Magazine

David Mugar’s magnificent obsession

How a love of firefighting and, yes, logistics led one man to launch Boston’s beloved Fourth of July tradition, now turning 40.

“In the best possible way, I think of David as a big kid whose absolute favorite holiday in the entire world is the Fourth of July,” Pops conductor Keith Lockhart says of David Mugar, shown in Cambridge overlooking the skyline of the city he loves.
Matt Kalinowski
“In the best possible way, I think of David as a big kid whose absolute favorite holiday in the entire world is the Fourth of July,” Pops conductor Keith Lockhart says of David Mugar, shown in Cambridge overlooking the skyline of the city he loves.

DAVID MUGAR was driving inbound on Commonwealth Avenue, his car gliding through the stillness of the early morning, when he worked up the nerve to ask the man sitting next to him the question he’d been mulling for weeks.

“Mr. Fiedler,” Mugar began — he always called the Boston Pops maestro Mr. Fiedler, never Arthur — “I’ve been thinking about the concerts on the Esplanade . . . ”

It was late summer 1973, and the concerts, which Mugar had loved growing up, were languishing. The Esplanade series Fiedler had founded in 1929 to liberate the orchestra from Symphony Hall and provide free music for the masses had dwindled to a few dates each summer, the crowd sparse and graying. Fiedler by then was wielding the baton for just one of those shows, typically around the Fourth, conducting a mix of Gershwin and Sousa. No fireworks, no Tchaikovsky.

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“What do you think about playing the 1812 Overture?” asked Mugar, who had heard the piece at Tanglewood. “If you do that, I could try to find some live cannons, not just use the kettle drums . . . and some live church bells. . . . And then what do you think about the idea of throwing fireworks in at the end?”

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With those tentative questions, Mugar wasn’t trying to create one of Boston’s signature events, draw millions to his hometown, or breathe new life into Tchaikovsky’s ode to the Russian army, let alone change the way much of America celebrates the Fourth — though he would do all that. Forty years ago, he was just hoping Fiedler would say yes.

Though Mugar was part of the conductor’s small inner circle, they seemed at first glance an unlikely duo: the white-haired Fiedler at 78 as cantankerous as he was beloved and so famous that when the Beatles first came to Boston they were asked about him, and Mugar, a dimpled 34-year-old who listened more than he spoke and who had managed a Star Market branch until his family sold the supermarket chain.

The Mugar family helped underwrite the Pops, but that had little to do with their friendship. The two men were “sparks,” spectators for whom firefighting is more thrilling than football. Mugar would swing by every Friday and Saturday night to Fiedler’s big brick house in Brookline, police scanner crackling, Nikon camera on the back seat, and Fiedler would climb in, often swathed in an overcoat and eager to talk about anything other than music. They would crisscross the city, hanging out in parking lots and at diners with newspaper reporters and photographers, waiting for the scanner to come alive. Boston was more of a tinderbox then — more smokers and combustible space heaters; fewer sprinklers, alarms, and fire codes — and the two men saw a lot of it burn. Though some around them were drawn by the conflagration and destruction, Mugar and Fiedler relished watching the firefighters come together in unison, their chief commanding the scene like the conductor of an orchestra.

Still, Fiedler wasn’t big on unsolicited advice, so Mugar waited until he was relaxed as they drove that morning in his Chevrolet. They reached Dartmouth and the Hotel Vendome, where the two had watched solemnly the year before as rescuers picked through the rubble to find the bodies of nine firefighters after part of the building collapsed.

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Take a shot, David, Mugar told himself, and he sprang the question.

The conductor’s eyes flickered; he flashed an impish smile. “Sounds great,” he replied. “Just let all hell break loose at the end.”

And so they did.

Stan Grossfeld/Globe staff/file
By 1977, the Pops concert and fireworks had become a massive draw for locals and tourists.

 

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WHAT THEY UNLEASHED, 40 years out, is an annual rite that draws half a million or more to the banks of the Charles River Basin each Independence Day, an estimated one-third coming from beyond New England. Meanwhile, all across the country, from small-town bandstands to the National Mall, crowds on the Fourth witness local replications of our event: Tchaikovsky’s overture with cannon fire and church bells, married to fireworks. Mark Volpe, managing director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, tells Mugar that the overture’s rebirth will be his greatest legacy, transforming a piece about Russia outlasting Napoleon’s invasion into a widely hummed tune evoking stars-and-stripes glory.

At 74, Mugar has a boyish enthusiasm, a Brahmin accent — he is half Yankee, half Armenian-American — and the easy, welcoming manner of a favorite middle school teacher now in retirement. He inherited a fortune and grew it into a larger one through an array of business ventures, including commercial real estate and communications. Twice divorced, he has downshifted from work in recent years, though not from the Fourth, to which he devotes hundreds of hours annually.

“In the best possible way, I think of David as a big kid whose absolute favorite holiday in the entire world is the Fourth of July,” says Pops conductor Keith Lockhart, who was 14 and at music camp when Fiedler and Mugar first collaborated; now he is preparing to conduct his 19th Independence Day concert on the Esplanade. “He lives and breathes for this particular day.” Mugar’s creation has become so big and so defining that even Lockhart sometimes meets people who are surprised to learn that the Pops play other concerts, too.

And it is a public event so tightly packed and so soaked in patriotism that the Tsarnaev brothers originally had it in their sights, before finishing their bombs sooner than expected and striking the Boston Marathon instead, according to law enforcement sources. Even before that chilling detail emerged in May, Mugar and public safety partners were meeting in the aftermath of the attack to re-appraise their plans. Already, the Fourth was more buttoned-up than the Marathon, with a security perimeter imposed around the Hatch Shell lawn after 9/11, concertgoers at the heart of the event forced to pass through checkpoints.

Mugar, professing ineloquence, says he is proud of Greater Boston’s resilience but yields to others on how to interpret the symbolism of the Marathon attack or honor the raw memory of what happened. Lockhart says he sees a chance not “for one more elegy or one more eulogy but [to] celebrate what’s best about America and about Boston.”

Photograph/Globe file
Pops maestro Arthur Fiedler, left, and Mugar shared a love of firefighting and desire to goose the once-ailing Esplanade concerts.

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JULY FOURTH 1974, nearly a year after Mugar sprang the question, Fiedler and the Pops supplied the music, and Mugar — who cold-called the Pentagon looking for howitzers and turned to the yellow pages for fireworks — arranged everything else. They hoped for perhaps 15,000 spectators, twice the normal crowd. They got 75,000. “Where the hell did they come from?” Fiedler asked before taking the stage.

It proved to be a joyous, peaceful diversion to the unease roiling the city; the federal court decision on busing had come down two weeks earlier. When Mugar and friends later arrived at a diner off the Expressway at 3 a.m., a waitress breathlessly asked, “Were you there? Were you at the Esplanade?” The Globe splashed the story on Page 1, with a picture of the fireworks and a description of the throngs cheering “Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture as it has probably never been performed before.”

But Mugar says his joy was tempered. What seemed like careful planning — sawhorses to keep the crowd from the stage, a handful of detail police officers on land and one more on a boat, extra ice cream trucks and ambulances — suddenly felt inadequate. His head swam with what they could have done better: more port-a-potties, more police, backup for a failed radio that nearly derailed the fireworks until they caught the pyrotechnician’s attention with a flashlight. They hadn’t thought to create an apron around the Army Reservists firing the howitzers or rent sound towers to amplify the music for the masses.

Let’s try it once more and see if we can do it right, Mugar thought. So the one-off event meant to give the Esplanade concerts a shot in the arm returned for 1975 — bigger and better, drawing 170,000 people, the fireworks show the largest on the Eastern Seaboard since 1940. To the Globe’s classical music critic, it demonstrated “what almost nobody believed was possible anymore: that you can indeed transform the big, wicked, dirty city into a kind of village.”

So with the Bicentennial on the horizon, Mugar agreed to produce one more encore. They filled the Esplanade in ’76, and the Longfellow and the Cambridge bank, too, 400,000 in all, grandparents and grandchildren, teenage girls in star-spangled bandannas, little kids on shoulders.

Photograph/Globe file
The result of Fiedler and Mugar’s work in 1976.

CBS sent a reporter to feed dispatches to New York, where Walter Cronkite anchored 16 hours of coverage from across the country. Not that Mugar saw that, in the days before VCRs. But a week later, he tuned in for In Celebration of US: Our Happiest Birthday, an edited hour of highlights, hoping they made the cut. He watched Marian Anderson and Leonard Bernstein recite the Declaration, President Ford ring a bell aboard an aircraft carrier, Archibald MacLeish read a patriotic play. Nothing from Boston. Clock ticking, Mugar was resigned for the worst.

And then Cronkite, in his reassuring baritone: “It was perhaps the high point,” he said, “of a day marked by crescendos.” Cut to the Esplanade and Fiedler, the swelling orchestra, the incandescent fireworks, closing out the broadcast for millions at home. “To this day,” says Mugar, who has the quote on his office wall, “it brings tears to my eyes, the pride I felt for Boston.”

 

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STILL, IT WOULD BE ANOTHER DECADE before Boston’s Fourth would become its own nationally televised special, first on cable, then on CBS, helping draw ever larger crowds and bigger talent to perform with the Pops, like Neil Diamond and Jennifer Hudson. CBS’s recent decision to drop the broadcast means it will only be televised locally and lack A-list guest stars. A disappointed Mugar consoles himself by saying they can end an hour earlier, better for families, and produce a show closer to its 1970s roots.

And for Mugar, it’s about what happens on the ground. The detail officers, sawhorses, and ice cream trucks from the first year are now joined by nearly 20 sound towers, 350 port-a-potties, and tens of thousands of trash bags, plus 30-SPF sunscreen dispensers and misting tents for the heat. From musicians to interns, more than 1,000 people collaborate on the event, and Mugar’s Boston 4 nonprofit employs a year-round team, including two full-time producers.

Twenty-four city, state, and federal agencies work together on safety for months in advance, sharing on July Fourth a unified command center on Beacon Street. Mugar proposed the command center the summer before 9/11, certain there was a better way than 24 separate buses; it is now a model for similar events around the world.

Clad in his B4 Productions jacket, wielding multiple walkie-talkies, Mugar today channels the same energy that made him a spark, a pastime he abandoned after Fiedler’s death in 1979 and his own purchase of Boston’s Channel 7, deciding the boss shouldn’t also be the bystander with a camera at 2 a.m. fire scenes. Today the walls of his Back Bay office, a 14th-floor perch overlooking the Charles, are adorned with plaques and patches from the safety agencies involved in the Fourth. “The amount of admiration and respect he has for them and their job is really kind of touching,” says his son Jonathan.

Tamir Kalifa for The Boston Globe
The 2012 event was one of Mugar’s most memorable, because lightning allowed the team to test its detailed evacuation plan; the show resumed once the storm passed.

And when Mugar is asked what the Fourth means to him, he answers in one word: “logistics.” If not the stuff of patriotic essays, it is what drives him. Consider: He had compared weather-emergency and crowd-management notes with a top US Capitol Police official multiple times over the years but did not discover until a few weeks ago that D.C.’s A Capitol Fourth has mimicked Boston’s blend of Tchaikovsky, cannons, and fireworks for three decades. So when Mugar is asked about memorable Fourths, it’s no surprise that 2012 ranks among the top. He finally got to deploy a lightning plan they drew up years ago — monitoring the radar, directing the crowds to safety in the Storrow Drive tunnel, and switching the broadcast to a tape of the dress rehearsal, before restoring the live show when the storm passed.

For 27 years, Mugar wrote the checks himself, stopping only after the annual cost rose to more than $1 million, long since exceeded. Traditionally averse to corporate sponsorship, he changed his mind after watching the Marathon adopt sponsors without becoming unmoored — and realizing he still could keep an eye on everything as executive producer. “Through all of those years and changes in broadcast partners and all the different guest artists,” Lockhart says, “the one constant has been David Mugar.”

For the first time, Mugar at 74 is being shadowed by Jonathan — though all three of his kids grew up handing out trash bags or selling souvenirs for charity — who is taking time from work as a TV comedy writer and producer to serve as understudy. “He’s got to earn his way in,” Mugar says, “but he has a real interest in it.”

That is as far as he gets in contemplating legacy; he is always thinking about the next Fourth, never the year after. “I don’t know, I really and truly don’t. . . . Now you’ve got me all nervous,” Mugar says, asked about the future. “Some things get to be so large they die of their own weight — called dinosaurs — and, I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about that. I mean, right now we’re all totally focused on a safe and wonderful event and concert and fireworks for 2013.”

When that is done, Mugar will slip off not to a diner but to the couch in his North End home, pour a glass of wine, and do what he could not all those years ago: watch on DVR the 40th show he just produced. And then he will start to think about the 41st.

 Eric Moskowitz is a Globe reporter. E-mail him at emoskowitz@globe.com.