Bill Schermerhorn was born on Independence Day.
He graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1982 and went straight to New York to pursue acting. Instead of Broadway, he ended up with Macy’s.
For 34 years, he worked on their large-scale events, including the Thanksgiving Day Parade, and of course, the July 4 Fireworks Spectacular.
Two years ago, he returned to Williamsburg as the creative director for signature events at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Since returning, Schermerhorn has brought new life to the Independence Day celebrations he was born for.
Beth Kelly, Colonial Williamsburg’s co-executive director of education, research and historical Interpretation, has worked for the foundation for more than 30 years. She doesn’t know when the July 4 Colonial Williamsburg fireworks displays began, but she has seen them every year for three decades.
And each year, she has watched them evolve.
The celebrations used to be small. Families brought picnic blankets to the Palace Greens in the early afternoon. They listened to a reading of the Declaration of Independence sometime during the day. The fireworks display finished late in the evening and after a Fife and Drum procession, everyone went home.
It’s not that simple anymore.
This year there will be multiple readings of the Declaration of Independence in different locations and read by different people. The 13 colonies will salute their state flags behind the courthouse in the morning. Thomas Jefferson will be available for breakfast and dinner.
“No two years are ever the same,” Kelly said.
The fireworks display itself has changed as well, thanks in large part to Schermerhorn and his decades of experience working with the Macy’s celebrations.
Fireworks will begin at 9:20 p.m. and will last for 20 minutes. They are best visible from the Palace Green, though visitors can also watch from Merchants Square or the lawn in front of the art museums.
Schermerhorn has also incorporated a new soundtrack to accompany the display, which will play on WMBG 97.7 FM. Every burst of color will explode in tune with a playlist of patriotic songs composed by the William and Mary a cappella group The Gentleman, and the Colonial Williamsburg Waterman Music Troupe.
“The music sets the mood,” Schermerhorn said. “But it’s always good to have a boom and burst.”
Unlike December’s Grand Illumination, Colonial Williamsburg’s July 4 display will feature modern fireworks, flying much higher and exploding with flashy colors and patterns.
Meanwhile, up to 30,000 people will watch from the streets below, and Schermerhorn said he will countdown from 10 to one over the radio and cross his fingers and toes, hoping everything runs according to plan.
After the last explosion, Kelly’s focus will shift to getting the crowd out safely.
“We have to make the magic happen and make sure everyone’s safe and secure,” Kelly said. “So there’s always that dual edge.”
On Tuesday, dressed in a short sleeve button-down covered with the pattern of exploding fireworks, Schermerhorn said he wanted to help create a celebration for everyone.
“No one wants to hear patriotic music on July 3 or fifth, but they demand it on the fourth,” Schermerhorn said. “This is a reminder that out of many, there is one.”
“This is the spirit of why we are who we are,” Kelly said.
Fourth of July fireworks date back to the first Independence Day in 1777. In 1776, writing a letter to his wife, John Adams called for America to celebrate its freedom with illuminations across the continent, and people answered his call the next year in Philadelphia, Penn.
After a day of festivities across the city, people gathered to watch a display of fireworks at night.
Two weeks later, a local newspaper described the evening like this:
“The evening was closed with the ringing of bells, and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks, which began and concluded with thirteen rockets on the commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated.”
That newspaper was the The Virginia Gazette.
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