May 24, 2019

Many Americans started planning this past week for the long Memorial Day weekend. Michael Colbert, B.A. 1991, has been working on his plans for months.

Colbert runs Capital Concerts and is the executive producer of the Capitol Fourth concert and the National Memorial Day Concert — two of the most-watched live television programs broadcast on PBS each year.

Colbert and his small staff work year-round to plan every detail of these productions. The programs are designed, Colbert says, “to unite Americans in celebration of this great experiment we call democracy.”

The National Memorial Day Concert will mark its 30th anniversary on Sunday, May 26, with an all-star line-up that includes actors Sam Elliott, Dennis Haysbert, and Christopher Jackson, and singers Patti LaBelle, Gavin DeGraw, and Alison Krauss. The hosts will be Tony-nominated actress Mary McCormack and Tony Award-winner Joe Mantegna.

“Joe says the Memorial Day Concert is the role he most looks forward to every year,” says Colbert, “because he gets to tell the stories of real heroes.”

That’s what it’s all about for Michael Colbert, too. It was from his parents, he says, that he “learned to care about things past the end of my nose.”

Colbert’s father, Jerry, spent a year with a Jesuit mission in Baghdad teaching Iraqi schoolchildren. When he returned to the United States, he married Eileen and together they headed to Chicago’s South Side as lay missionaries with Catholic Extension Volunteers.

In Chicago, Jerry earned a master’s degree studying film at Loyola University. “And it was there,” says Colbert, “that my dad began to understand the awesome power of television — still so new — to effect change, to bring people together.”

By the time Michael was a teen, the family had moved to Washington, D.C., as Jerry became media advisor to House Speaker Tip O’Neill.

Michael Colbert talking with colleagues backstage of the concert

“The National Symphony Orchestra had been doing a July 4th concert on a barge in the Potomac River,” says Colbert. “My father heard that they had approached the National Park Service about bringing the concert to the Capitol. And he thought this would be perfect for television.”

Jerry brought the idea to O’Neill, who rallied bipartisan support for a nationally televised concert. And he told Jerry he wanted him to be the producer.

“That was 1981,” says Colbert. “I was 13 years old, and I’ll never forget looking up at the Capitol where thousands of people stood wearing their red, white, and blue and watching the fireworks as the National Symphony Orchestra played the ‘1812 Overture.’

“I’ve worked at every concert since and it never gets old.”

As a junior in high school, Colbert was a part of the U.S. House of Representatives Page Program, and as a senior he served as O’Neill’s intern. Those experiences gave him a taste for politics.

So he stayed in Washington, D.C., and majored in that topic at Catholic University. Colbert recalls his college experience fondly, including great friendships that have remained central to his life.   

In 1989, Capital Concerts, the nonprofit organization that Jerry founded to launch the Capitol Fourth, produced the first National Memorial Day Concert. Colbert continued to work at every concert through his college years. Soon, he found the entertainment industry, rather than politics, was calling his name.

Colbert left D.C. to become a television producer in his own right. He worked on the Grammy Awards, comedy specials, and the Country Music Awards (CMAs). He met his wife, Jill on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, while both were working on the CMAs. “We shared a belief that the field of entertainment is about much more than fame; that it has a power to heal and unite and inspire,” says Colbert

Colbert and Jill returned to the D.C. area in the late ’90s and settled in Silver Spring, Md., where they are raising their daughter, Ellen. Colbert became co-executive producer with his dad of the concerts for the Capital Concerts organization. Jill is also a producer for the concerts, which have become American traditions.

Jerry passed away in 2017, and that year the concerts paid tribute to the man who had become a legend in the halls of Congress, in the entertainment industry, and most especially to members of the military. “I could feel my dad’s presence as I stood backstage at those concerts,” recalls Colbert.

The 2019 concert commemorates the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion and shares the story of two Vietnam veterans who reunite every year at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. A war widow’s heartrending journey will also be portrayed.

As the audience on the Capitol lawn and millions more watching on television are drawn into the compelling true stories, Colbert will be backstage, keeping the live show running on time, making constant adjustments on the fly throughout the 90-minute broadcast.

It is only when the monitor goes to black that he allows himself to take a deep breath. And in that moment, he says, “I’m still that 13-year-old kid looking up at the Capitol in awe.”

This story was adapted from a feature article in the fall 2018 issue of CatholicU Magazine. Read the full article on the magazine's website

Photos Courtesy of Capital Concerts