A patriotic palette covers the Esplanade

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By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / July 5, 2011

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For 19 1/2 majestic minutes they turned their gaze skyward, heads tilted back, mouths agape, admiring the 15,000 choreographed fireworks punctuating Boston’s Fourth of July celebration.

Many of them had arrived hours or even a full day in advance, to spread blankets or set up beach chairs among the hundreds of thousands who would eventually pack the Esplanade and fan out on both sides of the Charles River - waiting throughout a muggy, 90-degree Independence Day for a technicolor display that would make it all worth it.

“Just unbelievable,’’ said Rick Keith, 59, a tourist from Winter Park, Fla., who spent much of the show mouthing the word “Wow,’’ marveling at a scene that was never this vivid or dramatic on his TV at home.

“Now I have to come back. . . . This is just phenomenal, the atmosphere, the historical significance.’’

From a trio of anchored barges laden with 20,000 pounds of pyrotechnics, the fireworks ripped through the night sky, some whistling, some soaring, before exploding into candy-colored constellations and brilliant weeping willows, coordinated with a crowd- pleasing, star-spangled soundtrack.

“I was here all day in the heat and sun, so I was like, ‘It better be good.’ And it was!’’ said Paula Vetrovec, 44, of Guttenberg, N.J., another first-timer. “It exceeded my expectations.’’

It was the 235th birthday for the nation and the 38th production of the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular, the nationally televised extravaganza that has become synonymous with the Hub and the holiday. Regulars and newcomers, tourists and locals, they all left raving.

“I’ve been to Disney World and New York to see fireworks, [but] they just have the best show here,’’ said Matt Lincoln, 50, from Mansfield, who has been coming every year since 1983.

These days, he is an old hand, waking at 5:15 a.m. to stake out a 30-person encampment on the riverside of the Esplanade Lagoon, not far from the bust of the late Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler, in prime fireworks position.

Yesterday morning, Lincoln and a friend pitched two tents and unfurled an array of patriotic decorations, to await the arrival of a group hailing from as far as California and Florida. Some are close friends and relatives, others acquaintances the duo met at past celebrations, their friendships renewed each July Fourth over shrimp cocktail and cold fried chicken.

Nearby, Joanne Towne of Cumberland, R.I., was making her first trip, bringing family and friends from North Carolina.

“Seeing the fireworks on TV isn’t the same,’’ said Towne, 46, who scoured the Internet beforehand for pointers on what to bring and where to sit, even studying Google Earth to note trees that might block the view. “It’s a bucket-list thing. . . . We always wanted to come here.’’

Some kept an eye on their prime real estate, lazing away the hours until the performance by playing cards, tanning, and people-watching. Others made their way up and down the river banks, where 20 sound towers pumped jazz and patriotic standards throughout the day.

A trio of 16-year-olds from Stoneham strolled down the Esplanade in their American finest, a red-white-and-blue, stars-and-stripes paint job covering the exposed skin on their arms and legs.

The girls said it was their first (and long-awaited) Esplanade Fourth, having finally persuaded their parents to let them take the T to the event on their own.

“We really wanted to come before we all leave for college,’’ said Olivia Perlstein.

“Yeah, and I think this was the first time our parents trusted us!’’ Melissa Arno said.

In the Oval, the restricted lawn in front of the Hatch Shell stage reserved for early arrivals, Colleen Kearney, 43, recalled the first performance in 1974, when she was a small child. She said she has seen nearly all of the celebrations that began after Fiedler and David Mugar brought together long-running traditions: summer concerts by the Pops along the Charles River, and fireworks on the Fourth.

It has blossomed into a televised spectacle, with a celebrity emcee - this year, TV’s Michael Chiklis - and musical guest, Martina McBride, joining the Pops, the live event accented by an F-15 flyover and spaced out for commercial breaks. During one of them, conductor Keith Lockhart donned a Red Sox jersey, drawing cheers as he led the orchestra in “Sweet Caroline’’ and “I’m Shipping Up to Boston.’’

Kearney has grown up alongside the event. From tagging along with her parents and four siblings, she now brings her own children and her husband, whom she married 13 years ago in Portsmouth, N.H. - after driving up for a quick wedding early in the day July Fourth.

“I said, ‘Yes, I’ll marry you,’ ’’ recalled Kearney, a Kingston resident, “ ‘but I’m not missing the Pops.’ ’’

Globe correspondents Martine Powers, Ben Wolford, and Vivian Yee contributed to this story. Eric Moskowitz can be reached at