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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

(continued from page 2)

“In the early stages,” Felix Grucci says, “when they first come to our classes, they’re all excited. When they begin to understand the intensity of the labor involved in making an eight- or 12-minute program come together, we quickly weed out those who thought it would be only fun and games and keep those who take it seriously. In the preparatory stage, before we lay the fireworks, putting out all the equipment and the cabling wires and going through all the testing could require working 12 hours a day. And the next day, you do it again. It can run from one day for a small installation to sometimes several weeks, with crews of more than 200 people. Sometimes, if you’re battling the weather and the environment, you could work around the clock. It’s labor-intensive, and if you’re not in it with that mindset, it’s not going to be fun.”

The family was hit by tragedy in 1983 when its factory, at the time in Bellport, exploded and killed two family members, including James Grucci. According to The New York Times, the blast injured 24 people and damaged more than 100 houses. 

“We had virtually nothing,” Phil Grucci recalls. “We had lost close family members. We had no facility. No inventory. No insurance. It was the worst-case scenario. And we turned it around to what we have now. We are very blessed and very fortunate to have the direction that our parents and grandparents instilled in us so we could get through that.”

The Gruccis quickly returned, and gave shows in New York City at Prospect and Central Parks on New Year’s Eve. They rebuilt in Brookhaven. And before long, their fireworks programs grew larger and larger, they moved more and more into the national market, and began to expand internationally.

These are very competitive times in the fireworks business, Phil Grucci says. “You have to be aggressive in design, to stay ahead of the competition. It’s not only the other fireworks companies. It’s other entertainment media—the client is selecting lighting and lasers and music and staging and all the other elements that you typically see at the Olympics, or an inaugural event. We have to stay in the foreground as pyrotechnicians, so we’re taking advantage of technology. We’re building computer chips inside our fireworks to control elevation, and making certain patterns that you could never do in the past with a traditional fireworks shell.”

Government rules are getting tougher too, he says. “There’s a very strong sense of heightened regulations that we have to live with. We have explosives, and in any other explosives business, the blasting industry, you’re moving people away. But we’re moving people as close as possible so they can see what we do. We have a lot of regulatory oversight.”

A big part of the challenge is concern for the environment. “Everybody wants to be green. A large part of our development is looking for more environmentally friendly fireworks—smokeless fireworks, fireworks that don’t have as much debris. So it’s all a combination of technology, concern for the environment, project development and the need to be creative, to think outside the box. Our biggest challenge is staying one step ahead.”

How does it all work? How does a fireworks program come together?

“Generally, it’s Phil Butler,” the vice president of sales and marketing, “who gets the call” that someone is interested, Phil Grucci says, and then details like time and budget are worked out. Then, the next decisions involve “what is the theater, what is the stage we have to work with? Is it a building? An open field? A river in New York City? We go with the architecture of the structure we’re working on. If it’s a building, what are the lines of the building, what are some of the features of the structure? We get lured into working with the highest point. We have to get something on that pinnacle, something that works with the emotion of the event as well.”

Then comes the design. Felix Grucci—“Uncle Butch”—“And I pretty much do all the design,” Phil Grucci says. “Donna puts all the music together. It’s a painstaking task, selecting the music with the clients. We select the fireworks and the timing with the music and the special effects we’re going to use or custom manufacture for the event. We recently did the Dubai World Cup at the largest race track in the world, and we designed fireworks that went up in the sky and exploded in the shape of a horse head.” Other pattern-shell designs include smiley faces, bowties, dollar signs, big red hearts, rings of Saturn and the Grucci exclusive “split comet.”

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