David Mugar, 82, Philanthropist

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From GBH

David Mugar, a Boston philanthropist and the man behind the annual Fourth of July Fireworks Spectacular, died Tuesday night at the age of 82.

“He was a Bostonian through and through, continually finding ways to give back to the community he loved,” his family said in a statement. “He was humble and generous. Quietly doing good for others and always leading with his heart. The many gifts he gave to civic and cultural organizations across the city and the state were most often given in recognition and honor of his parents, our grandparents.”

Mugar was the son of Star Market founder Stephen Mugar. He grew up in Watertown and Belmont.

As a boy, he was inspired by the 1952 film “The Greatest Show on Earth” and the circus manager portrayed by Charlton Heston — which led him to dream of bringing together large-scale events. In 1974, he and conductor Arthur Fielder brought that idea to life by re-imagining the Boston Pops Esplanade concerts. The new additions included cannon fire, area church bells and fireworks launched over the Charles River.

Annual attendance grew. And in 2003, Mugar worked with to turn the concert into a nationally broadcast event.

“David had such a huge effect on this city, yet I suspect that many people don’t know of him,” said Keith Lockhart, current conductor of the Boston Pops. “He was always behind the scenes, but oh so important behind the scenes.”

Lockhart said Mugar was involved in the Fireworks Spectacular for more than four decades, up until the final years of his life, and that he had a hand in “everything from the distribution of the port-a-potties to the actual program and the fireworks afterwards.”

“When the dust and the last confetti had rained down on us and we were basking in the glow of another season, one of my favorite moments that would happen year after year is that he would show up outside my dressing room, stick his hand out, shake my hand and say ‘Good job, kid’ or words to that effect,” Lockhart said.

Mugar also played a role in the city’s New Year’s Eve celebrations. In 1998, he founded the Mugar Family Fireworks event as part of Boston’s First Night celebration.

A noted philanthropist, Mugar supported universities, hospitals and cultural organizations in the region. He was a life trustee of the Orchesta, a member of the board of overseers for the Boston Landmarks Orchestra and a former trustee of GBH.

“Our Dad used the opportunity he was given to think imaginatively, act honestly, and make a difference to those most in need,” his family said. “That is a legacy we will work hard to preserve. We love you Dad, and we will miss you.”


From Bob Seay

An interview with David Mugar about the Fourth of July fireworks.


From

David was a stalwart and remarkable supporter of GBH throughout his life. In the early 1970s, excited about the possibilities of television, and a fan of Channel 2, he worked at WGBH — for a dollar a year — donating his time as he learned from our team about the television business.

He remained a true fan, first serving on our Board of Advisors in 1994 and then in 1997 joining our Board of Trustees, serving until 2009. During that time, he contributed to many of the important board discussions about GBH’s leadership in public media, both in Boston and for the nation. David served on numerous board committees, including the Investment and Building and Real Estate committees. He was instrumental in helping GBH plan for our major move from and our new studios and home on Guest Street. As part of his counsel, David introduced GBH to fellow Trustee Emeritus David Ting, whose expertise and financial vision helped us structure a successful real estate transaction with that set the stage for our big move.

David Mugar’s generous financial support across multiple campaigns provided important philanthropic leadership, including his gift to the campaign for our new home for which the Mugar TV is named, in memory of his parents. At his core, David was about family, friends, and community.

Our hearts go out to David’s family and we will remain forever grateful for his leadership and generosity.

From the Boston Globe

David Mugar, a prominent businessman and deep-pocketed philanthropist who injected fireworks and cannon fire into Boston’s annual Fourth of July celebration, one of many contributions to civic life that left a lasting imprint on the city and region, died Tuesday night. He was 82.

As chairman and CEO of Mugar Enterprises Inc., Mr. Mugar oversaw a sprawling, privately held empire comprising real estate holdings, retail businesses, performance venues, and other investment- and arts-oriented enterprises.

Beginning in 1982, he served as principal owner of WNEV-TV (Channel 7, now -TV), then the local network affiliate, for more than a decade. As executive producer of the July Fourth Esplanade show, he almost single- handedly transformed the event from a parochial celebration into a star- spangled extravaganza seen by millions on national television.

A scion of an Armenian American family that built the Star Market grocery chain, Mr. Mugar belonged to an elite group of donors whose wealth and influence reached into virtually all aspects of public life, from college libraries and concert halls to hospitals and shopping malls.

In alone, the Mugar family name is affixed to the ’s Omni Mugar Theater, ’s Mugar Memorial Library, Northeastern University’s Mugar Life Sciences Building, and Mugar Hall at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Diplomacy.

Other institutions substantially benefiting from Mr. Mugar’s largesse include the Orchestra and Cape Cod Hospital. In 2012, he created a separate foundation dedicated to helping individuals through what he called “random acts of kindness.”

“He was a Bostonian through and through, continually finding ways to give back to the community he loved,” Mr. Mugar’s children said in a statement. “He was humble and generous. Quietly doing good for others and always leading with his heart. The many gifts he gave to civic and cultural organizations across the city and the state were most often given in recognition and honor of his parents, our grandparents.”

Beyond the holiday Pops concert, Mr. Mugar helped fund the city’s Family Fireworks show on First Night on New Year’s Eve and was a major investor in its live music scene, partnering with Live Nation’s Don Law to own and operate the Boston Opera House, Paradise Rock Club, and the House of Blues.

For years, Mr. Mugar ranked among Massachusetts’s richest citizens, with a worth pegged at $600 million or more.

“I want to do things that will affect the people in especially,” he once observed, “and I like to do things that are non-exclusionary, so that they’re available to everyone.”

Exhibit A was his long association with the Independence Day concert.

For many years, the Mugar family had helped underwrite the event, first organized in 1929 by conductor Arthur Fiedler. As a teenager, David Mugar befriended Fiedler, the two sharing a passion for racing to active fire scenes: fellow hobbyists known as “sparks.”

In 1973, with the July Fourth concerts attracting sparse crowds, Mr. Mugar proposed adding fireworks and cannon fire to Tchaikovsky’s majestic “1812 Overture,” a favorite piece of music. Fiedler agreed.

The next year, Mr. Mugar began serving as executive director. His first production drew a record 75,000 attendees. Two years later, 400,000 showed up for America’s Bicentennial celebration, thus seating Boston near the head of the nation’s party table.

No one was more delighted by all those dazzling bombs bursting in air than Mr. Mugar, a former licensed pyrotechnician and accomplished amateur photographer.

Although he never had a direct role in launching the fiery spectacle, Mr. Mugar helped test new fireworks from time to time — back when they were ignited by railroad flares, not computerized firing programs. He also worked on safety regulations that are still being followed.

“His single-minded devotion to our iconic Fourth of July celebration was inspiring, and no one was more responsible for the creation and the preservation of the event than David,” Pops maestro said in a statement Wednesday. “His passion for our Independence Day celebration was unparalleled and meeting him backstage after the fireworks for a handshake and a hearty ‘Keith, you did good!’ was the ultimate capstone on the evening for me.”

For decades, Mr. Mugar personally funded the event, spending $1 million or more.

Mr. Mugar produced his last July Fourth show in 2016. The event is now produced by Boston 4 Productions under management by the Boston Pops.

“He never took for granted the opportunity that was given to him by his father and his mother, and he viewed himself as having an enormous responsibility to give back as a result of that,” his son Jonathan said in an interview Wednesday.

David Graves Mugar was born on April 27, 1939, and grew up in Belmont, one of two children of Stephen P. Mugar and Marian Graves. His father’s roots were Armenian, his mother’s of Yankee stock.

He attended the Cambridge School of Weston and Babson College but flunked out of the latter, having devoted much of his time to running his first business venture, a check-cashing agency. He later took courses in Cornell University’s food administration program.

It was Sarkis Mugar, Stephen’s father, who purchased and ran the family’s original Star Market, located in Watertown, in 1916, a year after it opened. A second store opened in Newton in 1932.

The chain began adding roughly one store per year until the postwar building boom and advent of the suburban shopping mall accelerated its growth. By the mid-’60s, the chain, under Stephen Mugar’s management, comprised 35 stores plus the Brigham’s ice cream plant and retail shops.

Mr. Mugar apprenticed in the business as a meat cutter and store manager. In 1964, his father sold the family’s interest to a Chicago company and founded Mugar Enterprises, focused mainly on developing shopping malls and hotels. David Mugar began running the company in 1982 following his father’s death. That same year, after waging a protracted legal battle with WNAC-TV owner RKO General, he became majority owner and CEO of Television, fulfilling his dream of running a local network affiliate. (A separate dream, to own a stake in the Red Sox, failed to materialize when a proposed deal with a group of minority owners fell through in early 1983.)

The 1980s and ‘90s overlapped with Boston’s Golden Age of TV news as the city’s three network affiliates — including WBZ (Channel 4, owned by Westinghouse) and WCVB (Channel 5, a Hearst property) — competed fiercely for ratings, ad dollars, and bragging rights. Local news anchors commanded hefty salaries and celebrity status.

Not every owner turned a comfortable profit, though. Despite Mr. Mugar and his partners investing heavily in the newsroom arms race, their station stayed mired in third place in the ratings. As financial pressures mounted, shareholder fights erupted. A particularly ugly one broke out in 1991 involving minority owner Robert Kraft. In exercising a $25 million buyout option, Kraft put Mr. Mugar in a financial bind, triggering a bitter public feud between the two men.

In 1993, mounting debt service and slumping ratings persuaded Mr. Mugar to sell the enterprise to Ed Ansin of Miami-based Sunbeam Co. for a reported $215 million. Channel 7 later affiliated with and is now an independent station.

After the sale, Mr. Mugar admitted to the Globe that competing against the likes of Westinghouse and Hearst had been challenging: a “cutthroat business,” he called it.

Yet his most stinging criticism was reserved for the lawyers, bankers, and insurance companies that he felt profited unduly from his ownership struggles. Their actions along with staff cuts and layoffs he had been obliged to make bothered him deeply.

“That hurt me personally because I knew so many of the people,” he said.

Mr. Mugar was married twice, to Martha Sillen and Rosemary Love. Both marriages ended in divorce. He leaves three children from his first marriage, Jonathan, a Hollywood writer, producer, and actor, Peter, a basketball coach at Caltech in Pasadena, and Jennifer Mugar, a philanthropist; his sister Carolyn Mugar, executive director of Farm Aid; five grandchildren; and his longtime companion, Carolynn Cartelli.

“He meant everything to me and all of us children,” Jonathan said Wednesday. “I think that the older we got, and the more our relationships evolved over the years, we grew to appreciate more and more facets of my father. And he was an incredible guide throughout our lives.”

In 1998, Boston’s Embankment Road, near Beacon Hill, was renamed David G. Mugar Way in honor of his long association, personal and financial, with the July 4th show.

A member of the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame, he also served as a trustee of the Orchestra, Museum of Science, and WGBH Educational Foundation.

Notwithstanding his lofty profile as a businessman-philanthropist, Mr. Mugar remained an intensely private man, according to friends, largely avoiding public functions and turning down offers of honorary degrees and such.

Mr. Mugar himself often said his closest friends and personal heroes were not fellow A-listers but firefighters and other working-class people.

“Our Dad used the opportunity he was given to think imaginatively, act honestly, and make a difference to those most in need,” his children said in their statement. “That is a legacy we will work hard to preserve. We love you Dad, and we will miss you.”

According to Steve MacDonald, a retired Boston Fire Department spokesman and longtime friend, people often expressed surprise about his own connection to someone of Mr. Mugar’s stature.

“But that’s just who David was,” MacDonald said. “He was friends with regular people. He drove a Ford or a Kia. And he was more comfortable around people who didn’t want something from him.”

By the same token, MacDonald said, Mr. Mugar was not shy about soliciting fellow VIPs to support such pet causes as the Vendome Hotel Fire Memorial, which honors nine Boston firefighters who perished in the 1972 blaze. It was dedicated at a 2016 ceremony from which Mr. Mugar made a point of having his own name omitted, despite having played an outsized role in the memorial’s construction.

“When all is said and done, David would try to help people any way he could,” MacDonald said. “He was an unassuming and very generous man.”

7 Comments

  1. Bob Seay on February 7, 2022 at 9:07 am

    My interview with David 10 years ago for GBH radio on the evolution of the July 4th Esplanade extravaganza

    https://drive.google.com/file/d/1YJlw2WH_8azVaUa9s0ztbX-QNj9gh6MM/view

    • Jay Collier on February 11, 2022 at 3:26 pm

      Thanks, Bob! A very nice interview with David. I’ve added it to the main story.

  2. Gordon Mehlman on February 5, 2022 at 9:33 am

    I also worked on the WGBH-TV program What’s the Big Idea and both of the Boston Pops Fourth of July Esplanade concerts that were produced by and aired on WGBH.

    What’s The Big Idea was shot on the oceanfront lawn of Dave Mugar’s Red Jacket Inn on Cape Cod. The Crew stayed in rooms that he provided on site and all meals were served in the dining room. I clearly remember the morning that we were just finishing breakfast when Dave walked out of the kitchen with a large plate of blueberry pancakes and set them down in front of Greg McDonald and said “now enjoy these”.

    On the first day of this shoot it was so hot and we were drawing so much power that we blew one of the three transformers that had been installed by Plymouth Light and Power specifically to power the WGBH forty foot mobile unit. The rest of the days shooting was done utilizing the onboard mobile unit generator.

    On the last day of the shoot Dave provided the crew a wrap party clambake with so many lobsters that we could not eat them all.

    Dave provided the fireworks displays for the Esplanade concerts. To be able to have a “money shot camera” for the fireworks display for the 1984 concert Al Potter made an arrangement to have a color tv camera and crew positioned on the roof of the new John Hancock building. The Hancock building was completely shut down for the holiday.

    An agreement was made that the crew of four and camera and microwave equipment would enter the building at seven a.m. on the morning of the fourth of July and would not get to leave until after the concert was over. Wearing specialized riggers safety harnesses secured to the rails holding the window washing apparatus, the camera and microwave equipment was set up at the very edge of the building. The signal from the camera was then microwaved down to the mobile unit that was parked behind the Hatch Shell. From that vantage point we were able to point the camera almost straight at the exploding fireworks.

  3. Lo Hartnett on February 4, 2022 at 2:57 pm

    The Mugars were also generous major donors to GBH’s Major Donor Annual Fund ….above and beyond. Sure wish I had Marilyn’s 3×5 cards so I could share just how generous he was to GBH. A model philanthropist. .

  4. Jon Abbott on January 30, 2022 at 11:19 am

    David was a stalwart and remarkable supporter of GBH throughout his life. In the early 1970s, excited about the possibilities of television, and a fan of Channel 2, he worked at WGBH — for a dollar a year — donating his time as he learned from our team about the television business.

    He remained a true fan, first serving on our Board of Advisors in 1994 and then in 1997 joining our Board of Trustees, serving until 2009. During that time, he contributed to many of the important board discussions about GBH’s leadership in public media, both in Boston and for the nation. David served on numerous board committees, including the Investment and Building and Real Estate committees. He was instrumental in helping GBH plan for our major move from Western Avenue and our new studios and home on Guest Street. As part of his counsel, David introduced GBH to fellow Trustee Emeritus David Ting, whose expertise and financial vision helped us structure a successful real estate transaction with Harvard that set the stage for our big move.

    David Mugar’s generous financial support across multiple campaigns provided important philanthropic leadership, including his gift to the campaign for our new home for which the Mugar TV Production Center is named, in memory of his parents. At his core, David was about family, friends, and community.

    Our hearts go out to David’s family and we will remain forever grateful for his leadership and generosity.

  5. Russ Fortier on January 29, 2022 at 5:51 pm

    I first worked with David when WGBH produced a series on Cape Cod called What’s The Big Idea hosted by Doris Kearns Goodwin which I directed. The programs were shot on the beach in Falmouth at Mugar’s Red Jacket Inn and featured a variety of topics and guests from the many famous and accomplished people who summered on the Cape and Islands.

    (He once told me that as a kid, his big ambition was to be a television cameraman.) 

    A close buddy was fellow “sparky” Arthur Feidler. David was instrumental in the  community coalition which took over Channel 5 from the Boston Herald and the Mugar name is known throughout Boston and Cape Cod, thanks to his life-long generosity.

  6. Olivia Tappan on January 29, 2022 at 4:23 pm

    RIP David. Thanks for all the meaningful things you did with your life. My most favorite memory is of being on a Boston rooftop with you and other WGBH colleagues watching the bicentennial fireworks over the Esplanade. Oh what a night!

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