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    Sunday, June 16, 2024

    National Memorial Day Concert to mark 35 years of honoring those who died in service to country

    PBS will strike a blow to the idea that America is hopelessly divided when it presents its annual National Memorial Day Concert on Sunday.

    The 90-minute show, which starts 8 p.m., features an abundance of top stars honoring those who have sacrificed their lives for their country.

    Reporting for duty will be “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston; two-time Oscar nominee Cynthia Erivo; country music stars Gary LeVox and Jamey Johnson; actors Jena Malone, BD Wong, Mary McCormack of “West Wing”; and Patina Miller, as well as the National Symphony Orchestra.

    Unabashed patriots Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinese will return as co-hosts of the special, which is broadcast from the nation’s capital.

    This marks Mantegna’s 20th year as host of the event and the concert’s 35th anniversary. The star of “Criminal Minds: Evolution,” which returns to Paramount+ June 6, says it was the late actor Charles Durning who first approached him to emcee the special.

    “I was like anybody else I just thought of Memorial Day weekend as a three-day weekend,” says Mantegna. “Well, all I can say is that weekend changed my life because it just brought into focus how important that holiday is.

    “On Sunday, the night of that performance, when I walked on that stage, there were 300,000 people watching — so you're talking Woodstock. In front of you is all this mass of humanity and the Capitol building with flags flying. The next thing are these huge movie screens and they’re showing films from 9/11. Behind me, the Washington Philharmonic is playing Mozart’s requiem. And I have to – for about 10 minutes – read the words of four New York firemen who lost their sons in the World Trade Center,” he recalls.

    “And they’re sitting in the front row. Next to them is Colin Powell and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and hundreds of thousands of people. And I’ve been an actor for over 40 years, but I’d never done anything like that. It took all I had to get through it because I realized this is not an acting job. This is not a fictional story I'm talking about on these screens, these planes are flying into the buildings and people died. So when I got through it, I walked off the stage. I literally was weak in the knees. I had to sit down. I thought anything that can move me that much, there’s something to this. And getting to know some of those firemen. To this day I'm in contact with some of them. It made me realize this is an important thing.”

    Though he never served himself, many members of Mantegna’s family were part of the armed forces. “I have a lot of military in my family but luckily they all came back,” he says. “So I never had that thing of going to the cemetery to lay a wreath over Uncle Willie. There actually is an Uncle Willie who was a World War II vet. And his three brothers, plus my wife’s father, plus my dad’s father. The only reason my dad wasn’t there was he was in the hospital during the entire war with tuberculosis.

    “So I had a lot of military in my family. But I got lucky. Then I realized the ones who weren’t so lucky. It all came into focus. So at the end of the day, I realized I’d do this again if they want me to. Of course, they asked me back the next year and I did that. And Ossie Davis was the host that year and he was wonderful, just an incredible human being. He passed before the third year,” recalls Mantegna.

    “When Ossie passed, they asked me if I’d host. I was flattered. This was a monumental job. So I did it. I asked my friend Gary Sinise if he’d like to come in with his band and perform. I knew Gary would react exactly the same way I did. And he did. He was so blown away by the whole weekend. He said, ‘I’ll do this as long as you want me to.’”

    Among the specials will be Bryan Cranston’s tribute to those who performed in the field and at home during World War II’s raging battles both in the Pacific and in Europe.

    Jena Malone will honor the generation that served in Iraq and Afghanistan and returned with crippling injuries. One of those is Marine Corps veteran and amputee Kirstie Ennis, who inspires others with her spirit and optimism in encouraging veterans to seek help when they need it.

    BD Wong will commemorate the Gold Star families – those who’ve lost loved ones in service. Featured is Vietnam veteran Allen Hoe, whose two sons served in the military, one of whom was killed in Iraq.

    A fan favorite is the Salute to Services introducing the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Service Color teams. Also participating are the musical members from The U.S. Army Herald Trumpets, The U.S. Army Chorus, The Soldiers’ Chorus of the U.S. Army Field Band, The U.S. Navy Band Sea Chanters, The U.S. Air Force Singing Sergeants, and the Armed Forces Color Guard provided by the Military District of Washington, D.C.

    The concert will also be streaming on http://www.pbs.org/national-memorial-day-concert and on YouTube and available as Video on Demand, Sunday to June 9.

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