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Provo's Stadium of Fire now under fire

Producers leaving, saying it has become too political

Talk-show host Sean Hannity leads the Pledge of Allegiance at start of parade in Provo on July 4, 2003.
Talk-show host Sean Hannity leads the Pledge of Allegiance at start of parade in Provo on July 4, 2003.
Dan Lund, for the Deseret Morning News

PROVO — The producers of the Stadium of Fire are leaving to open a competing Fourth of July show in Salt Lake City.

John Whittaker told the Deseret Morning News the political bent of the Stadium of Fire led to his decision to leave after working on the show for every one of its 24 years.

Whittaker and wife and co-producer Sheri also had differences with America's Freedom Festival at Provo over fireworks, television coverage and revenue decisions. They recently decided to leave and will produce "Freedom Blast" at Rice-Eccles Stadium on the University of Utah campus on July 2, 2005.

"I just felt we were going in a different direction," John Whittaker said. "Rather than doing what they wanted to do, we decided to go in a different direction."

Freedom Festival organizers said the Stadium of Fire will soldier on with a new production company, reportedly from Los Angeles.

"There have been other people who have done productions up there (in Salt Lake), and Stadium of Fire continues on," associate executive director Taylor MacDonald said. "We've faced this before. Next year is our 25th anniversary, and we are going to really put on the best show that's possible. We are well on our way to securing talent and designing the show."

MacDonald took exception to concerns that the 2004 show was politically partisan.

"That was never part of the discussions that we had with them," MacDonald said. "We're about America. We wanted to honor the soldiers. We've had people of all different political persuasions on the show."

The last attempt to host a Fourth of July celebration at Rice-Eccles Stadium was Bryce Jolley's Red Hot 4th Celebration. Faced with poor attendance — between 10,000 and 22,000, Jolley said — he moved the show to the Usana Amphitheater in 2003.

He repackaged it this year as the Ultimate Utah Celebration on the 24th of July, where he plans to keep it.

"The Fourth of July is an extremely difficult day to make successful," he said.

The Whittakers aren't the only ones making the switch. They took with them director Marilyn Toone, choreographer Julie Webb, production manager Doug Mecham, fireworks designer Ron Smith, artistic director Seven Nielsen and public relations expert Linda Walton.

All eight believe there are plenty of Utahns to fill both football stadiums, with about 40,000 seats available at Rice-Eccles and 60,000 at LaVell Edwards Stadium on the Brigham Young University campus.

They think they'll attract a large crowd of people who live in and north of Salt Lake City and those who are more comfortable at the U.

"I think with the Whittakers' experience and their contacts and promotions and their team that this show was very interesting and intriguing to the University of Utah," said Mark Burk, director of Rice-Eccles Stadium.

John Whittaker was the senior production manager for the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games while Sheri Whittaker served as transportation coordinator.

The Whittakers want to return to the production they had in 2003, which they consider their best. John Whittaker said he has no problem with conservative talk show host Sean Hannity, who appeared in both 2003 and this year, but many people complained that other elements of the show made it feel like a Republican rally.

In fact, the Whittakers were disturbed this summer when complaints, for the first time, were sent to their home. Two weeks before the show, they approached the organizers to lodge their concerns.

"We felt it was becoming more of a political forum than a celebration," John Whittaker said.

He said his team had to trim the set-piece fireworks from a high of 26 to about six this year. Set-piece fireworks are part of the show inside the stadium.

He also was disappointed in decisions to add more and more chair seating on the stadium floor, which he felt added revenue at the expense of the show. In Salt Lake City, the Whittakers plan on more fireworks provided by Olympic and Super Bowl fireworks veterans Pyro Spectacular — thrill acts like BMX races on the stadium floor and fewer stoppages for television.

Contributing: Laura Warner