The first time Angelo Tilas got a good look at the Hatch Shell, his heart sank. On stage, the teak beams that lined the dome were cracked and rotting. Down below, a bunker of abandoned-looking dressing rooms and offices was strewn with trash, soggy with rainwater.
Though the Art Deco landmark on the Esplanade still turned heads from afar, it had fallen into disrepair, padlocked most days besides the Fourth of July.
When the head of the parks system asked Tilas to help reinvigorate the site, he initially balked. A father of three, he thought of all the nights and weekends he would lose. But then he agreed to try, just for the summer.
“That was 1984. And I’m still here,” Tilas said, beaming from behind his desk in that bunker beneath the Hatch Shell, long since restored. His tenure — which has spanned seven governors, as well as 15 commissioners of what is now called the Department of Conservation and Recreation — will come to an end with his retirement later this year.
Back in ’84, Tilas warmed to the job while polishing the Hatch Shell for a police-academy graduation, and he took pride in the growing numbers enjoying an expanded entertainment lineup. But he really got hooked over the Fourth of July, when the Hatch took its place at the center of the region’s Independence Day festivities, drawing 200,000 visitors and a national TV audience.
Tilas’s role might not have been glamorous — setting up and taking down port-a-potties and sawhorses, and helping to keep the light and sound people, the TV crew, the police, and everyone else on the same page. But he felt a rush seeing so many families bask in the music and fireworks; by the time the crowd dispersed, he had a new favorite holiday.
Over the decades since, Tilas, 64, has proved an essential player behind one of Boston’s signature events, even-keeled and adept at anticipating the needs of others involved. “He’s spot on all the time,” said David Mugar, who conceived of the production and has produced it since 1974.
Though few love the Fourth more than Mugar, Tilas is up there with him, clutching an honorary baton in the wings, perennially kidding Keith Lockhart about being ready to step in as an emergency conductor.
“He really lives for the Fourth,” said Mugar. “He loves the Fourth of July, and a large part of Angelo Tilas is the Fourth of July.”
Tilas’s fondness for the holiday is an extension of his pride in the Hatch Shell and the wider Esplanade, which he has also overseen for the last 15 years.
“He cares for every tree, and for every branch,” said Adam Klein, who has worked closely with Tilas as creator and annual producer of the Radio 92.9 EarthFest. “I’m not sure he necessarily likes the geese down there, but he cares for them, too.”
For most of his 20s, Tilas was back-office manager for a brokerage house, a job that paid well but made him miserable. In the early ’80s recession, he and the firm parted ways. Through his father, a Peabody city councilor and supporter of Governor Michael Dukakis, Tilas found work as administrator of a temporary project at the Metropolitan District Commission’s Franklin Park, then landed as assistant manager at one of its ice rinks.
In the process, he caught the attention of Bill Geary, an upstart commissioner trying to reinvent the sprawling MDC as a more public-friendly agency. Geary cringed at the state of the Hatch Shell, and drew up plans for near-nightly events.
“This is our Carnegie Hall, only it’s outside, it’s more beautiful, and it has such a rich legacy,” thought Geary, who installed Tilas as Hatch Shell manager, impressed by Tilas’s “people skills” and his precision as a 20-year member of the National Guard.
By 1985, the Hatch was hosting 100 concerts, charity walks, and film screenings a year, with Tilas a custodian, stage manager, and greeter all in one. While awaiting state funding for a $5 million renovation that would come in 1990, Tilas and a small crew held the bandstand together with screw guns and baling wire.
Though few of the millions who use the park each year know Tilas’s name, they all benefit from his attention to detail, his vigilance about trash, graffiti, and the state of the restrooms.
Likewise, most of the throngs who pack in for the Fourth would not recognize his ruddy visage, though some may recall his cheerful voice — coming through a megaphone at the end to invite people to “take home a souvenir.” Even then, in encouraging people to pocket the confetti, Tilas is trying to keep the park clean.
Along the way, he has unlocked the dressing room for Ray Charles and James Taylor, Herbie Hancock and Cyndi Lauper, Chick Corea and John Mellencamp. In ’87, Johnny Cash invited Tilas to watch the fireworks from atop his RV.
But the only celebrity photo Tilas displays is of Nelson Mandela, who delivered a stirring address to a quarter-million in 1990, soon after his release from prison. The champion of human rights casually introduced himself to Tilas, asking genuine questions about his job.
Though the MDC promoted Tilas and transferred him to supervise larger properties in the mid-1990s, he kept coming back for the Fourth and other special events. In 2001, he returned for good, charged now with supervising not just the Hatch Shell but all of the surrounding Esplanade, with its six miles of paths, nine pedestrian bridges, 265 benches, and 700-plus trees.
The other day, as he often does, Tilas crisscrossed the trails in his Kubota, a blaze-orange vehicle that looks like a golf cart with a pickup-truck bed. It was a perfect day, kayakers plying the Esplanade lagoon, sunbathers on the docks, but Tilas frowned.
“Look at all that trash,” he said, spotting a smattering of crushed cups and crumpled napkins around a garbage bin 100 yards away. Near the calisthenics course, he pulled over amid a stand of oaks. “Someone had a party last night and didn’t invite me,” he said, bending down to scoop up the remains of a 12-pack, collecting the broken glass with a pincher arm he keeps in his truck.
As he headed back toward the Hatch Shell, he recalled the record-setting snowfall of 2015 — so many early mornings plowing the bike paths and walking trails for commuters — as the first time he began to contemplate retirement. But he craved at least one more summer, one more Fourth.
When he does sign off, he will begin tackling all the projects he has postponed in his own yard, and enjoy more travel and concerts, admittedly scrutinizing parks and venues with a professional eye. But he suspects he will return to the Esplanade sometimes, especially for the Fourth.
“I’ve been really fortunate to be able to work here,” he said, after his Kubota had rumbled to a halt. “I probably have the best job in the state.”