The Creation of a National Institution
AN INTERVIEW WITH EXECUTIVE PRODUCER JERRY COLBERT
Jerry Colbert founded Capital Concerts, which puts on “A Capitol Fourth” and has overseen every production since day one.
"It's hard to imagine “A Capitol Fourth” is over a quarter of a century 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 unites 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 Mistislav 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. E.G.'s script was on a clipboard held down with rubber bands to keep it from blowing in the wind, and he had to flip the pages himself.
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 Show 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 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 prompted you to create “A Capitol Fourth”?
My first thought was that putting on an Independence Day celebration in Washington, D.C. was a natural fit for the country. And through the years, I have been inspired by the spirit of the audience and their elation and joy. When the lawn of the U.S. Capitol is full of hundreds of thousands of people, the National Symphony Orchestra plays the national anthem and everyone is on their feet, it is a tremendously uplifting feeling. There is nothing like celebrating a great July 4th party and the nation's freedom at the people's house.
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 number one performance 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 in on. I call it Hollywood on the Potomac because the same people who work on the Grammy's, 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 iconsthe Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the White House and the U.S. Capitolwe celebrate our freedom and the nation's birthday. It is an awe-inspiring sight.
You've had a range of talent from stage, screen, and television perform on your show over the years. Are there any performances that particularly stand out for you? Do you have a favorite?
One of my favorites is from the millennium year show when Ray Charles sang "America the Beautiful" as the fireworks burst overhead. It was a memorable moment. Another is Dolly Parton's performance in 2003. It was amazing to watch the way she captivated the audience and really owned the stage. Back in the 1990s, Cab Calloway was on the show. He must have been 83 or 84 years old, and it was his last big performance before he died. Calloway lit up the stage with his signature "Hi-De-Ho" and the audience loved him. And there was the highlight of presenting composer John Williams with the National Artistic Achievement Award for his film scores. It was a privilege to have him there to conduct his works for the audience.
Were there any performances that were uniquely complicated or difficult for your team?
Which ones weren't? It is live television and we have only a day or two of rehearsals and one dress rehearsal to get it all right. Despite all the pre-planning, you never know what might happen. One year, Chuck Berry forgot his favorite guitar pick just before he was due to go on stage. We had to send back to the hotel for it and made it back just as he was about to go on. But in the confusion, Berry forgot he was supposed to sing two songs and left right after the first was done! The cameras had to cut to scenes of the audience until we could get him back on stage to sing "Sweet Little Sixteen."
Would you share a couple of the most funny or memorable moments that come to mind?
There have been a few hiccups at the last moment. In 2001, it poured rain during the show – I think about an inch in an hour. It was the year before we built the new protective band shell. The Pointer Sisters were set to go on during a deluge. I said to them, "Ladies, do you think you can get the audience up and moving?" They said, "Don't you worry about it honey, we'll take care of it." And they did! There was also a close call with Johnny Cash. Minutes before Cash was set to perform, he decided he needed another black shirt because he didn't think the one he had on was the right shade of black! I can't remember how we managed to find a replacement but I do remember it was down to the wire. One of the most memorable moments for me was when a young Faith Hill broke into tears as she came off the stage after her performance. She said that she had never seen so many people in her life.
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.