John Adams had an original idea about the Fourth of July. “It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more,” wrote the Declaration of Independence signer and future American president to his wife, Abigail, in 1776.
Today it is unimaginable to consider the date without an estimated 14,000-plus fireworks displays in town squares, baseball fields, and waterways across the nation.
While pyrotechnic companies will light up the skies of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, the epicenter of the fireworks world is Washington, DC. Not only does the location resonate with symbolism, the display also commands one of the largest numbers of witnesses: an estimated 500,000 spectators crammed on the mall and millions more viewers on television.
For Garden State Fireworks (GSF) — the New Jersey-based company that is lighting the sky over the National Mall this year — it is both high stakes and business as usual.
A visit with GSF’s crew during the company’s recent setup for the Princeton University Reunion display shows that a fireworks display is a lot more than meets the eye.
It is a Friday afternoon, 1 p.m., at the start of summer in a parking lot between Carnegie Lake and Faculty Road. The cloud cover has given way and sunlight beats the asphalt. It’s hot and going to get even hotter. The sign at the lot entrance tells the story: “No Entry. Loading Fireworks for Launch Area.”
A trio of white panel trucks gleams in the fresh sun, and soft-peddled hip hop music wafts through the air from a station that emphasizes its name: Hot-91. The music is today’s soundtrack for the nine-member team that understands hot but pays it no mind. They are all business for the task at hand: setting up the display for tomorrow’s closing event.
The “guys” — an all-male mixture of race and age — demonstrate proficiency as they remove the 5,000 black (plastic) mortars (or several feet tall tubes) and a hundred or so wooden frames from one of the trucks and put them together in the lot.
The mortars hold the shells that come in a variety of sizes — from half-inch to eight inches — and are grouped according to size. They are like varied-sized brushes used to paint the sky. The larger shells create more impact and greater sky coverage. The frames hold the shells in place and allow them to be tilted or aimed. The locale away from the viewing field provides security and lets the burst ash fall over water and field.
Nelson Alfaro, a 24-year-veteran with GSF, wears a serious frown as he checks his lists twice and answers a few questions.
Title? “I am everything: pyrotechnic, make shells, set the show, shoot the show,” he says.
The talk seamlessly moves to the upcoming schedule that starts in the Garden State, then moves West, and then around the world. The list is long, especially for the week of July 4. As noted before, things are getting hotter.
If Garden State Fireworks were to be summed up by the name of one of the pyrotechnical bursts or designs, it would be the Diadem — the name comes from a crown, and the shape is based on two other design bursts: the peony and the chrysanthemum.
The two flowers are important to China, where gunpowder — originally a combination of potassium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal — and then fireworks — powder treated with color-producing chemicals, packed, and released through a tube — were developed. Historians credit Italian merchant and traveler Marco Polo (1254-1324) for bringing fireworks to Italy, where the art of firework displays flourished.
The crown is also fitting: GSF has links with European royalty, is one of the nation’s premier pyrotechnic companies, and is a major New Jersey presence.
The business’s history starts in 1861 in Italy with young Augustine Santore recycling remains from firework displays mounted by Capobianco, King Victor Emmanuel II’s master of fireworks, and creating his own display. The impressed master took on the young man as an apprentice.
Santore set out on his own and in 1890 launched a fireworks company in New Jersey. Based in Millington (Morris County), the business was maintained by Augustine’s sons — Nunzio, Charles, and Ralph — until 1973. Today it’s Nunzio’s sons, August and Nunzio Jr., who continue the business that, according to Chris, has approximate annual revenue of around $4 million.
The company is operated by a core staff of around 25 — and still very much a family affair — to create fireworks displays as well as to manufacture fireworks for indoor and outdoor use and other exhibition companies. Disney is one of its clients.
But that is only part of the story. GSF has major production facilities in Florida and Las Vegas as well as offices in Colorado and Ohio. The Las Vegas office handles international concert tours, including the special effects and stage pyrotechnics for Miley Cyrus. Since the company produces displays all over the country, employment swells to 50 crews during the fireworks season.
“Having first become known world-wide for our Italian-style, multi-break ‘exhibition’ shells, we are now major producers of plastic ball shells, quickmatch fuse, exhibition candles, and set piece materials, and we are also major suppliers to many other display firms, including the Disney organization, today the world’s largest consumer of fireworks,” notes its promotional materials. The company also boasts awards from international firework competitions, including those in Monaco, Spain, and Montreal.
In the 1980s the company began choreographing fireworks to music and turned it into an important part of its presentations.
It’s now Saturday morning, less than 12 hours to show time, and another GSF crew is bringing out the heavy artillery. The shells are being placed in the mortars and then covered with gleaming aluminum.
In the midst of tangle of mustard-yellow wires that link control boxes to shell groups, busy 40-year-old firework choreographer Chris Santore talks art and business.
“My role and passion is to design all our musically choreographed displays,” says the youthful-looking fourth-generation pyrotechnician. “We start young. A very family oriented business, I started apprenticing when I was about seven or eight years old. I started learning from my father (August) in ’92; I then started choreographing my own displays. There was a period where I was helping to redefine the displays. I’m very meticulous. Some call it a passion, some call it devotion, and my wife calls it insanity.” His wife is Kelly. They have two young children — Benjamin and Madison — who have not yet joined the family business.
Santore says that by 1993 he started to see the displays more and more as an art form and a calling. “I was already doing the majority of the choreography, but shortly after that I made everyone in the company crazy because nothing was good enough for me. So I took over all the choreography.”
Now he is the sole designer for about 50 “high end” choreography displays crammed within a few pages of the calendar. “It gets crazy in April and stops being crazy in September,” he says. Looking at the shells around him he says, “This show is my baby; the fourth of July on the Washington Mall is my big baby. It all happens at once, which makes it difficult.”
“High end” refers to computer-designed and computer-executed events. It is also where the art is. “The soundtrack is the foundation of the display. It starts with the music. I wholeheartedly believe in the art of it. I want to dictate the soundtrack and will try to work with a client, but I’ll hold my ground. You need to manage between the music and the display. I am asked what music works and I’ll say I know it when I know it,” he says.
Editing begins by grouping songs that relate to one another in some way and allow themselves to be visually expressed or choreographed. “You can’t have songs that have 100 beats in most because you’re not going to have drama or emotion. The editing program and sound is the unknown background. You need to understand music and how to edit. What is painful is having a sound track that sounds like someone turning the radio dial,” he says.
Santore’s sense of music is more than theoretical. He says that he is a guitarist and plays a Gibson and Yamaha. His interest in art also extends into literature. He graduated as an English major from Seton Hall in 1996 and says, “My mom wanted me to teach, but I wanted to blow things up. She wanted me to go to law school or be a teacher. I also majored in communications, so that I guess is something meaningful. And I really like film.” He adds that he produced several short films that ranked in some competitions and likes Russian literature.
The talk of literature moves back to music and the soundtrack. “It’s created on a WAV file and then imported into a choreography suite. You have a sound file and find where you put our fireworks. You pre-define it. You have to create a library.”
The main thing is to set the point of ignition and break point. “Having that fine data lets you choreograph to your heart’s content. Software is very high end, an industry standard. It does the lifting when you input the data.”
Surprisingly, Santore says that weather conditions are not that large of a factor. “Wind shear will change the height (of the rocket) but not the actual detonation time. The point of ignition is so direct and weather proof. (Weather) won’t get in the way,” he says.
Pointing to the aluminum over the silent fireworks, he says “Aluminum foil fire proofs (the shells). You don’t want anything cross-firing. If it rains, we use plastic covers. Fireworks will shoot through the plastic. It is like a cannon and will shoot through three quarter inch plywood.”
Santore says that he has seen a lot of technological changes since he started in the business. “All this data didn’t exist. Before it was just a stopwatch and (an audio) tape. The advent of CD players brought digital times. (Before) people’s tapes were playing at different times. And different battery power in different machines affected timing. It was harder to choreograph a show, but it was better to learn that way and learn to manage the sky. I was happy to learn that way. It honed the craft.”
He says that the old fashioned method of using a flare to ignite a show or manually pressing a button had some advantages. “The digital age is a great tool, but if you don’t grow up knowing analog it makes a difference. My brother says that he prefers the old days when there was no computer and we were listening to a cue tape. The audience was listening to one tape, and I was listening to another. You needed to know the program well. It was a performance.”
To emphasize the point, he tells of a mishap that occurred when they began to depend on computers and did not have a manual takeover. When the program failed, things heated up with a disgruntled audience, family tempers, and pyrotechnic engineers scrambling. After stopping the show, he was able to start over and hand-operated the display.
Then there was the very public and embarrassing San Diego mishap on July 4, 2012. A computer malfunction ignited nearly $125,000 worth of fireworks in less than 20 seconds. GSF returned the next year and put on what the city called "the best display the city ever had."
As work progresses towards the current evening show, the real meaning of a family business comes with a telephone call. It deals with Santore’s mother, Heidi, who is being treated for Guillain-Barre Syndrome. Santore says that her situation is taking a toll on the family, especially their father. In her honor he said that night’s show is being dedicated to her (a point noted in the program). After a pause, he says, “And the (health) insurance business is endless.”
Business insurance suddenly becomes a topic. “Our coverage is $10 million. Insurance is a huge expense in the business. We also have vehicle and workers compensation. So doing a small show is hard.”
Small shows are the simple hand-detonated or flare ignited events that last about 15 minutes and range in expense from $2,000 to $10,000. With some shells costing more than $300, sizes and numbers increase price. To get an idea of a big show, this year’s Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks display will feature more than 40,000 shells.
Computerization and synchronized music also contribute to cost. For GSF’s shows several hours of work go into just one minute of display. The cost of the National Mall event is approximately $222,000.
Other factors also contribute to the time and effort needed to create an event. “(The business) is highly regulated by every three letter agency monitoring us. It is a lot of paperwork,” says Chris.
As if on cue, a fire marshal appears, studies the prep work, and talks about the set up in the stadium. Chris says it is important that pedestrians stay away from the wiring or there could be a fiasco. Thoughts then go to a jogger with headphones; he just headed into one of the set-up areas by the river and is oblivious to the crew’s warning shouts. The day is heating up.
It is 8:25 p.m. and showtime looms. Thousands have already assembled in Finney Field to hear a concert that started at 8 p.m. More are trickling in to see the fireworks.
Three technicians — Dave, Brad, and Jim — stand by “central control”: a table with a laptop hooked to a firing panel and the same speaker system used by the orchestra. The equipment has been checked, but the crew is checking it again. As the sun drops, Dave says that it is 110 percent perfect conditions: no wind, no rain, no mist.
The crew decides to recheck the pyrotechnic area: the nearby swath of field for ground displays. There stand the Candles (large Roman candles), Mines (sudden multi-color star bursts), Cakes (the firing of repetitive effects), Flame Mortars (quick flames of red or green), and Comets (giant trails of gold and silver). Crew members find a child, return him to the parents who let him wander into the site, and shake their heads.
Although unnecessary, the fireworks and ground crew workers decide to dampen the field just to add more protection to the turf.
The concert is moving into its final quarter when Santore and several others arrive like a small military unit. They set up more tables and chairs for reviewing, go over needs, and talk “tear down” or packing up. While it takes days to set up, regular tear down is usually an hour. Rain and wind can make it run three times as long.
About his intent, Santore says, “Fireworks are a pretty unique art form, as their unique nature of light, color, and sound appearing suddenly and disappearing rapidly is unusual and requires a different approach to other more ‘sustained’ imagery in other art forms. However, general composition certainly comes into play. I work to find the best way to occupy both space and time. I try to find the balance and create symmetry in certain instances while in other instances asymmetry is the goal. The music really dictates much of the approach. In many ways a musical fireworks display is not unlike a laser light show set to music, or a complex water fountain and music show. One critical difference is that I focus on making sure that the fireworks display will still stand on its own even if someone couldn’t hear the music. The use of time, space, and effects remains more valid in the absence of the music than a laser light or water fountain production would.”
He says his goal is “to paint the sky” and that there are several ways that he approaches meeting that goal. “There are occasions where I find the best existing effect is to interpret the music, and there are occasions where we custom design effects to satisfy the visual. The effects are pursued on an as-needed basis. Research and development are done primarily by my uncle and father.”
Show time is closing in. The orchestra’s presentation of “Stars and Stripes Forever” is a signal to prepare for countdown. “I think you should get open,” Chris says to Brad, pointing to the computer. Connections and plugs are checked. The laptop screen lights up. Crew members shake hands, wish one another good luck, slip on headphones with mouthpieces, and take their places. Chris sits anxiously on a nearby chair and leans forward.
The band finishes, and the audience is invited to countdown and responds: “Three, two, one!”
A finger to the laptop keyboard sets the show free, and a lone fire ball rises from the shore launch area. The light pushes upward until it erupts into a silver snake. The audience cheers. Recorded music bursts through the speakers as the sky explodes.
The shouting and applauding accompany the choreographed bursts of color and shapes. At times the sky is sketched with designs that seem to stand still until the lines of light explode into filigree. Twisting patterns dance tight with the music and then burst away. Often the show is by the book and uses the fireworks lexicon: Bees (swirling), Crackle Shells (the program notes call them golden Rice Krispies-like bursts), Fish (wriggling stars), Screamers, Whistles, Water Falls, and more. At other times, chances are taken: a huge buttercup shape appears in the midst of the song “Build Me Up, Buttercup,” and sound bursts echo, answer, or complement the music.
Throughout the crew watches and reviews. High fives or raised fists follow successful execution. Terse comments follow others. At one point, Chris rises and walks forward into the dark, now fogged with smoke and smelling of sulfur. But he is back for the finale when the crew seems to be telepathically guiding the shells and coloring the night with light.
At the end of the show, Chris speaks for the audience and crew when he exclaims “Yes!” And then moves on to the next show.
Hours after the satisfied crowd has gone home and the GSF crew has packed up, a note from Chris — who uses the E-mail name Prometheus (the Greek hero who snatches fire from the gods and gives it to mortals) — appears on a computer and advises that in addition to the National Mall the company will also “be executing large productions in Perth/South Amboy on July third, Asbury Park on July fourth, and dozens more in New Jersey.”
When asked about the name, he writes back, “It is a brutal task to produce fireworks displays … but worth bringing fire to the people.”
As Chris heads to hot and humid Washington for the Fourth of July, things are also heating up for Nelson Alfaro. He is traveling to the other end of the continent, to Las Cruces, New Mexico, to illuminate the sky for the holiday. He is also having a family affair. “My wife will go with me. We did events together years go. This is how we started in the business.”
It is all something that John and Abigail Adams would appreciate.
“A Capitol Fourth” featuring a concert and fireworks by Garden State Fireworks will be broadcast live on PBS Friday, July 4, 8 p.m.
This year’s Fourth of July marks the 237th birthday of the United States of America. Holiday events near and far include:
Spirit of Princeton, Princeton University Sports Fields. Wednesday, July 2, 7 p.m. Independence Day celebration. Picnics welcome. Bring blankets or chairs. No alcoholic beverages. 609-683-4008. www.spiritofprinceton.homestead.com.
East Windsor Township, Etra Lake Park, Etra Road. Thursday, July 3, 6 p.m. Music by Jerry Rife’s Rhythm Kings Dixieland Jazz Band and the Trenton Brass Quintet Plus One Band. Fireworks at 9:30 p.m. Raindate is Saturday, July 5. 609-443-4000. www.east-windsor.nj.us.
Foundation for Bordentown Traditions, Veterans Memorial Park, Ward Avenue, Bordentown. Thursday, July 3, 4:30 to 10 p.m. Concert by Funk & Roll, food, children’s play area. Fireworks at dusk. E-mail email@example.com. Free. 609-298-4332.
Hamilton Township, Veterans Park, Hamilton. Thursday, July 3, 6 p.m. Music by the Fabulous Greaseband. Fireworks at dusk. Food vendors. 609-890-4028. www.hamiltonnj.com.
Trenton Thunder, Arm & Hammer Park, Route 29, Trenton. Thursday, July 3, 7:05 p.m. Portland. Fireworks after the game. $11 to $27. 609-394-3300. www.trentonthunder.com.
July 4 Jubilee, Morven Museum, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. Friday, July 4, Noon to 3 p.m. Sign the Declaration of Independence, commemorate the 13 colonies, participate in domestic colonial life activities, meet George Washington, live music with the Riverside Bluegrass Band, refreshments. Bring a blanket or chair. Free. 609-924-8144. www.morven.org.
Downtown Freehold, Freehold Raceway, 130 Park Avenue, Freehold. Friday, July 4, 5:30 p.m. Performances by the Rock & Roll Chorus and the Turnstyles. Fireworks at dusk. Raindate is Sunday, July 6. 732-333-0094. www.downtownfreehold.com.
Parade, Ewing Township, Parkside Avenue, Ewing. Friday, July 4, 10 a.m. “Happy Birthday America, Proud to be American.” Featuring music by the Odessa Klezmer Band. 609-883-2900. ewingnj.org.
Old-Fashioned Celebration, Fonthill Museum, East Court Street and Swamp Road, Doylestown. Friday, July 4, Noon. to 4 p.m. Recreation of an early 20th century celebration including a decorated bike parade, a town ball game (19th century baseball), a watermelon eating contest, antique bicycle display, old-time games, and live music. $4. Bring your own picnic or purchase from vendors. No dogs allowed. Heavy rain cancels event. 215-348-9461. www.mercermuseum.org.
Celebrate July 4: American Independence, Friends of Washington Crossing State Park, Washington Crossing Historic Park, Route 32, Washington Crossing, PA. Friday, July 4, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Re-enactors present a window into the past through military exercises, musket firings, and three readings of the Declaration of Independence from the steps of McKonkey’s Ferry Inn. $8 includes admission to Bowman’s Hill Tower, the Thompson Neely House, and the Lower Park. 215-493-4076. www.ushistory.org/washingtoncrossing.
4th of July BBQ, Grounds for Sculpture, 126 Sculptor’s Way, Hamilton. Friday, July 4, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Made-to-order cheeseburgers, hot dogs, and veggie burgers. 609-584-7800. www.ratsrestaurant.org.
Monroe Township Cultural Arts Commission, Thompson Park, Monroe. Friday, July 4, 5 p.m. Music and vendors. Fireworks at dusk. Free. 732-521-2111. www.monroetownshipculturalarts.com.
Independence Day Parade, Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, Whitefield Avenue, Ocean Grove. Friday, July 4, 10:30 a.m. Marching bands, floats, community groups, civic organizations, businesses, and more. Musical participants include Pipes and Drums of the Jersey Shore Shillelaghs, Bagpiper Joe Simmons, Monmouth County Police and Fire Pipes and Drums, Neptune High Marching Band, and more. 732-775-0035. www.oceangrove.org.
Independence Day Celebration, Princeton Battlefield State Park, Princeton Battlefield Park, 500 Mercer Road, Princeton. Friday, July 4, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Revolutionary War period soldiers demonstrate drill, artillery, and flintlock muskets. Clarke House volunteers demonstrate domestic skills. Period games available. Thomas Clarke House and the “Arms of the Revolution” exhibit open. Presentation about the Battle of Princeton. Reading of the Declaration of Independence at 1 p.m. Bring a picnic lunch (no barbecues or alcohol). Hike on the trails of the adjacent Institute Woods. 609-921-0074.
South Brunswick Recreation, South Crossroads School fields, Monmouth Junction. Friday, July 4, 5:30 p.m. Music from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Fireworks at dust. Food vendors. Raindate for fireworks is Saturday, July 5, 9:15 p.m. Free. 732-329-4000. www.sbtnj.net.
Stars n’ Stripes, Washington Crossing Open Air Theater, 355 Washington Crossing-Pennington Road, Titusville. Friday, July 4, 7:30 p.m. Musical. Blankets, seat cushions, a flashlight, and insect repellent are recommended. Snack bar. $15. 267-885-9857. www.dpacatoat.com.
Cranbury, Main Street. Saturday, July 5, 6 p.m. Concert by Mercer County Symphonic Band followed by fireworks at 9 p.m. Bring blankets and a picnic dinner (no alcoholic beverages). Raindate is Sunday, July 6. 609-395-0900.
Lawrence Township, Rider University, 2083 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville. Saturday, July 5, 7 to 10 p.m. Concert featuring local band Kindred Spirits followed by fireworks starting at about 9:45 p.m. 609-844-7067. www.lawrencetwp.com/rec.html
Freedom Fest State Fair, Horse Park of NJ, 626 Route 524, Allentown. Friday, July 11, 6 to 11 p.m. Carnival, rides, pie eating contests, horse shows, and more. Concerts by EagleMania (A Tribute to the Eagles) and Tusk (Fleetwood Mac tribute). Rain or shine. $10. Fireworks. 609-610-0910. www.freedomfeststatefair.com.