Holiday Concerts Are a Capitol Affair

Posted June 26, 2009 at 5:09pm

The Fourth of July isn’t just an important day in the nation’s history. It also happens to be a significant day for the history of celebratory concerts in the nation’s capital.

This year marks the 29th annual “A Capitol Fourth— concert, but the tradition has been around longer. The Marine Corps has long celebrated the Fourth with music at the Capitol, but 1976 changed everything when the bicentennial committee arranged for 33 tons of fireworks to be shot off at the Washington Monument.

The Capitol concerts have been annual events since 1979, when the National Symphony Orchestra took over the production role. Then Jerry Colbert and his newly founded nonprofit Capital Concerts took the reins in 1981 and has run the show every year since, broadcasting live from the West Lawn.

That took the show to a larger, more diverse audience, but some officials didn’t think the new popular format was appropriate for the American holiday.

In 1980 and for the following two years, the Beach Boys performed at the show before large crowds. In 1983, however, Secretary of the Interior James Watt tried to ban the band because of what he considered to be “undesirable— audiences attracted to rock ’n’ roll. This drew outrage from Beach Boys’ fans, including President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan, Californians who believed that the Beach Boys’ sound was an important part of American culture.

Ronald Reagan stood up to Watt, and he even presented the secretary with a bronze sculpture of a bullet-wounded foot, indicating that Watt had shot himself in the foot with the decision.

The group appeared again the following two years, and again for the event’s 25th anniversary in 2005.

Things have changed a lot in the 29 years that Colbert has been the executive producer of “A Capitol Fourth.—

“Back then, we used an old truck from WETA. It looked like a bookmobile— and had rust all over it, he said. “The director flipped a switch [to go live] and it didn’t come on.—

Colbert laughs now, but then he (and the rest of the crew) was worried the debut show wouldn’t be. After literally hitting the switchboard a few times, the show hit the airwaves.

Then, in 1981, the production was filmed with five cameras. Now, there are five cameras exclusively covering fireworks, 14 in total, including one inside the Washington Monument. The crew now uses 57 trailer trucks and some of the best industry technicians who have worked on prestigious live programs such as the Grammys, Oscars and Tonys. And, in typical D.C. fashion, Colbert has to arrange the festivities with 23 different government agencies and nine unions.

Colbert, a history major at College of the Holy Cross, has always reveled in formative moments. When he read John Adams’ declaration that our nation’s independence “ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with … bells, bonfires and illuminations,— Colbert decided he should act.

It’s “not just another television program,— Colbert said. “It’s America’s birthday party.—

Colbert couldn’t name just one favorite moment in the history of the program — but rambled off many moments of hilarious history worthy of TMZ.

The “fun stuff is people like Dolly Parton,— Colbert said. “She was a riot.— He talked about her costumes and humor and told the story of how she parked her tour bus in front of her hotel, put it up on blocks and slept there.

And the egos of celebrities shine through in some tales, like when Tony Bennett and Cab Calloway (at age 86) were performing in the same year and Bennett insisted on going first because he was worried that Calloway was going to upstage him.

There are also many historical, touching moments for Colbert: Ray Charles’ rendition of “America the Beautiful— for the millennium as the fireworks went off, Sam Waterston’s tribute to Adams and James Earl Jones’ performance at the Lincoln Memorial.

One story that got Colbert laughing, however, was when Jason Alexander was hosting the show and wanted to rig the stage so that he could fly off one of the light towers. Colbert joked back to Alexander that they should shoot him out of a cannon instead, referring to the live cannons that are fired each year during the finale of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.— Alexander said he was crazy, and Colbert replied, “That’s what you are, too!—

With all of these stars, there’s bound to be some antics.

Chuck Berry was performing one year and “showed up last minute with his girlfriend, a cellist,— Colbert recalled. “She wanted to play with the orchestra and, of course, there was no way that was going to happen.— So he placated her by putting her in the back, near the drums, and shutting off her microphone. “She was just soaring away! Resolved that crisis!— he said.

Another favorite story of Colbert’s comes from 2001, when more than an inch of rain fell, but the show had to go on. “Everyone was soaked … but they all stuck,— he said, recalling that the Pointer Sisters opened the show and by the time they finished their act (“They put on a heck of a show!—) their makeup was running down their faces from the downpour and their dresses had shrunk. (Without going into too much detail, there’s a similar story about the Redskins cheerleaders who were there that same year.) Then the Irish Tenors were up and Colbert asked them if they could keep the show’s momentum going. They replied, “Yeah, it rains in Ireland all the time!—

“Rain has been our nemesis,— Colbert cautioned, worried about this wetter-than-usual spring. And if it rains? The show will go on.

In 1983, it poured and then-conductor of the NSO Mstislav Rostropovich decided to have some fun. “He took off his shirt and shoes and went into the audience and started a conga line,— Colbert said. “The great cellist is out in the audience. It was hilarious, and the great raucous was getting him back up on the stage.—

Known for his charisma, Rostropovich also had a little fun for himself when he informed the producers that he wanted to play Russian music for America’s greatest celebration. There was protest and everyone thought they had worked it out, but he ended up doing it anyway, to everyone’s surprise.

The shirtless conductor and the Pointer Sisters’ shrinking dresses haven’t been the only costume crises.

In 1997, the often-controversial Broadway actress Maria Conchita Alonso — she admitted in a Chicago Sun-Times preview of the show that “it could be dangerous, because I am very outspoken about my political beliefs— — surprised producers by showing up in a see-through costume. Quick thinking and having on hand “a Broadway costume guy that can quickly sew on a piece here and there— set everything right before she took the stage, Colbert said.

Though not nearly as controversial, Colbert’s big costume question this year is what kind of hat Aretha Franklin, who is performing the national anthem, is going to wear.

The concert planners book a mix of performers to please everyone in the crowd as well as the millions of PBS viewers and National Public Radio and American Forces Network listeners.

“Barry [Manilow]’s got a great repertoire, doing a medley for the first 12 minutes of the show,— Colbert revealed. Then Big Bird is going to conduct the orchestra, followed by Natasha Bedingfield coming on and singing with them. And there will be a dual piano version of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue— by Michael Feinstein and Andrew von Oeyen.

“The Jersey Boys are the real sleeper,— Colbert predicted.