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Fireworks: Behind the Magic

Behind the magic of Independence Day firework shows is a crew of pyrotechnists and computers, a family cookbook, and a history spanning hundreds of years.

fireworks exploding in a night sky, image
Photo caption
You ooh and aah when fireworks burst in the sky, but do you know it takes to put on a dazzling light show?


It's the Fourth of July in San Francisco—miraculously fog free—and in Aquatic Park at Fisherman's Wharf thousands of families are huddling in their woolen beanies, thermal underwear, and ski parkas. Though the temperature is nearly arctic, no one seems to notice. They're much too busy oohing and aahing and then oohing again, mesmerized by the storm of color that's ripping through the sky over the San Francisco Bay. How could they not be? "Yankee Doodle Dandy" blares over the loudspeakers. Fireworks burst like writhing snakes from a pier. A shell rockets toward the waning moon, only to erupt halfway there into an evanescent red chrysanthemum. This is the biggest fireworks show in California and, over the course of 25 minutes, more than 7,000 shells ignite the sky in an enthralling, patriotic frenzy.

Though the display lasts less than a half hour, it's taken more than 30 men, at least five regulatory agencies, two barges, and about three months of planning to stage. Talk about labor-intensive: In the three days leading up to the event, two crews work nonstop in two locations—one at Municipal Pier, next to Aquatic Park, the other at a barge at Pier 50, near Pac Bell Park—loading shells into hundreds of mortar racks and wiring them all to a computer network. They do all of this so that at show time a single pyrotechnist can step up to a computer, press one button, and set everything in motion—an action so simple, yet so high-tech, that it belies everything that's gone before.

If anyone knows just how much work goes into creating a big-time fireworks display, it's Jim Souza, president of Pyro Spectaculars and mastermind behind the San Francisco show. A couple of weeks before staging last year's production, Souza, an energetic 51-year-old, stood in the company's headquarters in Rialto, Calif., paging through a brown loose-leaf binder. Known as "the family cookbook," this volume contains the "recipes" for the fireworks assembled at Pyro Spectaculars (Souza also buys fireworks in Italy, Portugal, China, and Japan). The book has been in the Souza family since 1905, when Jim's great-grandfather arrived in California from Portugal. It was translated from the Portuguese in the late 1930s.

Even though the company has staged fireworks shows at such enormous events as the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, the Statue of Liberty's 100th anniversary celebration in 1986, and the 50th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1987, surprisingly little has changed since Manuel De Sousa (the family later altered the name) reached these shores. (The Souzas, by the way, don't believe they're related to John Philip Sousa, composer of "Stars and Stripes Forever," though they're proud of the shared name and often include a musical segment, "Sousa by Sousa," in their extravaganzas.)

Fireworks are a family affair. The Souzas, who boast three generations in their métier, are not alone in this regard. Most fireworks families, like makers of handcrafted violins, can trace deep roots in the business. The Zambellis, who run Zambelli Fireworks in New Castle, Pa., have been in the business for more than 100 years. The Gruccis, of Fireworks by Grucci in Brookhaven, N.Y., have been producing pyrotechnics in the United States since 1870 (after beginning in Italy in 1850).

If you want to see just how little has changed, a visit to Pyro Spectaculars' 50 acres of desert in Rialto will do the trick. Except for the buzz of computers and answering machines in the executive offices, there's nary a machine in sight. Instead, there's a series of low-tech sheds and bunkers surrounded by chain-link fencing and barbed wire. In most of the sheds, the only electricity powers a single light, encased in glass and metal to prevent any sparks from flying. Safety is no trifle here; Pyro Spectaculars lost its main warehouse to an explosion last year. No employees were hurt, but the fire caused $500,000 in damage.

Almost all high-end fireworks are made by hand, just as they were 1,000 years ago when the Chinese invented gunpowder. Stars are the basic element of fireworks and are made entirely by hand. Their assembly is considered such a specialized skill that in Japan workers must apprentice for years before they're allowed to take on the task. Workers in the United States usually apprentice too, for about three years. In Rialto—53 miles east of Los Angeles—a Latino man in his twenties hovers over a wok-shaped machine that rotates like a potter's wheel. He tosses in birdseed (sterilized rapeseed), slowly adds black powder (a combination of potassium nitrate, charcoal, and sulfur), and then packs each ball as though he's making a snowball. To create red stars, he adds a strontium compound. To create green, barium. For yellow, sodium compounds.

The stars are then assembled by hand into fireworks. Workers place each star in a cardboardlike shell, which is either spherical or cylindrical, and arrange the stars in a very exact way to get a certain pattern (hence the need for the "recipe"). Then, they add a lift charge to launch the firework into the air and a burst charge to cause it to explode. Cylindrical shells are generally used for fireworks that explode twice or burst into random patterns. The spherical shells are often, though not always, used for fireworks that burst in a specific pattern, such as a diamond, peace sign, or—one of Souza's favorites—smiley face (which looks more like a smiley to Souza than to the uncoached eye).

These patterned shapes are a new phenomenon. Souza reports having first seen them at a blowout show in Osaka, Japan, in 1981. In the United States, they were pioneered by a North Dakota company called Starr Fireworks in the late 1980s or early '90s, according to John Conkling, a chemistry professor at Washington College in Chestertown, Md., and former executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association. Conkling says that Starr first produced a heart, then a star, and later a bow tie. "The bow tie was very popular at the end of the first Gulf War," Conkling recalls. "They did them in yellow, so they'd have yellow ribbons for the celebration when our troops came home from that conflict." Soon, other manufacturers followed suit.

Color, surprisingly, is also a relatively new development. Until 200 years ago, Conkling says, all fireworks were either white or burnt orange. It was only with the rise of the modern chemical industry in the mid-19th century that scientists discovered how to beget colorful explosions. And what colors: red, green, violet, yellow. A true blue, however, remains the Holy Grail of fireworks chemists everywhere. "We really haven't found a chemical that, when it explodes, creates a deep blue," Conkling says.

It's the crazy colors, though, that excite Souza. In the past couple of decades, colors like magenta, lemon yellow, and even pastels have sprung up. "When we're in a fancy mood," says Souza, chuckling, "we talk tangerine." Tangerine? It's hard to imagine a thousand years ago a couple of Song dynasty soldiers wishing that their crude fireworks would burst forth in a fruity orange.

Fireworks are believed to have traveled to Europe along the Asian-Arabian trade route, arriving by the 15th cen-tury, when gunpowder was commonly used in cannons. The Europeans, particularly the Italians, quickly realized the celebratory possibilities of fireworks.

The most famous and disastrous European pyrotechnic blowout occurred in 1749 in London as part of an early attempt to wed music to fireworks. To commemorate the end of the War of Austrian Succession, the British commissioned George Handel to write Music for the Royal Fireworks and hired the famed Italian pyrotechnist Gaetano Ruggieri to create the fireworks. The show descended into a melee before it began, as the Italians and the English quarreled over who was in charge. A premature explosion blew up many of the fireworks. Interestingly, when Prince Charles and Princess Diana were married in 1981, the festivities included a fireworks display based on the 1749 model. The show, like the marriage, was a disaster. The Evening Standard gave it this review: "Wedding 6, Fireworks 0."

Still, no event is more closely linked with fireworks than the Fourth of July. A Fourth without fireworks would be like a Halloween without trick-or-treating. The connection between fireworks and the Fourth dates to 1777, when officials in Philadelphia shot off 13 rockets to observe the first anniversary of American independence. Two years later, Boston followed suit. Jim Heintze, a librarian at the American University in Washington, D.C., whose Web site ( is devoted to Fourth of July history, says that George Washington used to have his artillery shoot off cannons to cele-brate Independence Day. "There was a very close relationship," Heintze says, "between fireworks and artillery fire."

It proved a lethal combination. By the early 20th century, 300 to 500 people were dying every year from fireworks accidents, prompting cities to move most pyrotechnic shows from private to public venues. This created even more of an appetite for grand civic displays.

It's a pressure that motivates Jim Souza, who continually tries to come up with better, more thrilling Fourth of July shows. Last year, the Souzas staged 500 Independence Day celebrations, which constituted 50 percent of their annual business. When city officials are ponying up anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000 for a big-league show, they want to be awash in oohs and aahs.

Souza probably wouldn't mind hearing a few sniffles, too. He wants audiences to feel everything from exuberant pride to sorrow over events like 9/11. To further tap the emotions of his audience, Souza turns to an extensive music library that houses nearly every patriotic song ever recorded. "You need to have a big opening and a bigger ending," he says, "and you've got to take people through the gamut of emotions in between."

To achieve the synchronization of rhythm and rockets, Souza works on a show for months, sometimes as much as a year. Less than a month before last Fourth of July, he flipped open a laptop and turned on a PC to show his modus operandi. On the laptop, he had created a "wave file" of the music for the San Francisco event; it looked a bit like the results of an EKG, with peaks and valleys indicating where the music would boom fortissimo and where it would whisper pianissimo.

On the PC, which was linked to the laptop, he had also mapped out fireworks to correspond perfectly with the timing of the music, so that audiences would see slow-burning, delicate fireworks during the moving, emotional music and showstopping, burn-up-the-heavens shells when the music reached a crescendo.

Even in an archaic, hands-on business like fireworks, computers now play a critical role in the planning and production. One press of a button controls an entire show. (Compare that to the old days, when pyrotechnists had to run up and down rows of mortar racks, igniting them individually with a torch.)

When the national anthem plays at big shows like those in San Francisco, Tacoma, Wash., and Salt Lake City, and a performer sings of the "rockets' red glare," enormous red shells burst in the sky like so much cannon fire. Audiences now get to see and hear something that most of us, as starry-eyed kids watching small-time shows, could only have imagined—fireworks that explode in near synchronicity with the music.

For most people watching a fireworks display, there's no question that they'll experience the gamut of emotions. The very act of lighting up the night sky with fire, as if man himself could conjure lightning, seems to have a visceral effect and one that may go much deeper than mere show business. "I think it goes back to the relationship between man and fire," Conkling says. "The ability to control fire was key to our development as a civilization."

Then again, it may not be so deep. Says Conkling: "There seems to be a worldwide fascination with things going kaboom in the sky."

The Best Shows in the West

For two centuries, Americans have celebrated Independence Day and the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of great fireworks displays by heading to shows like the ones listed below.

Long Beach, California July 4th at the Queen Mary.
Watch fireworks from the stern of the grand ship. Admission is $24.95 for adults, $22.95 for seniors and military, and $12.95 for kids 5 to 11 and includes a self-guided tour of the ship. 1126 Queens Hwy. (562) 435-3511,

Redwood City, California Annual Independence Day Celebration.
This is a spectacular show of high aerial shots bursting hundreds of feet up. Free. Port of Redwood City, located at the end of Seaport Blvd.

Sacramento The July 4th Pyro Spectacular.
Preshow festivities like music and clowns are followed by a 20-minute fireworks display. Free. Cal Expo, 1600 Exposition Blvd., just east of downtown Sacramento. (877) 225-3976,

San Francisco The City of San Francisco 4th of July Waterfront Celebration.
Fireworks are shot off over the San Francisco Bay. Free. Pier 39, the Embarcadero and Beach St. (415) 705-5500,

Laughlin, Nevada Laughlin's Rockets Over the River.
State-of-the-art show launched over the waters of the Colorado River. Free. The best viewing is along the waterfront near Laughlin's hotels and casinos. (702) 298-2214,

Provo, Utah America's Freedom Festival Stadium of Fire Show.
Grammy Award winner Martina McBride headlines the extravaganza, which ends with a knock-'em-dead fireworks show. Tickets from $15 to $60. LaVell Edwards Stadium at Brigham Young University. (801) 370-8052,

Salt Lake City Red Hot 4th. Two shows—July 3 and 4—featuring musical acts like the Beach Boys, followed by a $60,000 fireworks display. Tickets from $12.50 to $24. Usana Amphitheatre, 6000 West 5400 South, West Valley City, Utah. (801) 582-4733,



This article was first published in July 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.