Boylston native leads D.C. celebration
It’s the country’s birthday, a day when everyone can hopefully feel like family. Appropriately, “A Capitol Fourth,” the PBS Independence Day celebration on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., has a distinct family feel to it. “We try to create a family atmosphere in the way we treat people,” said Jerry Colbert, founder and executive producer of the event. “A Capitol Fourth” will have a celebration of its own going on when the outdoor concert airs live from 8 to 9:30 p.m. tonight (locally, it can be seen WGBH-TV Channel 2). this will be the 30th broadcast, an occasion of pride for Colbert, a native of Boylston and a graduate of St. John’s High School in Shrewsbury and the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. “I feel lucky. A guy from Boylston, I ended up at the capital doing something to create unity, and celebrate and have some fun.” this year’s show will be hosted by actor Jimmy Smits, and the musical guests include Reba McEntire, Gladys Knight, Darius Rucker (Hootie & the Blowfish), David Archuleta (“American Idol”) and world-renowned classical pianist Lang Lang. the National Symphony Orchestra and the Choral Arts Society of Washington will be an integral part of the show. an outdoors audience of about 400,000 people is anticipated tonight, and the show usually gets PBS’ biggest viewership of the year. Colbert looked back during a recent interview on some of the outstanding performances over the course of the 30 years, like the time Ray Charles sang “America the Beautiful” against the backdrop of fireworks. “We really shot it well,” Colbert said with a TV producer’s sense of satisfaction. But like any family, there can be some elements of eccentricity among some of the members. On a hot July 4, Aretha Franklin raised eyebrows taking to the stage “dressed like a queen” in a heavy-looking outfit. Johnny Cash, the “Man in Black,” was duly wearing a black shirt for his Independence Day performance, but then announced before the show he didn’t think it was black enough. “It looked pretty black to me,” Colbert said. the shows are shot live, but carefully planned, blocked and choreographed to the second. So little Richard once caused some exasperation by not telling the producers what the middle song of his set was going to be. “ ‘I’ve got to get the feel, man,’ ” little Richard explained. Similarly, Jerry Lee Lewis — nicknamed “the Killer” — proved to be somewhat elusive about his song selection. Colbert tried to get information through an assistant. “I haven’t talked to the Killer, but a soon as I talk to the Killer, you’ll know,” Colbert said he was told. Since 2002, there has been a protective band shell for the performers. But in 2001, there wasn’t one — and it poured. the Pointer Sisters were due up. “I said, ‘Ladies, you’ve got to save the show.’ And they did. They were great,” Colbert said. “They said, ‘you just let us take care of it, honey.’ ” another engaging performance came from Dolly Parton, performing in 2003, although Colbert wondered if her topicality might become a topic. “She got up in front of the audience and said, ‘I’ve got my own weapons of mass destruction: one’s shock, one’s awe.’ I almost dropped dead,” Colbert said. “I thought. ‘I’m gonna get a lot of e-mails.’ But I didn’t get any. only Dolly Parton could get away with it.” more recently, Faith Hill cried after her performance, saying she had never performed before so many people in her life. Before he was to perform, Barry Manilow looked out at the crowds and jumped up and down exclaiming, “Man, this is going to be great.” “It’s a wonderful feeling,” Colbert said of witnessing such moments. “It’s true joy.” with that, he sees the concerts as performing a mission. “For that one hour and a half, everyone’s an American. It brings a unity to the country.” After graduating from Holy Cross in 1964, Colbert taught English to Iraqi students at a Jesuit mission in Baghdad, and traveled throughout the Middle East and India before returning to the United States to work as a lay missionary for a Catholic extension service on the south side of Chicago. he said in an earlier interview that he was drawn to television because he saw it could help make a difference and communicate to people. he made several documentaries for PBS, and then ventured forth to take on “A Capitol Fourth.” the National Symphony Orchestra had begun performing Independence Day concerts on the Capitol lawn in 1979, and Colbert proposed televising them. It took two years for the funding to come together to put on and broadcast a big show. he also produces the PBS broadcasts of the national Memorial Day concert in Washington. Times have changed since the first broadcast in 1981. On the one hand, “It was much more relaxed. No metal detectors. No dogs. some people brought carry-on bags. there might be a few bottles of beer or champagne.” On the other hand, “It’s still 400,000 (people). Police do a great job; you feel secure.” Are people perhaps even more patriotic now, given what’s happened in the past 30 years? “I think so,” Colbert said. “I think that the wars have done that. I think there’s a lot of tough times in America, and people like to celebrate and sing patriotic songs with the orchestra, and the television brings that joy. the audience at home feel they’re participating right there.” On another family note, one father-son team working on the show is Walter Miller (producer) and Paul Miller (director). then there’s Colbert and his producer son, Michael Colbert, who has been with the show for several years. Michael Colbert graduated from Catholic University and briefly worked for Worcester Catholic Charities before returning to Washington and getting involved with the Memorial Day and “A Capitol Fourth” productions. “That’s a wonderful feeling. he obviously will take it over in the future,” Jerry Colbert said of his son, and keeping July Fourth in the family. Most Read Stories
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