Thirty-seven years ago the National Symphony Orchestra began performing on the Fourth of July on the Capitol lawn, and executive producer Jerry Colbert felt the event had the makings of a great television show. He had no idea that it would evolve into an annual July Fourth tradition for so many people throughout the country and become one of the highest-rated programs on PBS.
“It’s hard to imagine A Capitol Fourth is 35 years old,” reflected Colbert. “It’s a great honor to produce this special event that not only celebrates the birthday of our nation and the ideals we are founded on, but also clearly demonstrates how much these ideals unite us as Americans.” So many legendary and talented artists have graced the stage of A Capitol Fourth throughout its history, exuberant participants in the celebration of what makes America great.
Take a photo tour of the last 35 years.
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. I began to wonder what I’d gotten myself into when I visited the old and rusty PBS TV truck. I noticed that none of the monitors was working and worried how we would be able to do a live show without monitors. The director 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 consistently among the top-rated programs on PBS. We are the major national Fourth 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, the Country Music Awards and the Academy Awards 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. 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, DC, for the show.
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.