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Less than three decades of Pop

David Mugar offered to help Arthur Fiedler add spark to July fourth in 1974 -- and he's still at it

By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff

Hear David Mugar's tale of the event's inception (.aiff and .wav files)

Boston's Fourth of July celebration is now firmly established as a tradition, but the annual extravaganza of music and fireworks on the Esplanade doesn't date to 1776. In fact, it was in 1974 that 75,000 people first gathered to hear Arthur Fiedler conduct the Boston Pops in Tchaikovsky's ''1812'' Overture with cannons, fireworks, and the tolling of the city's church bells.

The Bicentennial celebration two years later, in 1976, drew 400,000 people to the Esplanade, and the 20-minute segment telecast nationally that year established Boston as the place to celebrate Independence Day. In 1990, WCVB-Ch. 5 televised the whole event locally, and the next year it became a regular part of the schedule for the A & E cable network.

Twenty-five veterans of all the celebrations have been identified and they will be honored onstage at the MDC Hatch Memorial Shell before Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra get down to work tomorrow at 8 p.m. Among them are seven players in the orchestra, stage manager Cleveland Morrison, six Metropolitan District Commission employees, Sergeant John P. Flynn of the State Po-lice, and Richard Serino, superintendent and director of operations for Boston Emergency Medical Services.

In the middle of the alphabetical list of honorees is David G. Mugar, founder and executive producer of the event. As he would probably be the first to admit, he should be listed as cofounder, because Fiedler's Fourth of July concerts date to 1929 -- before the Hatch Shell was built. Over the years, however, the audience for these concerts had slowly dwindled. Neither the public nor the Boston Symphony Orchestra was very supportive of this magnificent gift to the city, and ''Mr. Pops'' was depressed about it.

In 1974, Fiedler's young friend David Mugar thought he might be able to do something about that. Entrepreneur and son of the founder of Star Markets, Mugar, now 59, had met Fiedler in the mid-'60s at a dinner of Les Amis d'Escoffier.

Mugar's offices in a high-rise Back Bay building command a panoramic view of Boston. He might even be able to see the Hatch Shell if the buildings on Beacon Street weren't in the way. Still, he can see the Charles River, and the Red Line tootles across the bridge looking like a toy train.

In a recent conversation, Mugar recently reminisced about his friendship with Fiedler, talked about and all the fun he has had on July Fourth, and dropped a few hints about the future.

''Fiedler had a great friend named John Cahill, who lived in Belmont, where my family also lived. We became friendly, and I would go to the Pops with John, and later even by myself, and drop by to see Fiedler afterward. He made a great activity of seeing his friends after concerts -- the clarinetist 'Patsy' Cardillo would be there, and Harry Ellis Dickson would stick his head in. Fiedler used to tease him by calling him Harry 'Alice' Dickson. There would be deli sandwiches, which together with Tanqueray gin, were pretty much his diet. One night, when we were riding around in my car, we hatched the idea of putting together fireworks, cannons, and bells for the Fourth of July. I didn't know what I was talking about -- I had to look up 'fireworks' in the Yellow Pages!''

A letter from Fiedler, framed on the wall, commemorates the occasion: ''I think it is so generous of you to work to take over the business of the fireworks on the Esplanade. You are very good to think of this . . .''

That first event cost about $10,000 to produce; it was the gift of Mugar and his family. It was a very homespun affair -- Mugar kept in his basement the speaker that broadcast the bells from the bricked-up bell tower in the Church of the Advent nearby. This year the budget will be close to $1 million, and most of the money will come again from Mugar. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, of course, contributes the services of the conductor and orchestra, and television and the BSO chip in with Mugar to meet the soloists' fees. The city has been criticized for making no direct financial contribution to an event that carries its image around the country and the world, but Mugar is quick to point out that dozens and dozens of state and city workers are involved in the project. ''There is a real infusion of personnel, which is the same thing as money.''

Mugar has never sought or permitted corporate sponsorship. (A couple of years ago, there was a big flare-up when a dairy-sponsored blimp flew into camera range.) ''My father came into this country through Ellis Island, an immigrant from Armenia,'' Mugar says. ''Our family has been very fortunate in the New England economy, and my father instilled in all of us a sense that it is important to give something back to the community in one way or another. This is my annual gift to Greater Boston.''

The expenses have almost doubled this year. The fireworks display, designed and synchronized to music again by pyrotechnician nonpareil Ken Clark, expands from 24 minutes to a full half hour. The number of sound towers will jump from 16 to 30 and four Jumbotron screens will convey images of the concert to the parts of the crowd too distant from the Hatch Shell to see much -- three of the screens will be stationed along Storrow Drive and the fourth will be across the river on Memorial Drive in Cambridge. There will also be 60,000 copies of a 48-page, full-color glossy program book to commemorate the 25 years.

''What we are trying to do this year is flush out what it would cost to produce a more modern concert so that this tradition can live on,'' Mugar says. ''We want to ratchet it up to a new level and a new era, and to show potential sponsors just what is required. At some point, the event is going to require commercial sponsorship -- and many corporations like to be identified with events like these. That sponsorship, of course, would mean more money for the Boston Symphony and the Pops. It's clear we need to spend more money on our guest soloists -- we've done the best we could with painfully small budgets. I want to continue running the celebration until my death, but I want to train others, including my children, in how to do it. This year's program is planned to identify what the celebration could and would look like.''

(The soloists for tomorrow night's program are Melissa Manchester, Buckwheat Zydeco, the cast of Broadway's ''Ragtime,'' Sergeant Daniel M. Clark, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and the Boston Pops Gospel Choir.)

Speaking of the future, Mugar joins a chorus that began with Fiedler and now includes John Williams and Lockhart in hoping for more commitment to the Pops from its parent organization. ''The Pops is the premier orchestra of its type, yet it is a second cousin to the Boston Symphony in terms of commitment. Before Ken Haas, the former manager of the BSO, had his stroke, there was a committee on the future of the Pops and I was on it. I said, 'If you were [Disney chairman] Michael Eisner, what would you do if you owned the Boston Pops?' I guarantee you the orchestra would be playing every night and in every town in the land,'' Mugar says. ''I hope the committee can get back on the case again now that the orchestra has a new manager [Mark Volpe]. Fiedler really created something great. John Cahill used to say, ''The Pops is like a steakhouse -- it has something for everybody, those who like it rare and those who like it well done.''

Mugar is sensitive to criticism that the musical programming on the Esplanade now is very remote from Fiedler's vision of bringing classical music to the masses. It's hard to imagine that the 1976 Bicentennial concert featured a full performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto, but it did. Some more recent programs have been pretty cheesy variety shows featuring television stars who couldn't really sing or dance with an orchestra that can really play serving as backup.

''Arthur sometimes got a little heavy out there,'' Mugar says. ''There's a different demographic today, and for TV you have to bring in a lot of soloists -- watching a violinist at work doesn't play very well on television. Frankly, it's boring to watch music. But that doesn't mean that the programs couldn't be a little more serious or feature some better music. There are holes built into the program -- like there are in an NFL game, for station breaks and so forth -- and Keith Lockhart and I have talked about reaching into the repertory for some short pieces to play during those breaks so that the concert isn't totally a made-for-TV event. That way, there would be something for the public that shows up that they couldn't get at home on television. Fiedler's three-part program concept is great. We're still doing the third part of a Fiedler program, the entertainment music, but I'm afraid the day of something heavy, like a concerto in the middle, is over. But there was a lot of good middleweight and light classical music from the first third of Fiedler's programs that I'd like to see come back.''

Some things won't change. Mugar is resolutely opposed to a VIP seating area, for example.''I'd like to hold on to that; there's something very democratic about letting the people who get there earliest have the best positions.'' And he knows he has a good thing in his artistic and spectacular pyrotechnician. ''This year Ken Clark's set the fireworks to a soundtrack of 10 songs, but we're keeping the list of titles a secret. I'll tell you something though -- they're all by American composers.'' Both Clark and Lockhart would like to synchronize the fireworks to live music, and Mugar is hopeful that this can happen.

''During this concert,'' Mugar says, ''I think the Esplanade becomes one of the most magical, romantic spots in America. The sun sets in the northwest and the moon rises over Beacon Hill. The music is played by a great orchestra under a great conductor -- all three of them, Arthur, John, and Keith -- and the music wafts and drifts on the air. And, in a funny way, this huge event is like the Sunday afternoon band concerts I went to when I was a kid in a little town in New Hampshire, and it's absolutely wonderful . . . ''

Published 07/03/98


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