The Desperation of Increased Attendance

By Jason Feifer | Boston Magazine |

For years after Boston’s July Fourth party got its modest start in 1974, local philanthropist David Mugar was able to foot the $25,000 bill. But now the event draws upward of 500,000 spectators and costs $3 million, requiring big checks from sponsors Liberty Mutual and CBS. A full-time staff of two spends all year planning for the night.

Safety First Though 24 local and federal agencies—from police to Homeland Security—monitor the event, they didn’t initially coordinate their efforts. So in 2001, Mugar created a central command center, setting up dozens of monitors displaying security camera feeds in a room at Fisher College. (All the tables are draped with black cloth, which Mugar says helps keep everyone calm.) Emergency response times improved immediately. For instance, when radioactivity was detected in the crowd one year, agents were able to locate the source within minutes: a woman who’d undergone radiation therapy at a hospital a few days earlier.

Scene, Heard Two 40-foot sound towers once sufficed to broadcast the performers’ music to all revelers. But as the Esplanade’s trees grew taller, they began to muffle the loudspeakers. Mugar must now rent 35 towers and spread them throughout the area to ensure that people can hear the music.

Signature Move In keeping with its low-key roots, business deals for the Fourth celebration used to be sealed with just a handshake. That made some of the larger partners nervous, however, so Mugar has begun the long, expensive process of drawing up contracts for everything. "No aspersions intended," he says, "but you know what lawyers can do when they get involved."

Volatile Market Most of the fireworks come from China, the world’s leading manufacturer of aerial pyrotechnics. But the supply dropped off dramatically after 20 Chinese fireworks warehouses mysteriously blew up in February. While Boston’s 2008 show won’t be affected—it is, after all, under contract—future displays are expected to become even more costly.

Accidental Tourists CBS began broadcasting the event five years ago, attracting a huge national audience—and, unexpectedly, many pilgrims. Now more than a third of attendees come from outside New England. Unfamiliar with Boston, they tend to crowd unnecessarily around the Hatch Shell, and Mugar and his team have had to spend more time raising awareness and distributing pamphlets to disperse them along the Esplanade.

Location, Location Although it’ll be unpopular, Mugar is considering a move to the South Boston waterfront. The Esplanade is just too small: TV crews have trouble filming, crowd control is tough, cleanup’s a mess. "Had I known it would grow into an event like this," he says, "I would have never placed it in this location."

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