Music Festival.”

Bo Black, photographed June 13, 2003, at the north entrance of the Summerfest grounds.

“Bo was truly dedicated to establishing Milwaukee as the City of Festivals during her tenure and worked tirelessly with various ethnic festivals and other charitable causes, helping to ensure their success,” said the statement from the leadership of Milwaukee World Festival Inc., which oversees the Summerfest.

The statement form Don Smiley, Howard Sosoff and Ted Kellner, a longtime board president, said that Black left her mark at Summerfest and “was a force.” “We are all grateful for her efforts, creativity and flair, which help make Summerfest the incredible experience it is today,” the statement said.

Mayor Tom Barrett said no one is more associated with Summerfest than Black, even if she left nearly two decades ago. 

“She brought enthusiasm and glamour to her position as the head of Milwaukee World Festivals, and she was also a demanding leader who set Summerfest and ethnic festivals on a course for ongoing success,” Barrett said. “Bo Black was truly a Milwaukee celebrity. She will be long-remembered for her impact on our city.”

Black was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1946, daughter of Joseph and Betty Mae Bussmann. She grew up in nearby Clayton, Missouri, part of a very large family. 

Anderson said the Bussmann family is best known for inventing the electrical fuse and that her mother was always proud of that heritage, making sure that each of her grandchildren had a Buss fuse as a family heirloom.

Black first came to Wisconsin to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she was the homecoming queen. She moved to Milwaukee with her first husband, William Black, when he got a job in the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office.

Anderson said her mother had a brief stint as an actress at the Skylight Theater in Milwaukee, where she was told that she would be a “better administrator than performer.” She often said that comment was the reason she left acting and went to work at Summerfest. 

Black first worked at Summerfest as administrative assistant to Summerfest director Henry Jordan in 1974-75. At the time she was named executive director of Summerfest in October 1983, she was a member of Mayor Henry Maier’s staff and frequently worked as a fundraiser on his campaigns.

From the start, Black was considered a deft political player and not afraid to challenge people who underestimated her.

When she was named executive director, it surfaced that Black had been on the cover of Playboy magazine, in a football jersey in an issue from 1967.

When asked about in 1983, Black responded: “If I were a man being named to the job, would anyone really care about a 16-year-old picture?”

Black quickly became the face of Summerfest, and remained so for two decades, and frequently battled with Maier’s successor, John Norquist, over how much Summerfest should pay the city for rent of the festival grounds. 

In her 19 years as director, attendance at the 11-day festival has grown from 712,054 to over a million in 2001 and 2002, prompting Guinness World Records to proclaim Summerfest the world’s largest music festival in 1999. Total net revenue reached nearly $11 million in 2002. 

Black was also crucial in dramatically increasing corporate support for Summerfest, a crucial component to its survival and growth. After she took over as director in 1983, annual sponsorship revenue increased by more than 600% by 1996. 

Under Black’s leadership, Summerfest opened the Marcus Amphitheater, now known as the American Family Insurance Amphitheater, in 1987, allowing the festival to continue booking some of the biggest stars on the planet for its largest stage, including the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Prince, Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga and, on 15 occasions, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Black also expanded Summerfest to include a host of popular ethnic festivals.

In September 2003, the Summerfest board voted to not renew Black’s contract. Even after she left the job and moved to Arizona, she remained identified with the Big Gig: In 2007, a few months after she had a stroke, the festival named the grounds’ centerpiece fountain the Elizabeth Bo Black Children’s Fountain.

The granite plaque dedicated on the Summerfest grounds is shown June 26, 2007. The Elizabeth "Bo" Black Children's fountain honors Black for her 19 years as Summerfest director.

“She was the face of Summerfest for so many years,” said longtime local concert promoter and Shank Hall owner Peter Jest. In 1985 and ’86, Jest worked at Summerfest, as the assistant for Bob Babisch, who has led the festival’s talent buying division since 1978. “She was a great thing for Milwaukee because everywhere you looked she was on a commercial or TV show hyping Summerfest,” Jest said.

Jest said she was instrumental in building up Summerfest’s media presence, with practically every TV station and radio station broadcasting from the festival during her tenure.

“Bob’s talent was the booking and hers was the PR,” Jest said. “She really hyped it up well.”

Black was a leading force for Summerfest in a local music industry that has, and continues to be, predominantly run by men.

Leslie West, who co-owned Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy during the start of Black’s tenure, and has co-owned the Rave since 1992, said Black “was the most genius marketing person I have ever encountered in my entire life.”

“I’m comparing her to any band manager, anybody that I’ve ever encountered,” West said. “There is nobody that was more genius than she was.”

Black is survived by her husband; her three children, Stephanie Anderson of Pelham, New York, Kellyn Lindemann of Scottsdale, Arizona, and Blake Lindemann of Los Angeles; her brother Joseph A. Bussmann Jr.; and her four grandchildren: Grace, Jack, Brewer and Brady.

Funeral arrangements are pending. Lindemann and Anderson said the family also hopes to hold a celebration of her life in Milwaukee. 

The family set up a website for people to post memories of her at www.forevermissed.com/elizabeth-bo-black/

Chris Foran of the Journal Sentinel contributed to this story.