From the fireworks guru to the parade queen, meet Baltimore's Fourth of July experts

From a politician whose July Fourth celebration involves an eight-plus-mile walk along four parade routes to the crew ensuring the Inner Harbor fireworks go off spectacularly, scores of people will be working hard Tuesday to ensure Baltimore-area residents have a Fourth of July worthy of its reputation as summer’s biggest, most family-friendly party.

So what goes into making Independence Day festive and memorable? We talked to some of the faces behind the festivities to find out.

(For a roundup of Fourth of July parades, festivals, fireworks and more, look through the gallery at the top of this article.)

The fireworks expert

For the thousands of Baltimoreans sitting back to watch Tuesday night’s Inner Harbor fireworks, the 20-minute-or-so display will be the capstone to yet another celebratory fourth.

But to Robert Mays and his five-man crew, the show will mark the end of four days of planning, installation and operation, all in the name of giving Charm City the sort of red, white and blue conflagration we’ve all become used to.

”Yeah, it’s satisfying to have it all up and done well,” says Mays, lead technician for New Castle, Pa.-based Pyrotecnico, which has been putting on the Inner Harbor show since 2010. Of course, he adds, “it’s not really done until we get everything back in the truck.”

The work will begin Saturday, he says, when he and his crew leave New Castle for Baltimore. They’ll begin setting up that day, loading racks, tubes and other equipment onto the barges from which the fireworks will be set off. They’ll start loading in the fireworks themselves on Sunday, placing them in the order in which they’re to go off.

Come Tuesday night, Mays says, technology takes over. “It’s all computerized,” he says, “the program’s already loaded into our board.” All he’ll have to do is press a button at the appropriate time and get the festivities going. The music will start playing, the rockets will start glaring, the crowd will start oohing and ahhing. Happy Independence Day, Baltimore.

The multi-parade master

Baltimore County puts on four parades every Fourth of July, beginning with Dundalk early in the morning, then moving on to Towson and Arbutus before ending in the late afternoon in Catonsville.

That’s good news, naturally, for county residents, who don’t have to travel very far to get in the patriotic spirit. But it can be something of a challenge for area politicians and civic figures, who have to do some serious hauling to do if they hope to cover all four parades.

“It is possible,” assures county State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger, who’s been making it to all four parades for 10 years, since he started serving in the post. “We’ve got it down to a science now.”

The key, he says, is minute-to-minute advance planning, and sticking to that schedule. Beginning in Dundalk, he then hightails it to Towson (where a pickup truck is already waiting, to carry whatever needs to be carried along the route), then dashes to Arbutus. Only following that parade can he and his crew take a break for lunch; happily, the Catonsville parade doesn’t start until 3 p.m..

But it’s not enough to stick to a schedule, Shellenberger notes. You have to be fit, too. “If you walk all four, you will walk 8.6 miles,” he says.

Still, there are benefits, especially for a politician who’s also a smart campaigner. “You can see a lot of voters in one day,” Shellenberger says.

The brand-new Americans

For about 30 people gathering in Annapolis Tuesday morning, this year’s July Fourth celebration will be truly life-changing.

It will be the day they officially became Americans.

For 12 years now, Annapolis’ Fourth of July celebration has started with a naturalization ceremony at the William Paca House and Garden, the home of one of Maryland’s four signers of the Declaration of Independence. Around 30 people, from communities all over the world and chosen by the Baltimore branch of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services, will become citizens of the United States.

“What better place than the home of a signer of the Declaration of Independence to welcome new people into the U.S. of A.?” asks Glenn Campbell, senior historian for Historic Annapolis and organizer of the annual event.

The ceremony, held outside the house under a tent, starts at 10 a.m. and lasts around 45 minutes, he says. Chairs are set up for around 100 friends, family and spectators (“We always have standing room,” Campbell promises). Following the ceremony, guests are welcome to tour the house, talk to living history performers and enjoy performances from several groups, including the All-Children’s Chorus of Annapolis and Squire Frederick Taylor, the Annapolis Town Crier. It'’s all free, and all very appropriate to the day, Campbell promises.

“There’s always just a very good, warm feeling in the air,” he says, “welcoming people sort of finally into the American family.”

The music master

For Michael Blackman, the Columbia Concert Band’s performance at Tuesday’s lakeside celebration in Columbia is about as patriotic as it gets.

“I firmly believe that, what’s July 4 without the town band?” says Blackman, who joined the band as a 12th-grader in 1986 and has been its director since 2000.

The point of such a band, he says, is to be inclusive, representative and fun. His 80-member band scores on all those fronts, he says.

“It’s amateur, we don’t turn anyone away, and all of our performances are free,” Blackman says. “Anybody can play, and anybody can come and listen. This group is really the town band.”

Blackman promises a broad spectrum of music from his players, covering the gamut from patriotic to Broadway to pop. The Columbia Concert Band is scheduled to start singing at 7 p.m., and continue right on until the fireworks start around 9:30 p.m..

“This is a chance for us to reach an enormous population, at an event that’s really meaningful,” Blackman says. “When you put those two together, we’re really excited to be a part of this.”

The history keeper

Westminster’s Carroll County Farm Museum will be putting on an eras-spanning July Fourth celebration Tuesday, in keeping with a grounds that includes buildings dated to the late 18th century.

“Our emphasis is on the things that make our property unique,” says Joanne Morvay Weant, the museum’s manager.

Operating on property that until the 1960s housed the county Alms House, the museum not only includes those structures, but others that have been moved here from other parts of Carroll. The oldest of the museum's 55 structures, a barn that was dismantled, then rebuilt on the premises, dates to the late 1700s; others are of more recent vintage.

This year’s July Fourth celebration will feature volunteers and staff acting out the parts of people who would have lived or worked out of the buildings while they were in active use.

“It’s the first time in recent years that we’ve reached back to that history,” Morvay Weant says.

The celebration also promises period activities for kids, including archaeological digs where budding Indiana Joneses could turn up shards of pottery. Dancers, visiting from Westminster’s sister city of Paide, Estonia, will be performing.

Morvay Weant promises activities from every era represented at the museum, for a July 4 celebration with some serious historical underpinnings.

“When you go into that 1700s barn, you’re not going to talk to someone on staff, you’ll be talking to someone in character,” she says. “Everything will be based on the history of the site, or the history of the buildings.”

The Independence Day queen

Bel Air’s July Fourth celebration has long been a tradition for the Brosh family. But it’s a safe bet that this year’s festivities will be more memorable than any that have come before.

That’s what happens when one of you is Miss Bel Air Independence Day 2017.

“I always feel like the parade to celebrate the Fourth of July is one of our nations oldest and greatest traditions,” said 21-year-old Natalie Brosh, a graduate of Edgewood High School and a student at Immaculata University, where she is studying music therapy and French.

As the reigning Miss Bel Air Independence Day — she was chosen by a committee from a number of applicants — Brosh will get to lead Tuesday’s parade down Bel Air’s Main Street. Later, she gets to give the signal to begin the town’s fireworks display.

She also got to compete in the Miss Maryland pageant, which ended last weekend in Hagerstown with the crowning of Westminster’s Kathleen Masek, who will represent the state in September’s Miss America pageant.

Brosh’s enthusiasm for the parade remained unabated, even after an exhausting week of competition. “I am really, really excited and looking forward to it,” Brosh said.

Not that being a part of the parade is new to the Brosh family. A few years ago, Natalie’s brothers and mother got to be part of the parade themselves, performing with the Silver Eagle Cloggers.

“My family has lived in Bel Air since I was four years old Brosh said, “and the parade and other Fourth of July festivities have always been important to us.”

And that, it’s safe to assume, won’t be changing this year.

Baltimore Sun reporter Danielle Ohl contributed to this article.

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