David Mugar, a prominent businessman and deep-pocketed philanthropist who injected fireworks and cannon fire into Boston’s annual Fourth of July celebration, one of many contributions to civic life that left a lasting imprint on the city and region, died Tuesday night. He was 82.
As chairman and CEO of Mugar Enterprises Inc., Mr. Mugar oversaw a sprawling, privately held empire comprising real estate holdings, retail businesses, performance venues, and other investment- and arts-oriented enterprises.
Beginning in 1982, he served as principal owner of WNEV-TV (Channel 7, now WHDH-TV), then the local CBS network affiliate, for more than a decade. As executive producer of the July Fourth Esplanade show, he almost single-handedly transformed the event from a parochial celebration into a star-spangled extravaganza seen by millions on national television.
A scion of an Armenian American family that built the Star Market grocery chain, Mr. Mugar belonged to an elite group of donors whose wealth and influence reached into virtually all aspects of public life, from college libraries and concert halls to hospitals and shopping malls.
In Greater Boston alone, the Mugar family name is affixed to the Museum of Science’s Omni Mugar Theater, Boston University’s Mugar Memorial Library, Northeastern University’s Mugar Life Sciences Building, and Mugar Hall at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Diplomacy.
Other institutions substantially benefiting from Mr. Mugar’s largesse include the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Cape Cod Hospital. In 2012, he created a separate foundation dedicated to helping individuals through what he called “random acts of kindness.”
“He was a Bostonian through and through, continually finding ways to give back to the community he loved,” Mr. Mugar’s children said in a statement. “He was humble and generous. Quietly doing good for others and always leading with his heart. The many gifts he gave to civic and cultural organizations across the city and the state were most often given in recognition and honor of his parents, our grandparents.”
Beyond the holiday Pops concert, Mr. Mugar helped fund the city’s Family Fireworks show on First Night on New Year’s Eve and was a major investor in its live music scene, partnering with Live Nation’s Don Law to own and operate the Boston Opera House, Paradise Rock Club, and the House of Blues.
For years, Mr. Mugar ranked among Massachusetts’s richest citizens, with a net worth pegged at $600 million or more.
“I want to do things that will affect the people in New England especially,” he once observed, “and I like to do things that are nonexclusionary, so that they’re available to everyone.”
Exhibit A was his long association with the Independence Day concert.
For many years, the Mugar family had helped underwrite the event, first organized in 1929 by Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler. As a teenager, David Mugar befriended Fiedler, the two sharing a passion for racing to active fire scenes: fellow hobbyists known as “sparks.”
In 1973, with the July Fourth concerts attracting sparse crowds, Mr. Mugar proposed adding fireworks and cannon fire to Tchaikovsky’s majestic “1812 Overture,” a favorite piece of music. Fiedler agreed.
The next year, Mr. Mugar began serving as executive director. His first production drew a record 75,000 attendees. Two years later, 400,000 showed up for America’s Bicentennial celebration, thus seating Boston near the head of the nation’s party table.
No one was more delighted by all those dazzling bombs bursting in air than Mr. Mugar, a former licensed pyrotechnician and accomplished amateur photographer.
Although he never had a direct role in launching the fiery spectacle, Mr. Mugar helped test new fireworks from time to time — back when they were ignited by railroad flares, not computerized firing programs. He also worked on safety regulations that are still being followed.
“His single-minded devotion to our iconic Fourth of July celebration was inspiring, and no one was more responsible for the creation and the preservation of the event than David,” Pops maestro Keith Lockhart said in a statement Wednesday. “His passion for our Independence Day celebration was unparalleled, and meeting him backstage after the fireworks for a handshake and a hearty ‘Keith, you did good!’ was the ultimate capstone on the evening for me.”
For decades, Mr. Mugar personally funded the event, spending $1 million or more.
Mr. Mugar produced his last July Fourth show in 2016. The event is now produced by Boston 4 Productions under management by the Boston Pops.
“He never took for granted the opportunity that was given to him by his father and his mother, and he viewed himself as having an enormous responsibility to give back as a result of that,” his son Jonathan said in an interview Wednesday.
David Graves Mugar was born on April 27, 1939, and grew up in Belmont, one of two children of Stephen P. Mugar and Marian Graves. His father’s roots were Armenian, his mother’s of Yankee stock.
He attended the Cambridge School of Weston and Babson College but flunked out of the latter, having devoted much of his time to running his first business venture, a check-cashing agency. He later took courses in Cornell University’s food administration program.
It was Sarkis Mugar, Stephen’s father, who purchased and ran the family’s original Star Market, located in Watertown, in 1916, a year after it opened. A second store opened in Newton in 1932.
The chain began adding roughly one store per year until the postwar building boom and advent of the suburban shopping mall accelerated its growth. By the mid-’60s, the chain, under Stephen Mugar’s management, comprised 35 stores plus the Brigham’s ice cream plant and retail shops.
Mr. Mugar apprenticed in the business as a meat cutter and store manager. In 1964, his father sold the family’s interest to a Chicago company and founded Mugar Enterprises, focused mainly on developing shopping malls and hotels. David Mugar began running the company in 1982 following his father’s death.
That same year, after waging a protracted legal battle with WNAC-TV owner RKO General, he became majority owner and CEO of New England Television, fulfilling his dream of running a local network affiliate. (A separate dream, to own a stake in the Red Sox, failed to materialize when a proposed deal with a group of minority owners fell through in early 1983.)
The 1980s and ‘90s overlapped with Boston’s Golden Age of TV news as the city’s three network affiliates — including WBZ (Channel 4, owned by Westinghouse) and WCVB (Channel 5, a Hearst property) — competed fiercely for ratings, ad dollars, and bragging rights. Local news anchors commanded hefty salaries and celebrity status.
Not every owner turned a comfortable profit, though. Despite Mr. Mugar and his partners investing heavily in the newsroom arms race, their station stayed mired in third place in the ratings. As financial pressures mounted, shareholder fights erupted. A particularly ugly one broke out in 1991 involving minority owner Robert Kraft. In exercising a $25 million buyout option, Kraft put Mr. Mugar in a financial bind, triggering a bitter public feud between the two men.
In 1993, mounting debt service and slumping ratings persuaded Mr. Mugar to sell the enterprise to Ed Ansin of Miami-based Sunbeam Co. for a reported $215 million. Channel 7 later affiliated with NBC and is now an independent station.
After the sale, Mr. Mugar admitted to the Globe that competing against the likes of Westinghouse and Hearst had been challenging: a “cutthroat business,” he called it.
Yet his most stinging criticism was reserved for the lawyers, bankers, and insurance companies that he felt profited unduly from his ownership struggles. Their actions along with staff cuts and layoffs he had been obliged to make bothered him deeply.
“That hurt me personally because I knew so many of the people,” he said.
Mr. Mugar was married twice, to Martha Sillen and Rosemary Love. Both marriages ended in divorce. He leaves three children from his first marriage, Jonathan, a Hollywood writer, producer, and actor, Peter, a basketball coach at Caltech in Pasadena, and Jennifer Mugar, a philanthropist; his sister Carolyn Mugar, executive director of Farm Aid; five grandchildren; and his longtime companion, Carolynn Cartelli.
A service will be announced in the days ahead.
“He meant everything to me and all of us children,” Jonathan said Wednesday. “I think that the older we got, and the more our relationships evolved over the years, we grew to appreciate more and more facets of my father. And he was an incredible guide throughout our lives.”
In 1998, Boston’s Embankment Road, near Beacon Hill, was renamed David. G. Mugar Way in honor of his long association, personal and financial, with the July 4th show.
A member of the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame, he also served as a trustee of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Museum of Science, and WGBH Educational Foundation.
Notwithstanding his lofty profile as a businessman-philanthropist, Mr. Mugar remained an intensely private man, according to friends, largely avoiding public functions and turning down offers of honorary degrees and such.
Mr. Mugar himself often said his closest friends and personal heroes were not fellow A-listers but firefighters and other working-class people.
“Our Dad used the opportunity he was given to think imaginatively, act honestly, and make a difference to those most in need,” his children said in their statement. “That is a legacy we will work hard to preserve. We love you Dad, and we will miss you.”
According to Steve MacDonald, a retired Boston Fire Department spokesman and longtime friend, people often expressed surprise about his own connection to someone of Mr. Mugar’s stature.
“But that’s just who David was,” MacDonald said. “He was friends with regular people. He drove a Ford or a Kia. And he was more comfortable around people who didn’t want something from him.”
By the same token, MacDonald said, Mr. Mugar was not shy about soliciting fellow VIPs to support such pet causes as the Vendome Hotel Fire Memorial, which honors nine Boston firefighters who perished in the 1972 blaze. It was dedicated at a 2016 ceremony from which Mr. Mugar made a point of having his own name omitted, despite having played an outsized role in the memorial’s construction.
“When all is said and done, David would try to help people any way he could,” MacDonald said. “He was an unassuming and very generous man.”
Bryan Marquard of the Globe staff contributed to this report.