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Live From DC... It's A Capitol Night! - Producer Michael Colbert Continues The Family Tradition of Honoring Our Country and its Heroes

Posted By Rona Edwards, Friday, July 12, 2019

As producers, we like to tell stories that have something worthwhile to say and that touch people’s lives. We also produce movies, television and transmedia purely to entertain, and that is also very satisfying. However, it is rare to contribute something so meaningful that the legacy of what you produce has a lasting effect on the people you work with and the people you do the show for—year after year.  


In the case of Michael Colbert, he’s lucky enough to executive produce not just one, but two shows a year that celebrate our nation and its military heroes … and he has one shot to do it each time, because it’s all produced live. Colbert is the producer of A Capitol Fourth and the National Memorial Day Concert from Washington, D.C., which have become yearly institutions since 1981 and 1989, respectively. Both are ratings juggernauts for PBS.  


Though the National Memorial Day Concert is a more solemn event, A Capitol Fourth is a celebration of independence and our democracy. Both concerts bring out bipartisan support from the political arena, stars from stage, screen and the music industry, and well-known military veterans. Despite our differences, these two occasions unite us with one goal in mind: to honor those who have given the ultimate sacrifice and to celebrate our freedom from mad King George.


Let’s rewind a bit to how it all began. Colbert’s father, Jerry, was House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s media adviser. He taught O’Neill all about television. However, his patriotism for our soldiers and this country dates further back. His family used to run the Memorial Day events in his hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts. They would place flags at graves and organize the annual parade.


The meaning of Memorial Day became lost after Vietnam. “That was his mission … to try to bring it back. And now these shows have become national traditions,” says Colbert.


“I remember so well the first concert in 1981.” Colbert was a wide-eyed 13-year-old surrounded by legends Pearl Bailey and the great actor E.G. Marshall, who hosted the inaugural show. When the downbeat hit and the national anthem was sung, the teenager looked up at the flag blowing in the wind, the Capitol dome behind it and hundreds of thousands of spectators below, and it took his breath away. “It’s something you never get over,” he says. “My hair still stands up at the back of my neck.”


Not wanting to be an SOB (“son of a boss”), Michael ventured out on his own to learn his craft. He worked on variety and awards shows in Nashville, New York and Los Angeles. During that time, Michael met his wife, Jill Jackson, when both were involved with a Grand Ole Opry special, and it was love at first sight. The two still work as partners now via their nonprofit company that produces the shows, Capital Concerts.


Since the passing of his father in 2017, Colbert heeds his dad’s advice to trust his instincts and stay true to the mission. It’s a massive undertaking and a great responsibility to get it right every time. They produce these concerts for a fraction of the cost of other such comparable shows. The money is raised publicly and privately. Capital Concerts does all the promotion and TV and radio spots, down to social media outreach and websites. They also have to deal with more than 20 government agencies. Their company is small, but they get a lot of help from friends throughout Congress on both sides.


The Memorial Day concert is a hybrid of theater, film and performance. “It’s almost like the process of producing a movie or a Broadway show,” explains Colbert. “Every moment must fit perfectly into the next as you put this complicated puzzle together.”

 

John Stamos thrills the crowd

In keeping with the original vision, Colbert and his talented team ask these questions at the beginning of each production: “What do our veterans or their families need today, and what important anniversaries are there?” This year it’s the 75th anniversary of D-Day. The team worked hard to find powerful stories of veterans and their families. One such story is of that of medic Sgt. Ray Lambert. Prior to landing on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, Sgt. Lambert was awarded two Silver Stars and three Purple Hearts for his bravery saving his comrades in North Africa and Sicily. At 98, he is still in great shape physically and mentally and was able to see Sam Elliott tell his story at this year’s concert.


In addition, a lineup of Vietnam veterans populated the stage and were introduced by General Colin Powell—who served two tours in Vietnam and is the recipient of two Purple Hearts—so the country could finally say what it hadn’t properly said 44 years ago: Welcome home. “They sure deserve it,” says Colbert. “They fought the war they were given. And many are still struggling. But to be able to say that at the Capitol ... we’re very humbled to do so.” The concert always ends with one of the most intimate and solemn moments on television: A lone bugler playing Taps.


Top: Marines stand guard over the celebration on the National Mall
Below: Michael Colbert, Sean Fogel, Jon Macks and Jill Jackson

A Capitol Fourth has a very different tone. Because so many cities no longer have July 4th events due to budget cuts, Colbert and his team share an immense obligation in bringing this great celebration of freedom into people’s homes. This year they’re doing a special segment about wounded warriors who learned to play musical instruments during their recovery. It’s also the 50th anniversary of both the first moon landing and Sesame Street, so there will be special tributes to those milestones of American life.


Also on the program will be an homage to the incomparable Aretha Franklin, who performed several times for A Capitol Fourth. Colbert feels strongly about bringing the great music legends of our time along with younger stars to the concert stage. All genres are covered, including Broadway, country, classical and “lest we forget, patriotic music,” a jovial, upbeat Colbert adds. And to cap it off, of course, will be the perfectly timed 1812 Overture with fireworks exploding over our capital’s monuments and across the Potomac. It’s like covering the Olympics, with cameras all over the city, capturing everything. “All eyes are on Washington, D.C., as Washington becomes America’s hometown.”


There are a lot of moving parts to producing these complicated shows. When you’re dealing with five military services, the mayor’s office, the Capitol and D.C. police, the National Symphony, the National Park Service and the congressional leadership, it really does take the precision and teamwork of an army to pull off the broadcasts.


During our interview, members of Colbert’s producing team, Sean Fogel and Barr Weissman, stop by to say hello as does Colbert’s wife, Jill. One thing becomes crystal clear: They love what they do. With A Capitol Fourth celebrating 39 years and the National Memorial Day Concert 30 years, they give shows like Law and Order and The Simpsons a run for their money in longevity.


“These aren’t for us. These are for the nation,” Colbert stresses. “And when you look at it, it’s the memorial event for the United States. It’s the official July 4th for the country, and that gives you a lot of perspective as you put these things together.”


Though it’s always a wild ride, this is what attracted Colbert to live television—the immediacy of it, having to think on your feet ... and no post production! But they’ve had their challenges to be sure, particularly with the weather. Rain has caused cancellations and delays through the years, so they employ a meteorologist to predict where, when and if the weather will affect the show. There was also the time when Ray Charles missed his flight, causing producers to panic until he finally arrived and blew everyone away with America the Beautiful. Or the first year, when they used an old converted bookmobile as their TV truck, and the program monitor went out. The quick but difficult producorial decision was to broadcast a documentary on the monarch butterfly until they were up and running again.


“These shows are as much a way of life for us as anything and, as with any kind of producing, there’s always obstacles and challenges,” Colbert says matter-of-factly. “You just have to trust that you’re doing something that’s good, that you’re doing something that’s right, and you’re going to get through it.” Then he humbly concludes, “If we weren’t doing this, we ‘d find some other way to make a difference.”  



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