Old Fashioned 4th of July Celebration has deep roots in Tigard community

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Ron Royse loves fireworks. The owner of Tigard Music on Pacific Highway, Royse has helped organize that annual Old Fashioned 4th of July fireworks show at Tigard High School since its inception.Tigard skies will light up on Independence Day, with fireworks launching from neighborhoods.

But none will be brighter than those at the annual Old Fashioned 4th of July Celebration at Tigard High School.

The fireworks show has become a staple during its 27-year history, drawing thousands of people from across the Portland area each summer.

The fireworks are seen from miles around, but what most don’t see are the two men who have dedicated nearly three decades of their lives to putting on the community event.

Ron Royse and Joe Chamberlain don’t like to be put in the spotlight, but they are integral to the annual celebration.

When the 4th of July Celebration began in 1986, there was a team of more than a dozen people to help organize it, but the most of them have moved on, said Royse.

“It’s just the two of us, now,” said Royse from his office at Tigard Music.

Royse and Chamberlain have been doing it for so long, it’s become second-nature to them.

Chamberlain is the pyrotechnician, launching the fireworks with a team of trained volunteers from their spot in Cook Park.

Royse is the idea man, planning and organizing the events that take place at Tigard High School before the fireworks begin.

Up in the sky

What: Old Fashioned 4th of July Celebration

Where: Tigard High School, 9000 S.W. Durham Road

When: Thursday, July 4. Gates open at 6 p.m., fireworks start at dusk

What’s there: Clowns, face painting, food, live music and kids games

How Much: Free

Remember: No alcohol, personal fireworks or smoking allowed

The annual event wasn’t Chamberlain’s first foray into fireworks. He began shooting them with his father at their home off Southwest Walnut Street in the 1970s.

“Back in those days you didn’t need any licenses or anything like that,” Chamberlain said.

The fireworks were so impressive that neighbors would stop by Chamberlain’s home to watch them.

Royse, a former reserve police officer with the city, remembers one year when cars were parked up and down Southwest Walnut Street as families stopped to watch the fireworks.

“That’s the year we got in trouble,” Chamberlain smirked.

Then-Mayor Tom Brian asked the Chamberlains to move their fireworks show to Tigard High School where everyone in town could enjoy it.

“They wanted a truly community event,” Royse said. “They didn’t want people getting signatures for political issues, or a lot of vendors selling things, it’s just a special thing for the community.”

That mantra has kept the event going for close to three decades, long after most of the other volunteers called it quits.

The show has changed little in that time, offering clowns, facepainting, live music and sack races for the kids. The event will also feature police and fire vehicles, concession stands and a Life Flight helicopter on display.

‘Everyone has their own spot’

People come back year after year, Royse said, and he has watched families grow up. “People come up to me all the time and say that they were a baby when they first started coming, now they have kids of their own and are still coming back because they love it so much.”

Families love it because it’s safe, Royse said.

“You are on school grounds, so there is no alcohol and no personal fireworks. You don’t have to worry about an M-80 blowing up next to your ear or a sparkler in your hair. You can come in and bring a picnic and spend some time with family.”

That’s what has kept 20-year-old Jonny Roberts coming year after year.

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“It’s definitely my favorite fireworks show I’ve ever been to,” said Roberts, who grew up in Tigard. “You can come with friends and just hang out. We meet up with them, bring some games and some food and see people you know.”

About 5,000 people make their way to Tigard High School to watch the event, but there are countless others who watch the fireworks from back porches or other spots across the city.

Royse said he has heard of people watching from Cook Park, Durham Park, down Southwest 85th Avenue and up on Bull Mountain.

“Everyone has their own spot,” Royse said.

For Royse, it doesn’t get any better than the Tigard High School stadium, where he has emceed the event since its inception.

“When the fireworks go off, the crowd lights up,” he said. “It’s dark and black and then WHAM! the world lights up and then goes dark again. You can actually see the expressions on their faces and the interactions. It’s very rewarding.”

Bigger, better?

The show is put on through a $15,000 a year grant from the city of Tigard and private donations.

“This is truly a community event, with everyone cooperating,” Royse said. “If one element doesn’t come into place, we’d be up a creek without a paddle.”

Royse and Chamberlain run a lean ship, spending nearly the entire budget on fireworks.

“With the times we’re in, I feel absolutely fortunate that we are able to do this every year,” Royse said.

Royse said he’d like to have a sponsor for the event someday who can help add some dollars into the show.

“We could buy better quality fireworks, and more entertainment for the folks,” Royse said.

Even with more money, Chamberlain and Royse said they’d change little about the fireworks show.

“I like it just the way it is,” Chamberlain said.

The fireworks typically last about a half-hour. That’s the perfect amount of time for families, Royse said.

“If we made it an hour, then it gets too late,” Royse said. “The kids are hanging and droopy- eyed by the end as it is.”

Royse said he plans to retire from the event in a few years, but said he hopes the show will go on for another 30.

“You just don’t see a lot of events that have this same flavor,” Royse said. “I have nothing against Vancouver or any of the other cities with fireworks, they have great things going on, but I think the key thing for us is that we have Tigard people shooting the fireworks and doing all of this. It doesn’t get more communal than that. This is homegrown.”

“I agree, bigger is not always better,” Chamberlain added.

“Of course, we might be a bit biased,” Royse said, laughing.

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