WILKES-BARRE — Why sit in the backyard waiting for the snap, crackle and pop of your neighbor’s fizzled-out fireworks when you can enjoy the crash, boom and bang of live music and a time-tested fireworks display in downtown Wilkes-Barre?
The city’s old-fashioned Fourth of July returns Thursday, with the fun beginning at noon as more than 20 food vendors and about 15 craft vendors open up shop in Kirby Park. Little folks also can enjoy a number of amusement rides on the track starting at noon.
The event will culminate at night with an 8 p.m. performance by the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic and a fireworks display beginning about 9:15 p.m., Wilkes-Barre Community Relations Coordinator Liza Prokop said.
Wilkes-Barre’s observation of the birth of the United States of America wasn’t always as grandiose as it is now, attracting between 20,000 and 30,000 residents to the city each year, Prokop said.
“Prior to that, it was just fireworks at night. Now, it’s an all-day event with vendors in the park and the Philharmonic,” said Ted Patton, vice president of Martz Trailways. The company has been a major sponsor of the celebration for 33 years, Patton said.
The involvement of local businesses like Martz helped changed the city’s Independence Day festivities greatly.
“It’s a family-owned company,” Patton said of Martz. “When we first did it, they (the Henry family) felt that they should give back to the community and this was one way to do that.”
Patton said the Henry family built the pavilion where the Philharmonic performs each year and deeded the structure back to the city with the provision it would have sole access to it on July 4 to continue the celebration.
A different view
Prokop, who joined the team inside City Hall earlier this month, said she’s excited to see how the popular event comes together before the skies light up.
“I’ve probably seen the Kirby Park fireworks since I was a child,” she said. “I’m looking forward to seeing the fireworks from a different side, from the production side. It’s going to be a very unique experience.”
Those planning to attend should come to the park early. Families begin arriving about 5 p.m. to grab prime seats for the big show, Prokop said.
Patton said families should plan to be inside Kirby Park to truly enjoy the show.
“A lot of people don’t come to the park. They sit along the banks on the Wilkes-Barre side, on the River Common. Really, you don’t get to see the fireworks if you do that because a lot of the fireworks are shot off at, say, tree level. I’m not sure people realize that.
“In order to really enjoy the music and the fireworks, you really have to be there. It’s not the same if you’re not,” Patton said.
Music is a central piece of the celebrations in Wilkes-Barre on July 4 and on Courthouse Square in Scranton on July 3, and no one knows that more than Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic Music Director Lawrence Loh.
“We associate so many great American marches and songs with patriotism,” Loh said. “Singing has always been a part of the fabric of our nation.”
This year, guest artist Jenny Oaks Baker, a violinist, will accompany the Philharmonic. She’ll add a twist to American music including hits from Disney movies and pieces by American composers such as Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber. Singer Katy Williams also will lead renditions of “God Bless America” and other favorites.
Concert-goers will have a choice to add their voices to the concert during sing-along portions, Loh said.
The Philharmonic has become almost synonymous with July Fourth in the region thanks to its annual public performances, but changing the music for the program each year is no challenge, Loh said.
“We want it to be patriotic; we want it to be American,” Loh said of selecting music for programs.
Loh said music selections can help fit a particular mood, theme or recent event. One year, he recalled, the weather was a bit stormy.
“I remember thinking it’s so perfect that we programmed music from Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony” because it’s classical music that describes a thunderstorm. When we performed it, I remember feeling that it was so perfectly relevant to the weather that we were experiencing,” he said.
The classic elements don’t need to change, he noted. Staples include the national anthem and a salute to the Armed Forces. Concertgoers attending performances Wednesday and Thursday should keep their eyes up when the Philharmonic “gets to play in the fireworks” to the familiar sounds of the “1812 Overture.”