Many East Enders probably don't know last Saturday was Bastille Day.
But for the keepers of a 32-year-old Hamptons tradition, it's a central fact in what has become, for them, the biggest night of the year -- the night of the Great Bonac Fireworks Show.
Author and actor George Plimpton, who unintentionally started the event, died in 2003. But the event not only lingers, it has gotten so big the state Department of Environmental Conservation closes Three Mile Harbor to shellfishing for five days because of the threat of pollution from all the boats that anchor to watch it.
The founder of the Paris Review and an admirer of both that city and French culture in general, he always had the display the first Saturday after Bastille Day, and neighbors came to watch.
Eventually, he partnered with Tony Duke -- the multimillionaire tobacco heir who created the now-defunct Boys and Girls Harbor camp on his waterfront property on Three Mile Harbor -- and Felix Grucci Sr., the patriarch of the Long Island fireworks family, to turn the Great Bonac Fireworks Show into an annual event that now draws 7,000 to 8,000 people.
This year's show will begin Saturday around 9:20 p.m. over Three Mile Harbor. The rain date is Sunday.
Four years ago, it looked as though the long-running event might be canceled for lack of support, but the not-for-profit Clamshell Alliance took over the sponsorship.
"People started sending in checks," said East Hampton architect Rossetti Perchik, executive director of the alliance. "The very first check was for $10. You could tell it was from somebody's grandmother . . . What was I going to do. It meant a lot to her. And, the checks kept coming in."
The Clamshell Alliance had run sand castle contests on the East End for two decades, but Perchik quickly learned the fireworks program was bigger. "It's 10 times the money, 10 times the logistics, 10 times the crowd," he said.
He estimates 3,000 to 4,000 people watch it from land, and another 3,000 or so from the 800 to 900 boats that dock in Three Mile Harbor. Town officials, including bay constables, will monitor the crowds on land and water, for safety.
And yet, the event retains the feel of a community party, just like it did when Plimpton invited neighbors and guests over to watch. "It started as a private party, and it still feels like a private party for everybody on Three Mile Harbor," Perchik said.
Laura Stephenson, who lives on Gann Road within sight of the water, says she and all her neighbors look forward to the sky lighting up on the first Saturday after Bastille Day.
"It's special for everybody who lives out in Springs and for everyone around Three Mile Harbor," she said. "So many of us have views of that harbor you don't have to go anywhere. You gather your friends and family and have a barbecue, then you have this beautiful fireworks display. All you have to do is look right up in the sky."