Creation of a National Institution
The Birth of 'A Capitol Fourth'
Jerry Colbert is the founder of Capital Concerts, which produces the “A Capitol Fourth” celebration. He’s overseen every production since day one. In this interview, Colbert explains how the concert came about and his love for celebrating America!
It’s hard to imagine “A Capitol Fourth” is over 30 years old,” reflected Colbert. “It’s a great honor to produce this special event that not only celebrates the birthday of our nation but the ideals we are founded on, and also clearly demonstrates how much these ideals unite us as Americans.”
How did the original concert in 1981 come about?
In 1979, the National Symphony Orchestra began performing Independence Day concerts on the Capitol lawn. I proposed televising them. It took two years to raise the money for the production. The first concert telecast included conductor Mstislav Rostroprovich and singer Pearl Bailey, and neither had a clue who the other was but they made great music together. E.G. Marshall was the host, and the stage was so small that he had to snake his way through the symphony’s violin section, pushing through the chairs, to get to the front. I began to wonder what I’d gotten myself into when I visited the old and rusty PBS TV truck. The director of the "MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour" was running it. I noticed that none of the monitors was working and worried how we would be able to do a live show without monitors. He hit the bank of monitors with his hand and they all turned on. I thought, this is not the way to do a major live television show! In the beginning, it was chaos because we were learning how to produce a huge musical event as we were presenting it.
What things have changed with the concert over the last quarter of a century? I imagine it must have grown in scale.
I had no idea when I started out that it would last this long. The show has grown to be the #1-rated program on PBS. We are the major national 4th of July celebration, and we have the best network crew in the country here in Washington, D.C. to put it on. I call it Hollywood on the Potomac because the same people who work on the Grammys, Country Music Awards and Oscars work on “A Capitol Fourth”. Over the years the shows have become bigger with more stars and more elaborate production numbers. And it now takes a lot more time and effort to produce. A new stage and band shell was built a few years ago to better protect the symphony and guest artists. We have turned the whole city into our palette with numerous cameras spread out around the National Mall. We create –through the immediacy of live television– an environment where the viewers at home are participants and they feel like they are in Washington, D.C. for the show.
Have the fireworks always been a part of “A Capitol Fourth”?
Yes, they always have been. We use six different cameras to cover the fireworks show, including a camera in the Washington Monument. In the midst of all of the American icons – the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the White House and the U.S. Capitol – we celebrate our freedom and the nation’s birthday. It is an awe-inspiring sight.
What do you think makes “A Capitol Fourth” so distinctive?
I feel that for an hour and a half we unite the country in this celebratory moment where everyone is in a joyous mood. We help them to forget about their differences and to remember that we are all Americans.