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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.

Back then, when we were surreptitiously launching rockets in the backyard, theories explaining pyrotechnics' popularity and their fascinating history (richly detailed in George Plimpton's 1984 book, Fireworks: A History of Celebration) paled next to the sounds and mischief-making power of these projectiles. It would have been interesting to know that Marco Polo saw the Chinese creating firecrackers from bamboo joints, and that by the sixteenth century, Italian craftsmen were transforming pyrotechnics into an art form by fashioning ornamental "set displays" with clusters of exploding devices. But even if fireworks have inspired a near-mystical excitement through the ages, the only knowledge we needed as youths on the Fourth was knowing how to light a match.

Except, of course, if we got caught red-handed with one of these missiles. Then a little guile was in order, the quick-witted knack to liken an exploding Roman candle to an act of patriotism, a salute that was as All-American as "The Star Spangled Banner's" bombs bursting in air.

"Thirty years ago I'd go with my father to July 4th shows, and the fireworks that day were just part of an old-fashioned good time: family, my mom's packing a picnic, and respect for the flag," says one aficionado who crafts skyrockets with shrill humming sounds and strobing flashes. "Maybe it's man's reaching for the stars, a sexual thing with thrust and phallic symbols, or just a piece of Americana.

"Who knows? Even though I've been making this stuff for 20 years, I just can't figure out why these colors and lights have such popularity, such an incredible ability to fire the imagination."

Awestruck men speak about fireworks' glittering beauty, flashing through the sky like meteors. But what accounts for enthusiasts' almost spiritual devotion to these projectiles? Why has pyrotechnics become an increasingly popular hobby, such an obsession that a growing number of otherwise sane men are now fooling around with mortars, chlorides and ammonium nitrate to illuminate the heavens?

One way to probe these mysteries is to enter the universe of these firemasters, to talk shop with the professionals who've experienced both the glories and dangers of these explosives. Someone like Grucci spokesman Phil Butler, who knows all too well how fireworks, while hypnotic and dazzling, can also be the stuff of tragedy.

Still recalling the 1983 explosion that killed two Grucci family members in their Bellport, New York, factory, Butler likens fireworks to "an exhilarating Erector set, an art form celebrating communication and coordination," but he's also quick to criticize the "basement bombers" now "recklessly" experimenting with pyrotechnic materials.

"As we painfully experienced here, even with all our safeguards, fireworks are a double-edged sword," he says. "Hoping to turn night into daylight, men wanting to make grand statements will find that Erector set very challenging, a serious and deadly business. Yet to create bigger and better effects, these so-called hobbyists, who are true novices, are willing to accept too many risks. I don't have any respect for them, for they forget that fireworks, while epitomizing merriment and high-tech accomplishments, are also very dangerous."

Arguably the world's most famous fireworks company, reputed for its Jones Beach (New York) Fourth of July spectaculars and the Smithsonian Institution's 150th birthday bash, the Gruccis have made those high-tech advances their calling card. One of the first companies to choreograph staccato barrages of gold split comets to the musical strains of Sandi Patti's "Star Spangled Banner," this 148-year-old family business pioneered the use of computer-driven, electronically fired programs: shows in which every shell's explosion (1,800 in a typical 20-minute performance) is sequentially timed to go off at just the right second.

"The fireworks industry was dying in the Vietnam years, for more people were interested in burning the flag than displaying it," laments Butler. "Shows had also grown boring: too predictable, as a guy would fire off a shell, have a cigarette, then launch another shell, and so on for an hour. But the Grucci shows were never like that. We liked to fire fast, and that spurred us on to develop new technologies. For us, along with styling beauty and entertainment, we see fireworks as a way to push the envelope of scientific know-how."

That creative thrust has dramatically led to the "cityscape." While pyros were once content to fire shells from a barge on a river, the newest Big Bang in the fireworks trade is launching missiles from skyscraper rooftops and sites surrounding cities. Calling these numerous locations "theaters," and using an array of computer-driven equipment resembling a Tom Clancy-like war room, such companies as Grucci, Zambelli and St. Louis's Performance Pyrotechnic Associates Inc. can now synchronize their blasts into one furious "surround vision experience." Crowds no longer have to jam into one tightly confined viewing area, as whole cities (and theme parks such as Universal Studios) are virtually bathed in sound and light.

"By coordinating 42 effects sights last year in Houston for 'Power Over Houston,' we essentially had the whole city dancing," Performance's Eric Tucker says with a laugh. Tucker, who also does the onstage special effects for the ongoing Rolling Stones' Bridges to Babylon world tour, adds, "Working with Mick Jagger is a fun-filled challenge, since we can't have him burning, yet these cityscapes are the new wave and very demanding. You need serious cooperation from the city, for once you start doing helicopter lifts to put equipment on 72-story buildings, the rules dramatically change. These shows are designed to have a viewing area of 40 to 50 square miles, and that's where the action is for the millennium. The day of the one firing site is over."

While Tucker enthusiastically talks about producing two millennium cityscapes abroad that will "eclipse anything the world has ever seen," his planned statement will have to outgun the Zambellis, who are also adept at raising lots of hell.

While the Zambellis hestitate to call their "Thunder Over Louisville" a cityscape (as the 33,000-shell kickoff to Kentucky Derby week was concentrated in the downtown area), this distinc-tion is quickly forgotten once the booming barrage begins. Utilizing artillery howitzers from Fort Knox, and generally stopping at nothing to make this red, white and blue tattooing of the sky "one of the largest fireworks programs in North America," Boom Boom's son-in-law Michael Richards says, "This is the World Series, the Super Bowl, it's everything. That's what Thunder is all about, magnitude and power--just raw power."

As one stands on the banks of Louisville's Ohio River and appreciates the glow from 36 tons of splitting comets, serpents, gold and silver palm trees, and 500 other varieties of beauty bombs, the earth trembles--and it's easy to think of the Zambellis as masters of the heavens. Yes, this is power personified. Not just the banal variety of controlling stock portfolios or commanding corporations, but a type of mayhem-inducing clout bordering on the devilish, as the cumulative effect of the Louisville bombardment is a disordering of the senses, more than a few shivers, and the overriding feeling of having experienced an air raid over Baghdad.

So is this what orchestrating fireworks shows is all about: the one-upmanship of outdueling all competitors and playing a role that fits somewhere between Darth Vader and Dr. Strangelove?

Hardly seeming like a mad genius eager to jolt the universe, the otherwise genteel, soft-spoken Boom Boom dismisses with a laugh the suggestion that fire masters want to play God, and asks, "Where else can you entertain hundreds of thousands of people at the same time? Fireworks are just fun, magic, a fascination that gives me an opportunity to leave my mark on a broad canvas."

But along with these romantic pronouncements, the industry moves to the beat of the Top Gun syndrome. Companies are locked in a bruisingly competitive dogfight, zealously guarding the recipes to their chemical concoctions and doing everything possible, even if it means bad-mouthing rivals, to land the most prized venues. Even though they have a common "enemy"--hazardous material regulators such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Consumer Product Public Safety Commission--cooperation between the ruling powers is negligible. Rivals use underhanded bidding tactics to grab contracts, and generally make all sorts of false promises to squeeze competitors.

Lou Alonzo, the president of family-owned Alonzo Fireworks Display Inc. in Mechanicville, New York--a supplier of fireworks to some of the larger companies--insists there are some display artists that will stop at nothing to drum up business. "They'll promise 15,000 shells when bidding for a show, and only deliver 10,000. They'll say anything, but the ones that really decorate the sky are rare. Sure they do big bangs, and have fancy brochures. But as for anything original, real art, forget it. They're just importing their stuff [mainly from China, Italy, Japan and Spain], and letting guys like me supply their [more elaborate] needs."

Though every company likes to flaunt its artistry, insisting that certain specialties are handcrafted in its own shop, the giants find it impossible to produce the huge inventory needed for thousands of July 4th shows. So as Alonzo intimates, they go shopping abroad, and that has spurred a debate over which companies are true fireworks makers, as opposed to mere triggermen producing lighting effects, guilty of short-circuiting American innovation and expertise.

Alonzo, though, is totally hands-on, a throwback to the Neapolitan tradition (many of the Italian families in the business are from the Naples area) of painstakingly precise and artful workmanship. He shapes and packs every projectile himself: "stars," sugar-cube-sized chemical pellets that produce the reds, whites and blues, are crammed into a shell, and depending on how cylindrical, round or tubular components are arranged, different "salutes," or sound effects, are created. Though he might be unable to compete with the bigger companies for a Macy's-like extravaganza, that hardly prevents Alonzo from producing a show in Mechanicville (about 25 miles west of Bennington, Vermont) that's revered among fireworks' most passionate connoisseurs.

Every August 15, to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption, Alonzo unfurls an array of "set pieces," wooden structures studded with pyrotechnics that picture the Italian flag, Niagara Falls and the Blessed Virgin. Expensive and difficult to make, these elaborate fountains of light resemble the pyrotechnic "temples" constructed by Italian artisans from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. They're now gathering points for revelers dancing around the large Blessed Virgin statues festooned with money that are carried through the streets during the Feast of the Assumption. But these pieces aren't Alonzo's only return to the classics. There's also his own bit of going for the jugular with long-burning, multiple-break shells.

"POP...POP...POP...," booms Alonzo, imitating the sounds of his signature handiwork, which are engineered to produce multiple bursts (when one compartment explodes, it ignites a time delay fuse that leads to the next compartment) instead of one mighty bang. While a shell at a major show, such as Macy's, lasts three seconds, "mine last seven to eight seconds in the air. They have real character, unlike the newfangled stuff that's just bang after bang, not art."

It takes Alonzo five days to concoct one of these multiple-break shells. Though this is "a labor of love," a way to distinguish himself from his rivals' arsenals of mere "overkill," he ruefully adds, "Nowadays 90 percent of the stuff you see is just imported junk. I'll try to come up with two new devices a year, but most companies, just to survive, simply buy their fireworks. Today only the hobbyists, the guys with the time to do the research and experimentation, are creating the cutting-edge colors and designs."

To a great degree, Alonzo's lament is echoed throughout the industry. Bombarded with governmental regulations and forced to hire lawyers or other professionals to satisfy such legalities as insurance coverage and transportation strictures, the larger companies don't have the budgets to devise new crowd-pleasing devices. As one executive moans, "Who can do research? To save the headaches of worker compensation, possible legal bills and the like, it's much less aggravating to just buy the stuff from the Chinese."


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