Portland’s Eastern Prom was jammed with thousands of people Wednesday night, camped out to enjoy the Stars and Stripes Spectacular, the annual fireworks display.

But while the size of the crowds may have equaled previous years, noticeably absent was a pre-fireworks performance by the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

Because of a funding shortfall, the orchestra wasn’t hired to perform for this year’s event, after eight years.

A lack of funding from corporate sponsors nearly threatened the entire event, until the city of Portland put up $35,000 for the pyrotechnics.

The free fireworks display is billed as the largest in Maine and regularly draws thousands of people.

The public funding was welcomed by some among the mobs of people lounging on the downsloping hill at the Eastern edge of Munjoy Hill.

“It would have been sad if it didn’t happen. It’s a good tradition to have,” said Debbie Smyth, who was sitting in a lawn chair waiting for the display to start.

Smyth, and her son Craig Smyth, live in Portland and said they have tried to get to the fireworks every year.

Having the orchestra play patriotic favorites before the fireworks was nice, but Craig Smyth wasn’t too disappointed that it didn’t play this year, he said.

“You can’t really hear them well up here anyway,” he said.

But Lisa Silverman said she was disappointed that there was no music this year.

A lifelong Portland resident, Silverman remembers times when the fireworks didn’t happen. It’s been good to have the orchestra and other musical acts, such as Don McLean, perform for the event in recent years, she said. She missed having some kind of music.

“We went from Don McLean to nothing,” Silverman said.

“It’s such a huge disappointment,” said Renee Garland, sitting on a blanket next to Silverman. “Why does everything come down to money? The city shouldn’t have to cough it up, the PSO should just do it.”

Michelle Atwell agreed. Having the symphony play was an important cultural event, she said.

“How many people here can afford to go see the PSO?” She said. “They had that opportunity here.”

Until a few months ago, it was unclear if the event was going to happen at all.

The City of Portland paid for the fireworks display until 2010, when it was cut from the city budget. A group of corporate sponsors, including Quirk Chevrolet, Wex, The Maine Red Claws basketball team and the Portland Press Herald organized to continue the tradition. Quirk Chevrolet, Wex, The Maine Redclaws basketball team and the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram were founding sponsors of the Stars and Stripes Spectacular.

The event was self-sustaining for about five years, but sponsors have since dropped out and nonprofit organizer July 4th Portland has had trouble fundraising.

In April, organizers said they could not afford the $30,000 needed to hire the Portland Symphony Orchestra to perform before the fireworks, as it had in the past eight years.

Even though the event has been promoted as privately-funded, Portland taxpayers have been picking up the tab for part of the celebration.

Since 2015, the city spent $106,000 to support the fireworks, including $42,000 in 2017, according to city records obtained by the Press Herald this spring. Corporate sponsorships for the event dropped from about $105,000 in 2016 to $68,500 last year, and revenues from vendors ranged from $21,000 to $26,00 a year.

City officials said they expected to be reimbursed by July 4th Portland. The celebration cost about $130,000 in 2017.

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling in May called to eliminate city funding for fireworks as part of a package of spending cuts proposed to protect the school budget. At the time, Strimling identified pyrotechnics among other items that were “luxuries we can’t afford.” Cutting fireworks funding would have likely canceled the event in 2018.

A $35,000 line item for fireworks was ultimately preserved in a $360 million budget approved by the city council in late May.

At Wednesday’s celebration, Cheryl Ouellette and Eric Grimes played with their grandchildren Kenny and LilyAnn. The couple, from South Portland, try to see the fireworks every year.

While she was glad to hear that the city funded the fireworks this year, it is too bad private companies haven’t put up money for the event, Ouellette said.

“I can’t understand why companies don’t fund it,” she said.

“There are some big companies in this area – people would appreciate if they supported it.”

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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Twitter: PeteL_McGuire

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