We are getting ready for the annual holiday that pays tribute to the men and women who serve & served in our armed forces. With this in mind, a time-honored tradition in our nation’s capital is the National Memorial Day Concert. For the past thirty-one years, we are not only entertained by wonderful actors and musicians but we get to experience some amazing stories from brave men and women as we remember.
Since 2002, actor Joe Mantegna has been one of the hosts of this spectacular ninety-minute program, which airs this Sunday on PBS. Today, I got to talk to Joe about his involvement with the NMDC.
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You know what, I think people are going to be very impressed because I think we had a whole year knowing that we would probably go live this year with the intention of going live next year but we have been able to incorporate a lot of interesting things in using the technology that we have today.
I’m looking forward to the show myself for its the first time that I am going to be able to watch it as a viewer as opposed to being a participant. We really made the most of it. We were really imaginative about how we were going to put out a concert this year. I think people are going to enjoy it.
You’re absolutely right especially in the last couple of years I was able to the concert myself. You have been part of the NMDC for nearly two decades. Let’s go back to the first time you hosted way back in 2002. What was it like to host the concert for the very first time?
Well, it’s the reason why it’s my twentieth year doing it because it really changed my life. It has certainly changed my feelings about Memorial Day as well because I went into that concert twenty years ago basically as a favor to my dear friend Charles Durning who was already part of the concert who asked me “Why don’t you come to DC and be part of this thing?” I thought “Well, this might be something”
Normally on this day, I would barbecue like everybody else but I had a lot of family in the military and some don’t come back. So at the time, Memorial Day didn’t have a special meaning to me but it wasn’t until I did that concert which was right after 9/11. I was out on that stage in front of two hundred thousand people accounting the words of a NY fireman who lost their sons on 9/11 with the National Symphony Orchestra playing behind me and the screen showing the planes flying into the World Trade Center. That’s when it really hit me for I realize that this is not an acting job, this to me was recounting one of the most incredible moments of this country’s history.
It took everything that I could to get through that day and that concert & made me realize how important it was. It totally changed my whole feeling about Memorial Day. From that day on, I felt that Memorial Day is our most important holiday because its the holiday that allows us to have all the other holidays because of the sacrifice that men and women have made throughout history.
So that’s what it did for me, that first concert keeps bringing me back. This is my twentieth year and god willing that I will be able to do twenty more but I will do as many as I can.
I certainly hope so for you are definitely a great host especially four years later, you recruited Gary Sinise as your co-host and you two are synonymous as the hosts of the concert. Tell us about your partnership for every time I see you two on that stage presenting this wonderful concert in Washington DC, you two bring the magic that is Memorial Day to the nation each and every year.
Well, I could not have a better person next to me. I feel like I’m his wingman because Gary has done so much for our military. You know he has donated so much of his time, energy, every aspect of his life to supporting our men and women, and it’s never a political thing. It’s not a political thing for me and it shouldn’t be.
We are talking about honoring our men and women throughout our history going back to Revolutionary War to today. They allowed us to have the freedoms that we have and to be who want want to be and vote who we want to vote for whoever it may be. My feeling is that is what Memorial Day is all about, that is what being an American is all about. We have incredible freedoms that not everybody shares on this planet.
You know, Gary understands that. Gary is always giving support to our men and women in uniform. So to do this event with him every year is such an honor, a privilege & a blessing. He’s just an incredible human being. I’m so proud to call him my dear dear friend.
What have you done outside of the concert to support our troops?
At any given moment something will happen that will throw that right into my face and make me realize how important that is. I remember that I was doing a movie in a small town in France. We were shooting at this beautiful chateau there. This little town is about an hour outside of Paris. I was doing this comedy and I was thinking how very lucky that I was doing this movie.
In this car, this driver was driving me to this location and I remember that we pulled up to quaint little town and I see this American flag flying next to the French flag on this very high flagpole and I went “Whoa, whoa, what is that?” And he says “Go over there and get closer” I realize that this is the small town’s cemetery and what it is was this small military cemetery. Buried there are all these American soldiers who died in World War II who probably ended up dying there in that town. Boy, talk about humbling me. Here I am thinking “This is great, I am doing a fun movie here in France. Now I am looking at the gravestones of our fallen Americans who pay the ultimate price.
Boy, that is sobering. It makes you realize that wow how lucky am I to be able to do this. I take that moment and pause to honor them and I never forget that. There are places like that all over the world. We must never forget that. That’s why we do this concert every year. For ninety minutes this Sunday night, you’ll understand why Memorial Day is such an important holiday.
Just hearing this story bring tears to my eyes and I thank you for sharing this. What would you like to say to the men and women to thank you for the freedom they have given us every single day?
Well just we know that we are out here and we’ll never forget and we hope through this concert to help everyone remember. We will set aside one day of the entire year to be able to say that we’ll never forget. We will always honor you. We’ll always respect you. We thank you and we’ll always support you. That’s all we can do. We can hope that all of us in this country can live by that and keep it in our minds and our hearts 365 days in a year through the good times and the bad times knowing that they will be there for us.
Check out the National Memorial Day Concert this Sunday, May 30th at 8 pm on your local PBS stations!