50 years of fireworks — Cape marks July 4th milestone
This year marks the 50th year Cape Coral will put on a firework show for its residents on the 4th of July, quite the milestone for a city founded only 61 years ago.
Over the years, the community’s population has dramatically increased, development has taken place and infrastructure continues to march on.
Just as the city has evolved, so has its biggest event of the year in what we now call the Red, White & BOOM! celebration.
It wasn’t always the largest fireworks show in Southwest Florida- with the 30,000 person-plus turn-out we see today and live bands and vendors providing food and entertainment for the public.
The inaugural Independence Day fireworks display happened in 1968, when Cape Coral was a township, not a city, held at Lake Kennedy.
The Cape Coral fireworks show, no matter the size, has seen various venues over time.
Locations have ranged from the pier at the Yacht Club, to Horton Park, to Lake Kennedy, then to Tarpon Point before finding its home on Cape Coral Parkway today.
The event was initially run by the Jaycees, who for years developed the concept of the Independence Day celebration.
For many years, a parade on Cape Coral Parkway accompanied a day of activities for residents preluding the fireworks, even a police versus fire department tug-of-war.
Former mayor Joe Mazurkiewicz fondly remembers lighting the fireworks himself most years, not without a few laughs along the way.
“I remember driving up to Sebring and bringing the fireworks back in the bed of a truck,” he said. “I became a licensed pyrotechnician. We used to shoot them off of a barge in the middle of the river. Our clothes would be covered in debris and singe marks.”
Cape Coral pioneer Elmer Tabor started off as a volunteer and has been involved with the event-and the city – for decades.
“We would have a burnt shirt award given to the chairman of the event for many years,” he said. “I still have one framed in my office.”
Mazurkiewicz always remembers the even being family oriented and community driven. “A grass roots kind of feel,” he said.
The Jaycees, due to financial burden and growth of the event, passed it onto the Chamber of Commerce in the late ’80s/early ’90s, and they continued to bolster the celebration.
Adding major sponsors was a key part of the continued success and growth, though some location kinks were still being worked out.
“Tarpon Point was the worst for the fireworks,” Tabor said.
He said when it rained the land would become swamp-like, even noting one year a towing company that sponsored the event had to rescue cars out of the area.
The group still kept a good attitude, undeterred by any snags they ran into along the way.
The first year they implemented a computerized system to set off the fireworks, someone pushed the wrong button and the finale happened at the beginning.
“It would be fun, despite the problems. It was such a fun family event, but no one knew the challenges behind it,” Tabor said.
These are sentiments backed by former Chamber president and Cape council member Gloria Tate, who even worked the beer booth in previous years.
“It was a true labor of love,” she said about putting on the celebration each year. “It was our gift to the community. So much preparation went into it-it wasn’t a money maker and we did so much to ensure it got put on each year. I don’t think people realize how much goes into it.”
Tate, along with other long-time members of the community remember running into issues time and time again, with sponsors playing a major role in saving the day.
“There were numerous years with sponsor challenges,” said Tim Hauck, Fuller Metz Funeral Home director and chamber member.
LCEC, Storm Smart, Lee Health and so many others have been there to help rescue the event in years past.
Hauck remembers going as a little kid with his father who was a member of the Jaycees.
“It was a tiny little event. You brought your chair and watched the fireworks. Now, it’s this big huge event, an extravagant Independence Day celebration.”
He also remembers the previously mentioned “finale-first” year.
“That was one hell of a show, even though it only lasted 5 minutes,” he said while laughing.
No matter who you talk to, the No. 1 wild card when planning these events was mother nature herself.
“You never knew what time it was going to rain, but you knew it would,” said current Chamber President Donna Germain.
She remembers having a “rain pool” where they would place bets to see at what time the sky would open up.
Rain in the afternoon would usually indicate a clear night for the show, but some things you can’t control.
Hauck recalls one year when they were running out of flares to light the fireworks with. Luckily, a police officer was near-by and brought them road flares from his trunk to continue lighting them off.
He also said that one year it rained all night and wouldn’t stop. They weren’t able to start until almost midnight.
“It was organized chaos, with lots of unplanned snags,” Hauck said.
In the late ’90s, Red, White and BOOM! finally settled at its home on Cape Coral Parkway.
“Moving it to the bridge expanded the event quite a bit,” Germain said. “It was jam packed at Tarpon Point; now there is a lot more room for parking, vendors and people.”
The current location also offers a somewhat safe harbor from the rain, in that flooding doesn’t occur as much on pavement as it did on grass in prior years.
The addition of activities for kids is a huge part of the event’s increase in popularity as well.
“Patriot Park” is chock-full of activities for youth, with the bridge venue allowing more space for rides and amusements.
Live music and the ability to secure headline acts also draws a large gathering of residents to the site year after year.
The Freedom 5K, put on by the Chamber of Commerce, was founded in 2011 as a prelude to the big event in the evening.
The Chamber, in 2014, passed along the spectacular to the city-more specifically the Parks and Recreation Department.
“As a non-profit, we found the city had more resources than we did, and the event had just grown so much,” Germain said. “Ninety percent of our work is through volunteers; we felt it was time to pass it along to the city, which we have a great relationship with.”
“We now spearhead the event, but it’s a joint effort between all city departments,” said Todd King, Special Events coordinator for the Parks and Rech Department.
“It has certainly grown in display (the fireworks), and turn-out growth has been awesome to see over time. We continually look to broaden the area by the foot of the bridge-having less vendors and more room for people,” he said.
The growth of Cape Coral has been substantial since its inception, something that does bring challenges.
“The events evolved-it’s a big major job. You can’t complain about success though,” Tabor said.
“I’ve seen the event grow into a big family day, with bigger bands. It’s more professional and run very efficiently. The city does an amazing job,” added Tate.