Corrections or additions?
This article by Pat Summers was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
June 28, 2000. All rights reserved.
Pyrotechnics: Past & Present
For many of us, our first brush with fireworks came
during childhood, at our hometown July Fourth celebration. It may
have started with bunting-draped bandstands and gazebos, and
decorated in red, white, and blue. But all that was for the daylight
hours, to pass the time before the evening’s town-wide affair in the
high school stadium. Until darkness fell, it was home-brewed
like community sing-alongs of "Bicycle Built for Two,"
Doodle Dandy," and "America the Beautiful." Surrounding
the stage erected on the football field: all sizes of the "grand
old flag," while among the families spread out on blankets or
sitting in the bleachers: more flags; cap pistols and rolls —
madeleines with distinctive, sulfurous smell; sparklers and burning
punk. Capping the event: the fireworks display.
Back then, it was all visual, with the only sound coming from the
accompanying explosions themselves. Some of us looked and listened
with delight; others held our ears — which made little difference
— and kept looking. The finale was a rip-roaring fusillade of
sounds large and small, accompanying a spectacular sky show of myriad
shapes and colors. Then, the walk home through the park, carrying
blankets, folding chairs, mementoes — invariably still more little
flags for the family collection, brought out of storage each year
to ring the house on national holidays, and serve as protective
warding off unpatriotic thoughts, words, or deeds.
Ah, the simple life. Compare that idyllic memory with the recent
fireworks display in England alone: a matched set of barges extending
along the Thames, creating a landscape-wide line of fireworks. Or
consider the upcoming OpSail spectacular in New York Harbor: for what
promoters call "the largest maritime event in history," what
else would do but "the largest fireworks display in the world
to date"? Reportedly, 13 barges at five different harbor locations
will be used, threatening the visual equivalent of "decibel
Those long-ago Independence Days with their glorious fireworks
may have been our defining moment, but even by then, others
were there before us around the world, marking their own events with
pyrotechnics — battle victories to coronations to funerals —
and they did it in equally inventive ways, as descriptive images
at the time make clear.
Through September 17, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is
the most quiet millennium celebration exhibition, "Fireworks!
Four Centuries of Pyrotechnics in Prints and Drawings." In more
than 100 images showing fireworks displays over hundreds of years,
the show demonstrates how artists captured the dazzling appearance
of fireworks in action until the early 20th century, when photography
overtook documentary prints. Artists represented in
include such notables as Jacques Callot, Honore Daumier, Edgar Degas,
Winslow Homer, Claude Lorrain, Francesco Piranesi, Antonio Tempesta.
Today, ever more popular, fireworks represent a unique combination
of nostalgia and high tech, playing a major part in celebration of
sports events, birthdays, weddings and graduations, millenniums and
tall-ship occasions, and oh, yes — national independence. The
first Independence Day fireworks display in America took place in
Philadelphia in 1776. Within a few years, the makings for such shows
would come from just down the road — the du Pont family’s Hagley
Gunpowder works in Delaware, this country’s earliest maker of black
powder, and also therefore a purveyor of pyrotechnic ingredients.
Just what are fireworks and how do they work? The
answer would entail comparing them to a gun: think of ignitable powder
in an enclosed space with something — a bullet, a shell, a
of some sort — at the front end, ready to be ejected. When the
powder is lit and explodes, the air in the vessel is compressed and
forces the object to fly out at high velocity. If this were a firework
propelled from a cylindrical shell, it might have built-in timer(s)
programming when in its trajectory it will explode in air, creating
the short-lived image of fire in the sky.
All references point to the Chinese, credited with inventing gunpowder
around the ninth century A.D., as the inventors of fireworks. From
then till now, throughout Asia, displays of fireworks have been common
occurrences. Japan, for instance, is often described as a nation
devoted to fireworks, using them as other countries might employ flags
or bands or cheerleaders. India’s earliest recorded use of fireworks
was in the mid-15th century, and Hong Kong Harbor, with its
cone-like hills, is regarded as the world’s most perfect amphitheatre
for fireworks. Fireworks are an integral part of the traditional Lunar
New Year parades. In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s "The King and
Anna Leonowens’ concerns about her new job were put on hold until
after fireworks marking cremation of the last queen. First things
Nor has Europe been a slouch in the fireworks department. By the early
16th century, Charles V, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, employed
"fireworkers" in his army to produce victory displays. Not
long after, Louis XIV adopted an idea from his finance minister so
the storied excesses at Versailles could include fireworks — as
any self-respecting excesses should. Italy and Germany were known
for fireworks displays during the 16th to 18th centuries, while in
England, the coronations of James II and Charles II were marked by
fireworks shows on the Thames. In the 17th century, Peter the Great
designed a fireworks show to celebrate peace after Russia’s war with
Sweden, often lit fireworks himself, and reportedly began the custom
of fireworks on New Year’s eve.
Different countries have characteristic "pyrotechnic styles,"
of course, and firework colors evolved over the centuries from a
amber shade. Details on these facts, and myriad other tidbits (the
reason behind the Orient’s "chrysanthemum" shells), anecdotes
(what Renaissance artists were involved with fireworks), and, yes,
minutiae (the production cost for various displays) can be found in
the comprehensive, well-illustrated classic of 1984, possibly the
only one of its kind: George Plimpton’s "Fireworks" — good
for leafing through as well as background like that above, which
does not come trippingly off either memory or tongue. Plimpton, of
"Paper Lion" fame and editor of the famed Paris Review, has
been the unofficial fireworks commissioner of New York City ever since
the Lindsay administration. He was recently tapped by the Met to
on fireworks as an adjunctto its current exhibition.
And that brings us back to pyrotechnics today — which includes
computer-designed and triggered fireworks displays, often in concert
with music and lasers. We’re talking behemoth shows, costing
One Delaware Valley pyrotechnician, who left his day job for the
business, regards a 12-minute display as standard length. He can take
that many hours to design the show, which may then cost about $25,000.
That in contrast to full-scale extravaganzas like those for national
conventions, the Kentucky Derby, and Superbowls — all in the
of $250,000. And rising.
Another fireworks entrepreneur, who trained with the famous Ruggieris
of France, specializes in what is called the European style of
"explosions and effects going on at different heights for a kind
of wedding cake voluptuousness." He too plots what will happen
on computer: first, listening over and over to the music to be used;
then, synchronizing "breaks," or explosions, with the musical
beat, ultimately producing a "pyroscript" for the show-to-be.
Anything highly specialized that also includes an element of danger
is bound to have its own vocabulary — and the world of
is that and has that. A "salute" is a device designed to
a single loud detonation, usually in the air, while a "report"
is a kind of salute, and "shots" are small reports.
means audible effect produced by intent, including salute,
report, fusillade, shots, cannonade, and whistle — not to be
with "sound," which all shells make. And "shell"
is short for aerial display. "Bombette" refers to
which means any kind of smaller shells to be placed inside a larger
device. "Dressing" refers to additional ornamentation that
may be added to a lancework piece, and includes gerbs, fountains,
fogos, candles, shell bags, small wheels, and so on. No, we will not
go into the myriad possibilities of lancework. The good news is you
don’t have to know any of this to love fireworks.
The Ruggieris of France, Brocks Fireworks of Britain, the Gruccis
of Long Island, New York — classic and current names to conjure
with in the realm of pyrotechnics. Such a list also includes the
Brothers (and sister, Frances), of Garden State Fireworks, New Jersey,
and the world.
With her brothers, Nunzio and August, Frances Santore,
of four-time world champion Garden State Fireworks, is a
executive of the 110-year-old company that her grandfather founded
soon after arriving here from Italy, where he had learned his trade
from the master fireworker to King Victor Emmanuel II. Corporate
of Garden State Fireworks, Santore is also the telephone voice of
the company — based in Millington (Passaic County), New Jersey,
but producer of world-wide fireworks displays for innumerable events
and occasions — Statue of Liberty centennial, Olympic Winter
state of Vermont bicentennial, Goodwill Games in Russia.
The ideal time to talk with Santore is not during the days
and weeks leading up to July Fourth, but even so, she obliges with
ready knowledge of the field her family has starred in for so long.
Fireworks are used to celebrate all kinds of occasions, she says,
specifying christenings, bar mitzvahs, corporate parties,
and family reunions among them. In 1997-98, Garden State Fireworks
produced six displays for Princeton University’s 250th anniversary,
drawing rave reviews from administrators and alumni alike. Its use
of traditional university music and a special version of the 250th
logo — or as Santore calls it, "a ground piece on
came in for special mention.
Surprisingly, Santore says there can be too much of a good thing,
even fireworks. Asked the minimum length for a good show, she
responds, "Don’t go over 20 minutes. It can seem very long."
However, where prices are concerned, "the sky’s the limit;"
a fireworks show can cost whatever the customer wants to spend.
gulping at the reported $150,000 for the Brooklyn Bridge Centennial,
Santore mentions an event Garden State Fireworks will produce for
50 people at a private party on July Fourth: four miles of beach front
and three fireworks barges — for a sum greater than that for the
bridge fete. On the other hand, $5,000 displays are also possible.
As might be expected, Garden State Fireworks business comes from
reports of sight-of-eyes. "Once we know the budget figure for
a fireworks display, we make a proposal," Santore says. "We
tell them what we can do for that amount." Most people have no
idea what to ask for, what to call what they see. They might request
specific colors to be involved, but that’s about it.
Licensed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and insured
to the hilt, Garden State Fireworks is a "turn-key operation,"
Santore says. "We do everything but the fire permit," which
the customer takes care of because the price is often lower then.
Even at that, she often invites customers to fax the form to her for
completion. Santore says the workforce grows at this time of year
to accommodate the great number of jobs in July. But those who do
the pyrotechnic work are "highly trained" returnees —
doctors, lawyers, teachers, the whole gamut. These people have worked
only with the year-round crews till judged fit to work alone, and
they’re categorized by trade titles — with handles like
"lead pyrotechnician," and so on.
Safety considerations are always paramount, starting with production
of fireworks materials. Garden State Fireworks makes, and tests, its
own in a setting Santore says "looks like an army camp," with
buildings spaced far apart. The company tests each batch, and if the
chemicals aren’t pure, if things aren’t right, they scrap it and start
over again. Fireworks have an indefinite shelf life, and they’re
and fire-proof both. The show will go on through rain and snow, but
very high winds, say, over 25 mph, could force cancellation of a
And yes, there are secret recipes for Garden State Fireworks
which Santore indicates rivals would dearly love to have. At show
time, the customer puts up and staffs the perimeter of the display
area, while Garden State Fireworks is responsible for what goes on
inside that safety zone.
"The art is gone," Santore says of much of the competition.
She has just described one of her company’s specialties —
multi-break exhibition’ style" — as "very complicated
shells within shells within shells," with maybe 300 components
in any one shell that go off 10, 15, 20 times. The firm’s annual July
display for Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Berkeley Heights, joins this
Italian tradition with unusual groundwork for a spectacular event
that people travel from all over to enjoy. Although many towns can’t
afford the exorbitant cost of choreographing fireworks to music —
a highly time-consuming and precise art — Garden State Fireworks
has produced them since the ’80s, and offers hand, electrical, or
This year, Willingboro will have a "huge"
for the Fourth. Other area venues where Garden State Fireworks
will be on aerial and ground view celebrating independence include
New Brunswick and East Brunswick, Piscataway, Atco Raceway, Monroe
and Winslow Townships. And after all that, together with shows as
far flung as Nantucket, Massachusetts, and Colorado, there’s no such
thing as a slow season for Garden State Fireworks, Santore says. As
"the oldest and largest American manufacturer of display
the company is a major supplier to, among others, the Disney
world’s largest consumer of fireworks.
By now it’s evident: Fireworks are universal, something everybody
recognizes and delights in, however fleetingly. Their ephemeral beauty
and dramatic effects, like so many other transient pleasures, are
not for the indecisive; they must be savored on the spot.
fireworks’ siren song also reaches underground pyrotechnicians, or
"basement bombers" as they’re also sometimes called —
those who produce their own fireworks displays without legal sanction.
At least one such "private specialist" waxes no less than
rhapsodic on the subject of fireworks: "Like roller coasters and
rock concerts, they provide a brief but intense intoxication that
leaves no hangover," he writes from deep cover. "Attending
fireworks shows while at rock concerts or on a roller coaster is close
to nirvana." Probably aware of the symbolic fireworks scene in
"To Catch a Thief," he recommends fireworks for weddings —
"What better way to celebrate the union of two people than letting
the world know by lighting up the heavens!"
A sharing sort, he goes on: "Firecrackers are a good way of
the neighbors know you’re planning something fun — come on down.
They also let the police know this, so choose your invitation times
But even at New Year’s, he notes, "The police would rather be
celebrating or taking out drunk drivers than spoiling a little good
clean fun." Discretion seems to be the better part of valor here,
and even when that fails, "Twice I had the police wait till my
finale ended to come and remind me that I was doing wrong. I didn’t
antagonize them by firing off any more." It takes not just
prowess, but people skills, too.
So it’s fireworks for the Fourth. But not only that day: if you play
your cards right, you can pull from our pyrotechnics listing below
to plot a "watching route" starting days before, and working
through all possible rain dates afterwards. Then, every evening at
dusk, just head out — and look up. Ka-boom!
Celebration starts with music, games, rides, and food sales. Fireworks
begin at dusk. Raindate is Friday, June 30. Free. 6 p.m.
800-770-5883. Music on Penn’s Landing by the Elgins and the Blue Note,
followed by fireworks over the river. Free. 7:30 p.m.
2000," a variety show by talented individuals and groups.
at dusk. 7:30 p.m.
Mercer County Park, West Windsor, 800-ALLEGRO. Mercer County
celebrates with a free outdoor concert followed by fireworks.
Harvey Felder leads the orchestra in a patriotic program that includes
Tchaikovsky’s "1812 Overture." Free. 7:30 p.m.
Road, 609-924-3118. A Garden State Fireworks display by Spirit of
Princeton citizens’ committee. Raindate is July 2. 9:15 p.m.
609-777-1770. Trenton’s salsa band Latin Flavor entertains with a
concert, followed by fireworks display at dark. Free. 7 p.m.
begins with music of John Philip Sousa performed by Jerry Rife’s Band,
followed by the Trenton Brass, and fireworks. Raindate is July 3.
Celebration features rides, music, food, and vendors. Music, magic,
stiltwalking, and juggling. Fireworks at 9 p.m. 10 a.m.
play music of "Jukebox Heroes & Beatlemania," followed by
fireworks. Bring your picnic and blanket. Free. 8 p.m.
Picnic and entertainment all day followed by fireworks at dark. Free.
by the Mahoney Brothers followed by fireworks at dusk. Raindate is
July 5. Free. 7:30 p.m.
Band performs followed by fireworks at dusk. Raindate is Friday, July
7. Free. 7 p.m.
by the Nick Perrone Band followed by a millennium fireworks display
at dusk. Raindate is July 5. Free. 7 p.m.
begin at dusk featuring fireworks over the river by Grucci. 7
events at 6:30 p.m. with kids races and music by Bill Turner & Blue
Smoke. Fireworks by Girone follows at 9 p.m. 6:30 p.m.
The Thunder vs. New Haven. Old Navy Flag Day gives a flag to every
fan. Firework display follows the game. 7:05 p.m.
proceeds up the parkway to the high school. At 7 p.m. a concert
a 16-piece big band, followed by fireworks at dusk on the College
of New Jersey athletic field off Green Lane. Free. 10 a.m.
609-492-2800. Over the bay. 9 p.m.
Road, 609-298-2800. Entertainment followed by fireworks. Raindate
is July 8. 7:30 p.m.
732-222-0400. Sandcastle building competition, basketball tournament,
children’s activities, music, clowns, and food. The day culminates
with a world-class fireworks on the beach below the promenade. Free.
OpSail 2000, a parade of over 100 tall ships from around the world,
takes place throughout the day. At dark, a colossal fireworks display
over the water. Web: www.opsail2000event.org. Free. 9 p.m.
609-525-9300. Festivies begin with bike parades at each end of town
with fireworks at dusk. 11 a.m.
800-770-5883. Celebrate America in America’s Birthplace concert and
fireworks display. Web: www.Americasbirthday.com. 7 p.m.
show on the South Beach at dusk, with shows every Thursday night until
Labor Day. Free. 9 p.m.
Avenue, 800-732-7467. Fireworks displays from the beach. 9 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
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