ABINGTON - The telephone rang at Nancy Hurst's desk in Abington Town Hall one morning this week, and Hurst had her reply ready.
"No," she told the caller. "They're canceled."
Hurst, an administrative assistant for the town, hung up the phone and sighed. "That's about the 10th call today," she explained, and it wasn't even lunchtime. But there was nothing Hurst, or other town officials, could say to ease the callers' pain. Abington's Fourth of July fireworks were canceled.
"We had no choice," said Bob Baker, chairman of the town's private fireworks committee. "We had a couple of thousand dollars come in at the last minute, but it still wasn't enough to do it."
In the latest sign of troubled economic times, some communities across the Commonwealth are struggling to cobble together the private donations necessary to throw Fourth of July celebrations.
Abington, falling $11,000 short of its $32,000 goal, was forced this week to cancel its fireworks display, which had been scheduled for tonight. Walpole officials have raised just $11,000 toward their $32,000 event, but they are going forward with it to night, believing - hoping? - that the money will come in after the fact.
Bridgewater's Fourth of July committee avoided canceling its show when Shaw's Supermarkets ponied up $6,000 last week for tomorrow's big show. In Lawrence, recreation director Linda Schiavone said she didn't even try to raise the $2,000 necessary to have the face-painters, pony rides, and carnival games that have accompanied the city's fireworks displays in recent years.
In tight times, it turns out, even here in the land of John Adams and Paul Revere, there is only so much people are willing to spend to watch explosives detonate on a warm summer's evening.
" 'It's the economy, stupid.' That's what it is. This is all a reflection of the poor economy going on right now," said Herb Lemon, chairman of the Board of Selectmen in Bridgewater. "You drive by gas stations and look at prices that leap right out at you. You go into supermarkets - the prices are up there, too. Foreclosures are at high levels. It is the economy. I don't think I'm going out on a limb in saying that."
Fourth of July fireworks displays, by and large, are financed by private donations, not taxpayer dollars. Take Boston, for example. Tomorrow night's show is organized by Boston 4 Celebrations, a private, nonprofit company that, with sponsorship from Liberty Mutual, is able to produce a fireworks display for 500,000 people, with 6 to 8 million watching on television.
Without Liberty Mutual, the show would not be possible, said event spokesman Steve MacDonald. Fortunately, he said, organizers didn't need to scale back at all this year, despite the sagging economy.
But with the cost of fireworks rising, just like the cost of other goods, and many companies and individuals cutting back on donations, smaller communities have found themselves making a harder sell this year.
In Bridgewater, the chairman of the Fourth of July committee, Jeff Fowler, began noticing problems months ago. Fund-raisers like comedy nights generated less than half than what they usually did, he said. And by last month, the town's committee found itself $17,000 short of the $32,000 needed to pay for the town's Fourth of July festivities.
"Honestly," Fowler said, "I didn't think we'd pull it off this year."
But thanks to a phone bank set up at town hall and that $6,000 donation from Shaw's, the party will go on as planned tomorrow in Bridgewater while the search for cash continues elsewhere.
Yesterday, just 24 hours before their event tonight, Walpole officials were still well short of the sum needed to pay for their town's fireworks. Walpole Fire Captain Stephen Smith, who is among several townspeople in charge of raising money for the display, said they had received roughly $11,000 in donations to date, but were going forward with the event anyway, almost on faith.
"I'm on the hook for $25,000," said the 52-year-old firefighter and father of three. "But it will come through. I'm confident. If not, I'll call you for donations. How's that?"
He laughed. But he and other fund-raisers know it is an inconvenient time to be asking for donations for fireworks.
In Lawrence, one of a few communities that still provide some public funding for fireworks, Schiavone said she hesitated to bolster the city's $5,000 budget with private donations this year. With gas and food prices soaring and no relief in sight, Schiavone felt that the people of Lawrence probably couldn't tolerate much more.
"We're going to go hit the same community?" she asked. "And say, 'Oh, by the way, we need your donation for the fireworks'?"
Instead, Schiavone decided to go smaller. A 15-minute fireworks display and a party hosted by a disc jockey, not live bands, would have to do this year.
"A show," she said, "is a show."
It's a sentiment that people in Abington can appreciate, now that their fireworks have been canceled.
Lisa Furness, an Abington mother of three, was especially saddened by the news. Last year, her father, Frank Fresina, died, and the family decided to bury him in the cemetery near the field where the fireworks are assembled.
He was a big fan of the annual show, Furness said, and she liked the idea that he would be there, in a sense, for the fireworks every year. But tomorrow night in Abington, the sky will be dark above Fresina's grave, as usual.
And no matter how many people called Nancy Hurst at town hall this week, the bad news did not change.
It was like the sign said on Route 18 in plain, block letters, "No fireworks show in Abington this year."
Keith O'Brien can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.