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Inside the offices of pyro spectaculars, located in the san Bernardino area of southern California, Jim Souza is putting the finishing touches on a fireworks sequence for their upcoming showcase. Each spring, they preview their independence day program in front of a select audience of friends and customers. Come July, pyre spectaculars will be displaying variations of this program at more than 300 sites around the country. For nearly a century, the Souza family has painted fire on the earth and sky with both low and high level fireworks. Today, pyre spectaculars produces over 1, 500 shows yearly including the super bowl seven times and a dramatic annual new year’s eve display off Seattle’s space needle. The tradition begun by Jim’s great grandfather of carefully designing and creating everything by hand has merely gotten an assist from the new tools of technology.
“That’s the real computer. It’s what’s inside here And a lot of thoughts always going through my head and never know quite when or which one has the most influence .It could be just driving down the road, but I’m always trying to blend together .Music is a great inspiration .yet I may have a great firework effect I know have to get in there. So I have to find the music to that.”
A few days before the big event ,Jim holds a production meeting. Present is the showcase.
“I want it bouncing back and forth to the beat and it’s going to look like this when we‘re done”
Everyone’s excited as he talks through the pyro musical The songs ,narration and array of low and high level fireworks that will complement a series of set pieces or large scale fire pictures tracing in broad ,blazing strokes American history . on the company grounds ,converted World War Two bunkers serve as magazines for storage of the more explosive aerial devices A worker pulls from bins the 400 plus shells that will create the high level backdrop for the pyro musical showcase .In another facility ,skilled artisans are assembling the Fourth of July set pieces ,patriotic that will burn brightly all across America.
‘Making the set pieces ,it’s still a very much an ancient art. It’s still done by hand . it’s real physical work to take the bamboo and to make the different shapes.It’s very physical ,very time consuming and labor intense . And so, therefore ,it’s very expensive, And so, the trend lately in the fireworks’ community is to just pump up a lot more aerial shpws, which are good and beautiful. We do that as well .But it still goes back as a family tradition to really feature these animated set pieces,”
On the morning of the show, scaffolding for the set pieces goes up at the Los Angeles County fair grounds,”
Years ago ,set pieces were a common part of all fireworks’displays.Today ,they’re almost a lost art.
“Yeah okay ,these are going to move over ,straddling this line .so obviously, you got the flagpole .That means move over in that section ,in this section over here ,Bring it back this way a bit,”
“pick it up real slow.”
“that’s the walk.”
“Catch the two by four <inaudible>, don’t slip out of frame .”
“Pick up on this last end a little more”
“More on the back . We’re done’”
“The set piece gives the fireworks’ artist a chance to be really creative in the design. Hundreds of tubes the size of a pen are filled with fireworks’ composition that burns with a red flame ,a green flame , a blue flame ,a white flame .They’re paints. The tubes are all connected with a very quick burning fuse .The fuse is covered. It’s encased in a tape, either a tape or a paper wrapper over black powder confines
The thoe gas underneath .Beneath the wrapper and the flame jets down the tape very, very quickly, hundreds of feet per second.”
Because the setup of a show as large as this requires so many workers, fireworks’ companies must train and keep lists of qualified people in states around the country. They will usually send out a few of their own people to put on a show, which they will then supplement locally. To get the certification needed by most states, pyro techs put in a required number of hours under the supervision of a pyro master of which there are several in attendance today. The time volunteers spend setting up this show will count directly toward their certification.
“I.m going to let you guys get out.”
“this show is the first big show of the new season . And these firework enthusiasts are so eager to get their hands on it again .they come out here .they get no pay. They get a pyro tee-shirt, ala, okay.”
Roman candles are very popular in fireworks’ displays. They’re usually fired in batteries of three or more, arranged on a fan shaped board or spline to give a low level effect. You can angle them, cross them and then above, place higher aerial shells for a great combination of effects.
“Roman candles are repeating firework. Manufacturer makes them by starting with a clay plug in the bottom, a charge of black powder, repellent. And then a large star, a pellet that’ll burn with a red color, a green color and then they press a delay composition, a slow burning mix and then black powder, star, delay, black powder, star, delay. light it from the top, Delay burns, hits the next star gets shot, ten,12, 15 times depending on how many stars you have in the candle.”
Fireworks’ chemistry is based on the principle that fire needs fuel and oxygen to burn .Ade since pyrotechnics is the art of manipulating fire, all fireworks start with these two ingredients. “You begin with a basic mix that’ll contain an oxidizer. And here we have potassium perchlorate. This is a very commonly used oxidizer in fireworks. And we have red gum. This is s powdered gum that comes from Australia, makes a very, good fuel for fireworks. In here. We’ll light the potassium perchlorate. Nothing happens. we light the red gum. Absolutely nothing happens. Now we’re going to blend these two together and we’ll put some of our red gum, potassium perchlorate mix on here. Put a fuse in this.”
“Together the two burn beautifully.”
Las Vegas, Nevada, known for world class entertainment. Familiar stomping grounds of the Grucci family who have staged fireworks’ extravaganzas at the unveiling and even demise of many of its most famous casinos.
Workers at the reserve hotel and casino, just over the city limits in Henderson, are racing to get everything ready for the grand opening the following day. Fireworks by grucci aims to make it one that will not soon be forgotten.
“in this particular program, we have a number of locations. We have five total, the high rise of the building, the low rise and three aerial sites. The VIP audience for this is right in the middle of it. So they have pyrotechnics basically in sensor round and during the program, we bounce from the high rise to the low rise to the aerials during the finale, all the five locations come together as one large finale.”
More than 3,200 pyrotechnic devices will be ignited from these three aerial shell sites and two low firework sites on the roof. 2,100 launched in the two minute finale alone.
What Joe’s loading right now is a three inch silver meteor. It’s a firework that when it’s fired from the ground level up to about 300 feet. He’s loading them into mortars, which is like a cannon. Each one of those, you see the wires that are hanging out of it. That wire is extended to a firing console, like a lighting board. And when the pyre technician pushes a button during the script of the program, that button that’ll correspond to that firework and discharge it into the air.
Electric charges are sent to the shells’ fuses through these miles of wires where they ignite them by way of electric matches which create sparks. Workers set up and wire rows of roman candles and pyrotechnic strobes for a low level effect that will contrast with the high level aerial shells while defining the second story foot as the foreground for the display.
“ Phil, roughly four feet from each pillar. You got it located from there? Thinking about it.”
Phil returns to ground level to see that they have placed the fireworks correctly on the two roofs in relation to the primary viewing area. The major artillery of the show will be launched from three ground level satellite sites. The mechanics of firing a shell are described by renowned fireworks’ professor, Dr john Conkling.
“the aerial shell is probably the firework most people are familiar with, associate with the fourth of July in a fireworks’ show. These are devices, they range from 3 inches to 12 inches or more in diameter, are loaded into a tube called a mortar that’s buried in the ground or secured in a rack and then are launched several hundred feet up in the air where they explode.”
“the inside construction is interesting. There is a charge of black powder, all gunpowder on the bottom. This is the propellant that throws the device several hundred feet up in the air. While it’s firing up in the air, a time fuse is burning. So five, six seconds later, it’s 400 feet up in the air, the fuse burns into the center. This is a black powder that’s impreanated on rice holes to give a nice, quick flash and a burst. This explodes the package. Around the outside are stars. These are the pellets that burn with a red color, a green color or a blue color and will form a pattern up in the air.”
When all the electrical connections have been run from the firing board to the mortars, the chief pyre technician runs a continuity test. He sends an extremely small current through the lines to diagnose any problems, which would indicate a break in the electrical circuit between the board and shells.
“confirm one red light. Second confirmation, we have two red lights.”
At the main aerial battery, they work fight up until the evening loading more shells and double checking everything to make sure tomorrow’s ten minute show goes off safely and on cue.
“this shell, as you can see, has a number on it also. And this is designed in the program to be the 261st cue in the program. So they’ll be a pre—time that if the music calls for this purple chrysanthemum to be in the sky, five seconds before the music calls for that, the pyre technician down here needs to launch this into the sky, which is our pre-time.”
These three satellite sites with their array of mortars will bear the brunt of launching the deafening bombardment and saturation of color that mark the grucci grand finale.
“this sand in here is mainly to keep the mortars facing the way that you put them. So now, if you didn’t have sand in there or anything holding the mortars, it would just flip flop when it goes out. But now, as you see, we have these angled a little bit that way. On that side we have them angled. So it fills up the sky and it covers the whole area. You’re getting a beautiful scene of it all over.”
All shells make noise, but the really loud bangs known as salutes are produced by a shell having an additional chamber filed with a highly combustible aluminum powder.
Whether they know it or not, all las Vegas is in for a fireworks treat as big as the Nevada sky.
When the doors open the next day, VIP guests get an exotic first glance at the brand new casino. At nine, 30, guests are invited out into the brisk desert air to witness the pyrotechnic baptism of the casino.
From point of launch up to the sky, pyrotechnics completely fill the scene with their grace and power.
Then, the finale.
“position four A, standing by for firing cues. Board is armed.”
“there’s a personal association to me for what I do here on the site and all the choreography and the time that’s spent, to my father. And he gave his life for this business and so every program that we go on is my own dedication to him.”
Words do not convey the full sensory experience, which is why people invented fireworks in the first place.
As do most large fireworks’ companies, Gucci also manufactures its own variety of aerial shells, blending the different chemical compounds and shaping the shells by hand. American made shells are cylindrical in shape giving them a more random burst. The colors on the other hand last longer relative to their spherical Asian counterparts, which spread into spectacular floral patterns and then fade. One of the company’s major creative forces and grandson of the family patriarch is Phil Gucci. Phil has designed or choreographed many of the major fireworks’ displays of recent years. Now he’s busy working on a show for the grand opening of the reserve casino in Las Vegas.
“We utilize the digital editor as our tool. The computer is our tool, but the creativity is in our imagination. Graphically the computer gives us the music on the screen where we can see our valleys and our peaks. From that, then I go into my own internal imagination knowing what our inventory is or our cast of characters and place them in the appropriate locations to the music, and it’s all based on emotion. It’s just like painting a picture, what your pallet is and making sure that the right colors and the right hues are placed on that canvas.”
And what artist could ask for a greater canvas than the silky night sky. Perhaps that’s the real power of fireworks. It is freeform expression where literally the sky is the limit.
“for the reserve grand opening, because it is a grand opening, it’s a very celebratory event. It’s a very bold event. The music is very bold. As you see the graphs, there’s very little peak, there’s very little valleys here, most of it are all peaks. So the fireworks in this event, tempo is very upbeat. As you can see, we’ll place the fireworks exactly at the moment where that product needs to perform at its cue if you will.”
Phil learned the trade at the side of his father, jimmy Gucci. His apprenticeship with his father was cut tragically short in November 1983. just six months after jimmy grace’s greatest triumph with the Brooklyn bridge display, he was killed along with a cousin in an accidental explosion that destroyed most of the company compels. Ti is a testament to the family strength that they decided to rebuild and go on . the only way to live with the hazards is to take them with deadly seriousness.
“The greatest risks in manufacturing occur at the time when you’re blending the chemicals together. At theta point, if certain chemicals come in contact with each other that are not supposed to be coming into contact with each other, you can have a spontaneous combustion. So we’re always cognizant of the devices that we’re working on, new formulations that are coming out but the most sensitive part of the program is when you’re actually out on the location, and to make sure that you have the fight tables or distances separating your audience from the actual points of discharge of the fireworks. Because if an incident is going to happen, that’s the place that it would happen at.”
Fireworks in America have been synonymous with fourth of July celebrations from the time Boston patriot, john Adams, wrote in 1776 that the national holiday ought to be solemnized with such displays from one end of the continent to the other front this time forward and forever more.
Americans have remained faithful to that spirit.
From world’s fairs…
…to homecomings, fireworks are now used to celebrate every kind of event.
On the edge of long island’s pine barrens in Brookhaven, New York, the world famous Gucci fireworks’ family have built a compound that would seem able to withstand any attack. However, these reinforcements guard against danger, not from the outside, but from within. The sandy soil of long island is per-fact for building row upon row of neatly ordered dunkers, magazines that store explosive compounds and fireworks.
Near the end of the 19th century, a great uncle of the graces, Angelo lunette, brought over in his shoebox from Italy to New York closely guarded formulas for pyrotechnics. In 1938, Felix Gucci senior took over the business and in the decades that followed, the family gained a reputation for artistry and inventiveness. However, it took a gold medal at the Monte carol fireworks competition in 1979 and the 1983 Brooklyn bridge centennial celebration to launch them into the big time.
“Fireworks has been in our family for about 130 years. It’s been passed on from one generation to the next and it’s actually woven into every fiber of our being.”
Part of the reason for the graces’ success has been close attention to detail and to safety. Before entering the shop where shells are assembled, a worker touches a brass plate drawing from her body any potentially dangerous static charge. Jimmy, a fourth generation Gucci, personally primes and inspects a shipment of aerial shells that have come in from China fireworks factory. They’re specially made with two fuses, one as a backup. Another worker attaches bags of black powder lifting charge.
“What we have behind me is custom-made aerial shells to the specification of fireworks by grucci. These aerial shells have two timing mechanisms on them and each timing mechanism is primed with a powder charge. These timing mechanisms are designed to burn for approximately three and half to four seconds. They’ll allow this shell to reach an altitude of approximately 600 feet where it will them burst open and expel all of the component parts.”
“three, two, one, fire!”
Today’s most awesome fireworks pack more “ouus” and “ahs” than ever before. The sight of whole batteries of shells being launched is matched only in the sky by the chest thumping blasts of exploding color. Skilled pyre technicians have brought computers and electronic igniters to their time honored art to create these amazing displays of pyre wizardry.
One of our earliest awakenings to the laws of physics comes on July 4th when, as barely cognizant beings, we stare at a strange and wonderful night sky full of bursting bombs. Fractions of a second before any sound is heard, we learn to flinch at the staccato flashes of white. The thundering reports confirm that light travels faster than sound. After this initial lesson, a black veil, dark as the pyre technician’s silhouettes, descends over the whole experience. Fireworks enters a realm of forbidden knowledge, a magic practiced for our wonderment not our understanding.
“people enjoy it because of the mystery. You can loud at the stars and every night they’re going to be in the same place, but you can launch a six inch shell and you’re not quite sure exactly what it’s going to do until it actually performs. So this is , there’s some connection with fire and man that’s gone back since the beginning of time.”
Yet today’s world of fireworks, also known as pyrotechnics, is firmly based in modern science. And as such, it is completely open to our exploration.
“the basic thrill of fireworks is the sky exploding in color, in light. I think there’s something that goes to the basic human psyche about the ability to control this release of energy. In order to make really good fireworks, we have to understand the basic chemistry, basic physics, basic electronics to get a really good fireworks show.”
What is the reality behind the magic? Firework shows range in size and can cost from a few thousand to several hundred thousand dollars. They can be either in the sky or indoors. Behind these impressive displays are the fireworks’ people who create them and their incredible enthusiasm.
“when 20,000 people scream their guts out with joy over something I’ve just done, nothing can pay that. It’s an addictive drug. If you don’t feel that coming back from the audience, you’re in the wrong business. And if you do feel it, it is the ultimate addiction.”
2,000 years ago the Chinese are thought to have made the first fireworks by packing saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal into bamboo tubes. This is the earliest known use of black powder as the mixture has since come to be known. When lit, the noise pro-diced so impressed the Chinese that they were convinced fireworks could drive away evil spirits. And so, fireworks assumed a special place in Chinese culture, used in practically all ceremonies including births, marriages and funerals. The Italian explorer, Marco polo,described fireworks on his trip to china in the 13th century as one of the wonders of the orient. Not long agter Marco polo brought black powder back to the west, a German monk converted it for use in a gun as gunpowder. The Italians, on the other hand, used it to make fireworks. The Italians have been refining the art of pyrotechnics ever since, first in Europe and later in America, where certain fireworks’ family dynasties remain in business to this day.