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Showmen of the Sky

The Grucci family sets the standard for fireworks celebrations around the world
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
Joe Mantegna, July/August 2011

After the fireworks comes the smoke. After the smoke comes the cigar.

That’s how it works with the Gruccis, who have been called “America’s first family of fireworks.” After the noise and the color and the excitement, after Fireworks by Grucci has lit up the sky with its fanciful and beautiful designs, its minutely coordinated, split-second computer-controlled choreography of music and sound, its multishaped and multihued bombs bursting in air, after the oohs and aahs of the thousands of thrilled spectators—when all is successfully completed, Felix J. (Phil) Grucci often lights up.

“It’s for relaxation,” says Grucci, executive vice president of Fireworks by Grucci, which designs and creates the shows, and president and chief executive officer of Pyrotechnique by Grucci, which manufactures and imports the fireworks. The cigar is for relieving the tension, the butterflies in the stomach, after the often long days of preparation and anticipation, of perfecting the intricate details and making sure everything—the setups, the launching, the timing—goes right. At those serious moments, Grucci says, “for when it’s a little more pressure-intense,” he prefers Romeo y Julieta Coronas. “And it’s a smaller cigar. You can smoke it in 45 minutes.”

There have been many occasions where cigars at the conclusion have been appropriate. The Grucci family has provided fireworks for seven consecutive presidential inaugurations, from Ronald Reagan’s first in 1981 to George W. Bush’s second in 2005 (President Obama’s inauguration in 2009 didn’t include fireworks); for world’s fairs in Knoxville, Tennessee, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Taejon, South Korea; for Olympic Games in Lake Placid in 1980, Los Angeles in 1984, Salt Lake City in 2002 and Athens in 2004; and the Gruccis were the lead designers and engineers for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. This year, they were the fireworks maven for the Dubai World Cup at the Meydan Race Course.

In the 1980s, the Gruccis fired their creations into the sky for the centennials of the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge. They were fireworks masters for the millennium celebration in Washington, D.C.

And in 2008, the Gruccis created the largest fireworks program ever, for the grand opening of Atlantis, The Palm resort in Dubai. “We fired more than 300,000 devices in eight minutes,” Phil Grucci says, “with a budget of $4.5 million,” over “eight and a half miles that we connected linearly, with no space in between.” These days, their state-of-the art fireworks are run by computers, and individual Grucci devices often contain computer chips that can narrow timing to hundredths of a second and allow for the creation of incredible effects that would not have been possible a decade or so ago.

The number of devices used in a Grucci program is determined by the budget, says Charlie DeSalvo, a Grucci chief pyrotechnician and longtime Grucci associate. A 30-minute world-class program can involve thousands of devices.

For computerized events, DeSalvo says (no shows are hand-fired; if it’s not done by computer, it’s done electrically), the computer reads a program called a “fire file.” An operator sits at a primary terminal and activates the program with a single command. The operator follows the discharge of the devices and, at times, because of safety concerns, may activate a protocol to prevent or delay the discharge of a sequence of shells or a single device. A secondary operator on a separate computer acts as a fail-safe backup and performs the same functions if the primary computer fails.

So far this year, 73 shows are booked, says Donna Grucci Butler, the president of Fireworks by Grucci and executive vice president of Pyrotechnique by Grucci—“there may be 150 by year’s end.” This Fourth of July, she says, will find Fireworks by Grucci all over the country, from Maine to Massachusetts to Connecticut to Florida to Las Vegas to California, and across the Pacific to Hawaii.

Costs of a show range from $5,000 for a two- or three-minute traditional event to $175,000 for a 28- to 30-minute state-of-the-art program, though for a large-scale customized show, as in Dubai in 2008, “the sky is the limit,” the Gruccis say.


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