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High-Voltage Fireworks

Fireworks Manufacturers Compete to Create the Biggest Bang for the Buck
Edward Kiersh
From the Print Edition:
Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98

The Fourth of July quickly approaching, George R. "Boom Boom" Zambelli stands near a concrete-block building called a magazine, anxiously watching a 22-ton shipment of explosives being loaded onto a truck bound for Atlanta. Packing these mortars and shells at his New Castle, Pennsylvania, plant is such dangerous business that this 73-year-old scion of the "devil's trade" moves frenetically amid boxes of combustible material, ever reminding the barrel-bellied warehousemen to watch their every step. He knows all too well that death is but a spark away, that one false move will bring fire raining down on their heads.

But even though the winds are whipping around these packers, emphasizing the smell of black powder, the crates of shells, mortars and other hell-raising devices are carted to the truck uneventfully. The truck driver is given a few last-minute instructions, and once the semi safely leaves the plant, the brownish-gray-haired Zambelli smiles contentedly, as if he can already envision the Roman candles, golden-red chrysanthemums and rainbow-colored stars bursting overhead this July at his thunderous Atlanta extravaganza.

"Pyrotechnics is living on the edge, that Right Stuff envelope; yet along with the dangers, the magic of bright lights, sparkle and noise entertains people, so it's like making epic, grand-scale movies," muses the energetic patriarch of Zambelli Internationale Fireworks Manufacturing Co., which has been crafting assorted missiles and aerial bursts since 1883. "Able to choreograph heart-stopping displays, you're the producer, director and above all the artist, someone who can wondrously paint the sky."

In this romantic, perhaps even hubris-tinged rush to outshine the stars with awe-inspiring showers of color and sound, Zambelli has dazzled crowds at the 1986 Statue of Liberty festivities, staged a party for Yves St. Laurent and performed at two U.S. presidential inaugurations. His work for Macy's and Disney World has won him other plaudits, and in keeping with the grand spirit of eighteenth-century French and English kings who commissioned specially trained technicians to entertain their royal courts, this alchemist schooled in the "black art" of mixing deadly combustibles must also be viewed as a breed apart, a "fire master."

"During the Kuwait independence celebration in 1980, it started to rain, and that made officials think I could do the impossible," Zambelli says with a laugh. "They wanted to hire me as a rainmaker."

But even as this maestro talks about his congratulatory letters from presidents Reagan, Bush and Carter, he understands that his world has been revolutionized by computers, new firing systems and "close proximity" shows, such as at the Super Bowl and rock-and-roll concerts. Now, the next generation of "pyros" at other companies and an increasing number of hobbyists called basement bombers (and to some degree, "Timothy McVeighs" by their critics), are experimenting with new chemical combinations and devices to leave their own signatures in the heavens.

While Zambelli welcomes advancement, saying "the pros can only learn from their research," all these developments still pose challenges for him and his tightly knit clan. For at such outlaw events as Nevada "Desert Blasts," where amateurs --and a number of professionals--hide from law enforcement agencies to test their latest strobe rockets and multiple-break shell-of-shells, the future of pyrotechnics is already here. Zambelli, defying his age, must keep pace with these M-800 and ammonium percholate wizards, for this is no time to bask in past laurels. Not now. Not with fireworks' greatest show of shows looming ever closer, the upcoming Big Bang we know as the millennium.

"The year 2000 will be an incredible spike, the biggest ever, for cities across the world are going to make a statement with fireworks," exclaims Philip Butler, a program producer with the fabled Fireworks by Grucci company. "I'm confident we're going to do millennium shows in Athens, Cairo, San Juan, eight or nine time zones, with the largest show in Las Vegas. There, The Mirage's Steve Wynn is leading the charge, and with a record $5 million-range budget [the previous high was $1.7 million for the Statue of Liberty blast] we'll light up programs from at least 20 rooftops and other locations. This cityscape will be the Gruccis' spectacular of all spectaculars."

Yet even if millennium-minded cities are jockeying to outdo customary July 4th fusillades with computer-driven, musically choreographed jubilees, fireworks are more than Super Bowl theatrics and a locality's dream of fully occupied hotel rooms. These beams of golden-hued light, surrounded by elaborate floral patterns and coupled with ear-piercing roars, no matter how fleeting in duration, are the stuff of celebration, the sparks that for decades afterward ignite bursts of wonderful childhood memories.

Many of us can still remember going to Coney Island or to Main Street, USA, for a July 4th bash, standing there expectantly hand-in-hand with our fathers, and even trembling a bit once some unknown force suddenly made the night skies snap, crackle and pop. But even as we thrilled to whistling hummingbirds and other streaks of remarkably sharp light pirouetting to earth, we wanted--at least the rascals among us--to be more than idle spectators. Ignoring the invariable "Death's Busy Day" newspaper headlines that tried to scare us with cautionary tales like "Boy Blinded by Firecracker," we went underground, dodging the law to find someone with a cache of cherry bombs or ladyfingers. These 50-cent packets of fireworks were our first smokes, and we continued to play hide-and-seek with the authorities to enjoy them.

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