Cigar Aficionado

Showmen of the Sky

Showmen of the Sky
Photo/David Yellen
The first family of fireworks: M. Philip Butler, Phil Grucci, Donna Grucci Butler, and Felix Grucci Jr. make up the core team.
The Grucci family sets the standard for fireworks celebrations around the world

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.

Fireworks by Grucci is a more than 150-year-old family business that traces its origins to Angelo Lanzetta, who began working in fireworks in Bari, Italy, a port on the Adriatic Sea, in the early 1850s. His grandson and the family patriarch, Felix James Grucci Sr., who died in 1993, went to work for his Uncle Anthony, Angelo’s son, in 1923, and they opened a shop in Bellport, Long Island, in 1929.

Over the years, as The New York Times noted in Felix Sr.’s obituary, he “gained an international reputation as an innovator in fireworks and was the oldest master craftsman in that field in the country.”

But until 1979, the Gruccis were mainly a local business, known mostly in and around New York, and along the East Coast. It was in that year that the family decided to enter the annual international fireworks competition in Monte Carlo, competing against Denmark, France, Italy and Spain. And the Gruccis won, becoming the first United States team to finish on top. It is the only fireworks competition the Gruccis have ever entered.

Donna Grucci Butler remembers that her brother James “came up with the idea of Monte Carlo. Every week we would sit down to a nice family dinner and end up with a big family argument, my father saying we’re not going and my brother saying yes, we have to do this, we can win. Jimmy won that battle.”

For the record, Donna is Felix Sr.’s daughter; Phil, Donna’s nephew, is the son of her brother James Grucci, who died in a fireworks accident in 1983; another brother, Felix J. Grucci Jr., is executive vice president and chief financial officer of both Fireworks and Pyrotechnique; Donna’s husband, M. Philip Butler, is vice president of sales and marketing for Fireworks by Grucci.

The Gruccis’ executive offices are on a dreary 90-acre plot on the edge of Long Island’s Pine Barrens in Suffolk County, New York. A small, circular, blue sign at the turnoff is the only indication you’re entering Grucci territory. The offices are in a small, blue, wooden building that looks like a miniature barracks.

Nearby is a warehouse facility used to build props and store launch equipment. Rows of bunkers inhabit the sandy soil, which holds fireworks and special effects awaiting their destination orders. The Grucci product used to be produced in Brookhaven, but now it’s made in Radford, Virginia—on 1,000 acres of a large army ammunition plant—as well as in Asia and Europe.

Inside the blue barracks, the walls are filled with memorabilia—family pictures, ID badges from around the world, panoramic photos and time-lapse exposures of the family specialty, in red, white and blue, green, yellow and gold.

The Brookhaven office has 20 full-time employees, though the staff increases as the Fourth of July, a time of multiple events, nears. In Virginia, there’s a staff of 150. “And there are more than 300 part-time pyrotechnicians” who work on setting up and executing the programs, Phil Grucci says—“they’re mechanics, accountants, lawyers” who love to work on fireworks.

“We’re very fortunate,” Donna Grucci Butler says. “They have full-time jobs, so to do fireworks with Grucci, they’re giving up vacations, time with their families. They are just so into the pyrotechnics and the challenge of where they’re going and what they’re going to do to help put it up in the air.”

“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.”

Felix Grucci says “You start with the music, or the theme, and you build from there. You understand the inventory, what we call our characters, for the performance. You know that some fireworks have a soft color field. Some are very bold in color. Some have movement. Some have sound. Some have a combination of the above. When you listen to the music, you think that a particular device would work well with this theme of music, so you lay it in and see how it blends with the rest of the program—does it stand out, is it a moment of ooh and aah? Does it all come together? You may say to yourself that you’ve got too much of this effect, and it’s going to start to become anticlimactic. It may take several hours to do a minute’s worth of fireworks production. Because you start with a blank piece of paper and the vision is in your mind’s eye.”

The electronic chip, fired by computer, is embedded in the aerial shell. “A firework is very similar to a cannonball,” Phil Grucci says. “It’s a projectile that gets launched out of a tube—we call it a fireworks mortar. Typically, there’s a timing device that’s made with black powder that burns internally as the shell is rising in the sky. When that black powder train burns into the center of the shell, it ignites the charge that’s in the middle and bursts the shell open.”

The computer chip “replaces the fireworks fuse. With the fuse, in a typical four-second rise time, you may have a half-second tolerance, plus or minus. Well, a chip brings that down to 100 milliseconds, which means that if you know what the mortar velocity is of a fireworks shell coming out of the tube—it’s generally around 400 feet per second—and you can keep that consistent, then you can dictate where in the sky the shell is going to burst.”

It’s called a pixel-burst shell, a Grucci trademark, “and if you create a dot in the sky, a pixel, and start connecting those dots, you can start creating some pretty amazing abstract sequences, where you’re creating shapes in the sky.” One of the more surprising shapes was created nine years ago, when New York’s Museum of Modern Art moved temporarily to Queens for a major expansion of its Midtown building, and the Gruccis created a “transient rainbow” from Manhattan to the museum’s temporary home borough.

Using the chips, the Gruccis are now also creating digits in the sky. “We call it a rumble digit,” Phil Grucci says. “It will fire 200 aerial shells in rapid sequence, and they will burst in the sky all at once and create a number, an eight or a seven or a six,” or whatever. “We’re starting to develop that in a more refined manner, to use as a countdown for some of our upcoming New Year’s Eve programs. We first used that kind of program in Beijing to do the countdown for the Olympic opening ceremonies.”

Phil Grucci says that when it comes to cigars, he’s been smoking since he was 20. In addition to relieving stress, he smokes “when I have a moment to sit back and relax and enjoy whatever environment I’m in.” He likes a relatively new brand, Acid, made with Nicaraguan tobacco. “I have a friend, Scott Chester, who designs the labels, who did the graphic work. It’s a smoother cigar, with a really easy draw. It’s an up-and-coming brand,” flavored with natural herbs that can, for instance, have a clove, floral or spice taste. “I know they’re a little controversial,” he says. He does a lot of international travel, so he gets a chance to smoke Cuban cigars, but “some of them I believe are a little overrated.”

Felix Grucci likes to smoke “on the back porch of my house, by myself. I’ll have a cigar and a Courvoisier and sit back and relax and unwind after days of pressure. You’ve got quiet, you’ve got solitude.” He’ll also smoke socially, when friends “get together and have cocktails and cigars.” Among the smokes he likes are Cohibas.

Phil Butler says his “introduction to cigars goes all the way back to Te Amo. Incredibly strong cigars. I kind of got used to that strong cigar, but I went away from that when I started looking for better cigars.” He prefers the Churchill shape, about seven inches long, with a 50 ring. “When the weather warms up I go out on my balcony. I have a nice pair of binoculars and I look for satellites and enjoy an hour’s worth of watching satellites and smoking.”

Felix Grucci recalled that George Plimpton, the late editor of The Paris Review and the author of Paper Lion, who followed the Gruccis for his 1984 book Fireworks: History and Celebration and became a good friend, once said: “You guys have a great job. You get to paint the night skies with so much magic, so much fire, so much excitement. In my world I have to sit with a blank piece of paper and try to come up with a theme and a story line.”

“I said, ‘George, that’s not much different from what we do when we create a program. We’re sitting with a blank piece of paper and a soundtrack, and we need to come up with a theme and an idea and a concept. Instead of typing words on paper we’re assigning fireworks to time slots in a program. They don’t just materialize. They come from the same kind of process that you go through.’

“George grasped the concept, because he could relate it to his own field. He could understand how difficult it is to put on a six-minute or eight-minute fireworks show that gives people so much color and excitement and joy.”

And giving that joy can be a very, very good reason to light up not just the sky, but a cigar.

Mervyn Rothstein is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.