Colonial Williamsburg's new creative director talks inspiration behind Fourth of July celebration

Though Bill Schermerhorn was born on July 4 and identifies as a “history buff geek,” being creative director for Colonial Williamsburg and organizing events such as its annual Fourth of July celebration was never in his sights.

“I came (to Colonial Williamsburg) when I was 5 years old. There’s a picture of me in a tricorner hat in front of the palace,” he said. “So being in the Raleigh Tavern, when they handed me the key to my office, it was like a dream come true.”

This is the first celebration with Schermerhorn in the CW's director’s chair.

He has played a part in organizing 34 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parades in New York City and July 4 fireworks for more than three decades. He has earned two Emmy awards.

Though the bustle of New York is a far cry from the 18th-century ease of Colonial Williamsburg, Schermerhorn says planning for the two venues is not as different as it might seem.

“It’s just scale. In terms of telling a story, I believe a show, whatever event it’s for — even if you’re having a party in your backyard — it needs an opening, middle and an ending. How you put that all together doesn’t change,” he said. “Also the enthusiasm and excitement is the same no matter where you go. The enthusiasm from the community is always great, and that’s what you feed off of.”

The fireworks display is part of the “Light and Liberty” celebration that will take place over the Governor’s Palace on Tuesday to celebrate July 4.

The fireworks display will be accompanied by a musical score that begins with “The Lights of Freedom,” a medley of 18th century and modern music written by Schermerhorn and Grammy award-winning composer Doug Katsaros. Colonial Williamsburg musicians and The Gentlemen of the College, an a cappella group from William and Mary, will also be on the score.

“It’s about the human voice, it’s more intimate, but it feels right for here,” Schermerhorn said about the show. “You can think of it as a dance piece. You start with the music and then someone choreographs dancers. You use music to set the mood. I’m excited about it and I hope it adds a patriotism and a spirit to the fireworks.”

Schermerhorn and his team decided on the show’s theme after a quick Google search of Thomas Jefferson’s letters.

During the search, they found a letter that Jefferson wrote in 1795 to then-Commissioner of Revenue Tench Coxe where he wrote that “light and liberty go together.”

“I thought that was perfect. That’s what the Fourth of July is,” Schermerhorn said. “I took that and used that as a springboard to make the theme basically ‘the lights of freedom,’ so when you have those fireworks over the Governor’s Palace here in Colonial Williamsburg with Thomas Jefferson, it doesn’t get any better than that for the Fourth of July.”

Planning for the event took about six months, and was a collaborative effort to honor tradition while freshening up the presentation, according to Schermerhorn.

“We have these traditions and they’re great,” he said. “How can we keep them fresh for today’s audience? That’s the balance. It’s an honor to be part of those family traditions and to help shape and mold them, especially here for an event like the fourth of July.”

Events leading up to Tuesday’s fireworks start at 8 a.m. in the Shields Tavern for breakfast with Thomas and Martha Jefferson and go throughout the day.

The fireworks program is slated to start at 9 p.m. over the Governor’s Palace.

Want to go?

Colonial Williamsburg. Free parking and shuttle service available from the Visitor Center (101 Visitor Center Drive, Williamsburg).

Schedule of events

8 a.m.: Breakfast with Thomas and Martha Jefferson at Shields Tavern (ticketed buffet).

9:30 a.m.: Reading of Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson on the Capitol balcony.

10 a.m.: Salute to the States military muster on Market Square.

Noon: Patrick Henry reads the Declaration of Independence on the Courthouse steps.

1-3 p.m.: Live auction on Market Square Stage.

2:30 and 4:30 p.m.: Hour-long “Mr Key’s Poem: Our National Anthem” is performed in the Art Museums’ Hennage Auditorium ($4-$5).

9 p.m.: “The Lights of Freedom” fireworks.

More info: colonialwilliamsburg.com or 855-296-6627.

Email: scamilletti@dailypress.com

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