For the past few days, Americans in other cities have been flocking to stands and stores and roadside tents, where they've been loading up on fireworks. In places like Birmingham, Alabama, and Cheyenne, Wyoming,* and Kansas City, Missouri, ordinary folks have been buying Black Cat firecrackers, Magical Roman candles, shells that soar skyward and explode into glittering bits of color. California state law prohibits those particular items. But even in Santa Ana and Buena Park and El Centro, people have been stocking up on sparklers and snakes and smoke pots and other novelties — cheap and legal. We in San Diego are not allowed to buy any such things, however, which is ironic.
The prohibition here might lead a newcomer to believe this was a city hostile to fireworks. Yet if you count the number of aerial shows staged throughout the year, few places see more. In all of California, there are only two major aerial display companies. One is based in Lakeside and the other has a division located on Mission Gorge Road. The biggest national organization of amateur pyrotechnicians — firework home-brewers — was founded in San Diego in 1968. And out of a house in Kensington, a self-styled pyrotechnic guru publishes consumer-oriented evaluations of everything from ground spinners to fountains to rockets.
That fellow, Bob Weaver, says friends often ask him why he doesn’t move to a place more tolerant of personal fireworks. But Weaver likes Southern California. He was born and raised in the city of Orange. “They had fireworks stands there when I was growing up,” he Says. “I used to go to them religiously. I’d spend two hours trying to figure out how I could get the most number of items for a dollar. That was when you could buy a smoke pot for five cents or a pack of sparklers for ten.”
When he went away to Phoenix for college, Weaver’s interest in fireworks waned. But after getting a degree in electronics engineering technology and moving to Portland, he perked up at the news that neighboring Washington State had just legalized all consumer fireworks. (“I think since then they’ve eliminated firecrackers and rockets,” he says, adding that state laws often flip-flop in this manner.) Reminded of his childhood passion, Weaver drove across the Oregon/Washington border to a suburb of Vancouver, Washington, where a large store had opened. “I went in and discovered all these fireworks that I didn’t even know existed!
“I’d never seen bottle rockets before. They’re just a little rocket motor on a stick.” Weaver says he didn’t realize that the whole thing was supposed to fly. So when he stuck one into the ground, he made the mistake of ensuring that it would be immovable. When he lit it, all it did was to give a gust of air and emit a little bang. “I learned my lesson fast.”
Besides the bottle rockets, that first store Weaver visited contained “hundreds of different items. I was blown away by how many different choices there were.” The experience made him reflect that someone ought to publish a guide to the fireworks' available for sale to the public.
In August of 1982, he moved to San Diego to take a job with a software company. But he continued trying out fireworks in other places. This research led him in 1990 to produce a black-and-white pamphlet that described some 565 items. He sold it by mail order, advertising in “pyro” enthusiasts’ newsletters. The response encouraged him to think about undertaking a bigger project.
To gather material for it, Weaver says he made seven trips across the country in 1994 and 1995. He tried to visit pyro-per-missive states where he could buy as many different products as possible, places like South Carolina, Ohio, Alabama, Florida, Wisconsin. He toured factories, such as the former steel mill in Youngstown, Ohio, that now mass-produces gold sparklers. He says he spent about $5000 buying more than a thousand types of fireworks, all of which he ignited, videotaped, and took copious notes on. By May of 1995, he had assembled all his findings in a slick, colorful 96-page handbook.
This book “has made me famous within the industry, in a cult way,” Weaver told me. Despite the words, his manner is quiet and self-effacing; he looks more boyish than his 37 years. “I’d never in my life been famous in any kind of way. Or had anybody ask me for an autograph,” he continued in a tone that suggests he still finds this startling. “But when I went to the first convention after this came out, people I’d never met or even heard of would notice my name badge and ask me to sign their copy of my book.”
Since then Weaver has also started a quarterly Hot Sheet (motto: “Because It’s Fun — That’s Why!”) that offers ongoing reviews.
The spring 1997 issue, for example, featured "aerial repeaters,” Weaver's personal favorite among the items that the federal government says may be purchased by members of the general public (“consumer fireworks”). Aerial repeaters look like cakes or cubes made out of paper. Inside, rows of anywhere from 7 to 91 small tubes contain lift charges and the components to produce various pyrotechnic effects. “There’s one fuse coming out of the side and you light that and then watch a whole series of stuff going off.” One cake can take as long as 20 minutes to finish firing, Weaver says, so these are the most expensive consumer fireworks, costing anywhere from $10 to $30 apiece. “It’s basically a whole show, all in one thing. Those, unfortunately, are not legal here in California.” * Besides carrying reviews, Weaver’s newsletter also serves as a forum for his arguments for greater pyro-liberality. “I believe that if you shut down the legal market for buying fireworks, it just drives them underground,” he states. “And the problem is that [black-market fireworks] are not regulated, and they’re much more dangerous.” Weaver also believes that anti-fireworks activists present injury statistics out of context. “A total estimate of between 10,000 and 13,000 fireworks-related injuries in the United States sounds horrendous,” Weaver fulminated in a recent issue of his Hot Sheet, “as long as you don’t mention that more than 22 million injuries occur in the U.S. each year....” That means that fireworks cause less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the trouble. In contrast, cooking ranges burn more than four times as many people each year, he points out. Bicycles hurt 50 times as many.
Wild regulatory inconsistency results from the clash between the pro- and ant-pyro forces. You get a good sense of this in Weaver’s latest publication, a 60-page guide to consumer fireworks vendors throughout the country. At one extreme, Arizona, Delaware, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island don’t let anyone sell any type of firework any time throughout the year. At the other pole, Alaska, Tennessee, South Carolina, Wisconsin, and Wyoming impose virtually no restrictions. In between, California falls toward the more repressive end of the spectrum. It allows only “safe and sane” fireworks (basically, things that don’t explode or fly) to be sold only from noon, June 28, through noon, July 6 — provided that local municipalities (such as the City of San Diego) haven’t imposed their own ban. Weaver says that more than 3000 temporary stands go up throughout the state every June.
He says San Diego fireworks enthusiasts have another alternative to traveling to Orange or Imperial Counties during the narrow time frame. In Mexico, Rosarito Beach “is a godsend for pyros in Southern California,” Weaver recently informed his newsletter readers. Most of the curio shops there contain display cases full of products. Americans aren’t allowed to bring them back to San Diego, of course, but Rosarito lets people ignite fireworks on its beaches every night from 6:00 to 10:00 p.m. year-round. Weaver says the selection of items for sale includes things that can’t be found north of the border. “In the United States, the maximum amount of flash powder that can be in a firecracker is 50 milligrams — which is just a pinch. But that law doesn’t apply in Mexico. You can buy M-80s, which have three grams of powder in them, legally.... I’ve seen firecrackers that are eight inches long.” Weaver recommends against buying any of these larger items. “They don’t really have any regulation, so you don’t know what’s in them or how they’re made.” But he thinks the little matches and sparklers and spinners sold in the curio shops are “totally safe to use.” He says his personal favorites in this category are the “garbanzo beans” made from actual garbanzos that have been rolled in a pyrotechnic mixture that makes them pop and give off sparks when thrown. He recalls a grim San Diego TV news report that recently deplored the illegal sale by ice cream trucks of such “explosives” to innocent youngsters. “San Diego is just one of those places where fireworks are thought to be a terrifying threat to our kids,” Weaver says with a sigh of disgust.
He says he’s tried to research when and why this attitude developed, but he hasn’t been able to follow the trail through municipal code books. Old newspaper accounts offer clues, however. In issues of the San Diego Union published during the 1880s, I found references to a municipal ordinance prohibiting “the promiscuous use of fire-crackers and bombs on the business streets of the city.” Off the business streets, Independence Day celebrants apparently blasted away for several more decades. One ad printed on July 1, 1902, for example, declared that “Any Boy or Any Girl Who desires to make more noise and louder noise than usual can have their wish gratified at our store [San Diego Cycle and Arms Co.] — where they can buy more, bigger and better FIREWORKS for less money than ever before.”
In January of 1938, the San Diego City Council acted to end such diversions, passing an ordinance that prohibited the sale and use of all fireworks citywide. “One baby’s hand is worth all the financial loss that fireworks dealers would suffer,” the city manager pontificated. Parent-teacher groups, the Heaven-on-Earth club, the local Humane Society, police and fire departments, and city recreation departments all shared this sentiment, according to the Union. Although protesters demanded that the ban be subjected to a city referendum, a vote in the spring of 1939 confirmed the city council’s action, and on July 5 of that year the newspaper reported that “Stillness hovered over San Diego.. .as police and fire officials rigidly enforced the antifireworks law.”
The city continued to grant permits for supervised displays, but no one established a fulltime fireworks company during the early 1940s, says John Peluso, who today is the manager of San Diego Fireworks. He says that’s one reason his father liked the idea of doing so when he got out of the military after the Second World War; he figured he wouldn’t have any competition. Moreover, fireworks were in Jimmy Peluso’s blood.
Born on July 4, 1915, Jimmy had learned the trade from his father, who in turn had been taught by his father in Italy. When John’s grandfather immigrated, he worked for another fireworks family in Pennsylvania, then opened his own factory there. This was a pattern repeated countless times in the eastern and central United States. As a result, many of the biggest American fireworks companies of the 20th Century have been Italian dynasties: Gruccis, Zambellis, Bartolottas, Rozzis, Santoris. “Oddly, there has never been love lost between these Italian-American] companies,” notes author and fireworks fanatic George Plimpton. In Fireworks, his entertaining “history and celebration” of pyrotechnics, Plimpton writes, “The ‘boss’ or patriarch of a family regarded his pyrotechnic formulas, or what are quaintly known as ‘recipes,’ as secrets to be closely guarded. Though he probably never knew the chemical notations in the first place, if asked he often would give the chemicals the wrong names and percentages —just in case ‘spies’ had been sent around by his competitors... . In the old days, the Italian-American] wives, armed with shotguns, would patrol the mortar lines to scare off rivals who might sneak in to cut or tamper with the fuses....”
John Peluso says his father told stories about interactions among Pennsylvania’s Italian fireworks families that revealed a mixture of rivalry and fellowship. “Every other Sunday they would all get together and have a contest and see who could make the most noise,” John recounts. “Whoever broke out the most windows won! It was crazy.”
If he would miss out on such camaraderie in San Diego, Jimmy nonetheless sensed opportunity here. In 1946 he bought a house in Linda Vista and started his business in the back yard. John says at first his father staged “mainly Fourth of July shows and small parties. He did a lot of weddings and anniversaries.”
Over the years, the customer base for San Diego Fireworks broadened. “He did the Padres,” Jimmy’s son says. “He started the cannon for the San Diego Chargers back in Balboa Stadium. He became known as Mr. Fireworks in San Diego.”
The income that he generated was sufficient to enable him and his wife to raise seven children. But John says that his father ran the company “more for the love of it” than for the money. “He could have made the business humongous, but he kept it small. He had four boys to do all the grunt work for him.” Now 41, John elaborates. “We all pitched in. We never had summers. I remember all my friends going to the beach, but what was I doing? Making set pieces. Getting equipment ready. Chaining finales together.” On the positive side, San Diego’s prohibition against consumer fireworks never affected him. “If I wanted something, I made it,” he says with a shrug and a smile. “That’s how we used to deal with gophers. My dad would make smoke bombs just for gophers. That’s how we’d test our colors, see how long they’d last.”
John says whenever he or one of the other boys mixed explosive components — the most dangerous part of the pyrotechnic process — they did so under careful supervision. His father’s father had been killed mixing chemicals back in his fireworks factory in Pennsylvania. Perhaps because of this, John says his mother never was comfortable with her husband’s and sons’ participation in the business. “She always had it in the back of her mind that something was going to happen,” John says. “She put up with it ’cause my dad enjoyed it. He was like a kid in a candy store when he had a firework shell in his hand. He knew exactly what that thing would do: how long it would take once you lit the fuse, how it would reach its apex and break.”
A drunk driver, rather than an errant spark, got Jimmy in the end. John explains that his father had become involved with a historical group that used to travel throughout the state, dedicating historic sites. “A bunch of guys would dress up in old period-style dress, and they would reenact certain things.” Jimmy’s special contribution was to set up a blacksmith’s anvil that had a hole in it. He would fill it with black powder, insert a fuse into the hole, then set another 90-pound anvil on top of this. When the fuse ignited the powder, it would blast the upper anvil as high as 50 feet into the air with an ear-shattering boom. “That’s how they would dedicate stuff or start events,” John recalls. “The people loved it!” He says his father was returning from such an event in Sacramento one day in 1980. “Some young kid was drunk and going down the wrong side of the freeway. He hit my father going through the Grapevine.” John says he and his brothers all had full-time jobs in other fields; John worked at General Dynamics, for example. But the Peluso brothers continued to run the fireworks business for another year or so before shutting it down. “It was hard on my mom,” John explains. “So we told her, ‘This is your business. What do you want to do?’ And she said she wanted out of it. All the memories and everything were just too hard on her.”
Ron Dixon gives a slightly different account of what happened after Jimmy’s death. “John and his brothers attempted to run the company, kind of floundered, and went out of business,” he says. Jimmy “had been an old-line multigeneration fireworks guy. Kept a lot of stuff in his head, very poor records and very basic operations.” When the sons folded the business, two rival fireworks companies considered buying the inventory and equipment still held by San Diego Fireworks. Neither one ended up doing so. But Dixon couldn’t resist.
At 50, Dixon is a burly man whose hair and mustache have turned a snowy white. “I’m not traditional in fireworks from several aspects,” he told me. Born and raised in San Diego (on 68th Street, just past College Avenue), Dixon says that as a boy, “I liked fireworks and had my little package of firecrackers in my sock drawer.” But he wasn’t obsessed with them, nor were his parents involved in the industry. “There’s also been some lineage of fireworks experimenters who are hobbyists or involved with the chemistry side of it.” But Dixon wasn’t one of those either. “To me, fireworks was a thing I did after I became a professional.” His profession was business administration. After getting a bachelor’s degree at San Diego State, he went to work in the purchasing department of Hewlett-Packard in Rancho Bernardo. There he met a fellow employee who had gotten a professional pyrotechnician’s license and was moonlighting by putting on shows for an L.A.-based fireworks company. This man invited Dixon to work for him as a laborer at a big televised show that he was supervising at Anaheim Stadium on the Fourth of July that year (1971). Dixon agreed, and he says that the experience dazzled him. “A lot of people get hooked by the gunfire smell and the adrenaline rush of having this fire and smoke falling all around you, but that wasn’t what got to me,” he recalls. “I had never been in show business or entertainment before, and what I enjoyed most about it was this huge rush of acceptance and gratitude from the audience afterward.”
The following year he got his own license. He did his first show at Edwards Air Force Base on the Fourth of July, 1973. “It was 120 degrees,” he says. “No music. Just fireworks in the sky. The whole thing probably lasted ten minutes.” Yet he was hooked. Dixon says he wound up assembling a team of Hewlett-Packard engineers to put on shows throughout the year. In 1976, he became an area rep for Pyro Spectaculars, a Rialto company run by a family named Souza (of Portuguese, not Italian, descent). Pyro Spectaculars had entered the San Diego market about 1973, and it posed the first serious competition for the Pelusos, according to Dixon. But the demand for professional fireworks displays here also grew fast in the ’70s and early ’80s. When Dixon looked at San Diego Fireworks’ assets after the Peluso brothers decided to close the company, he saw an untapped potential. “Being a business major, you’re always kind of frustrated running a business for somebody else. You always want to do your own thing.” He met with the Pelusos and worked out an arrangement to buy the company, giving them a profit share for the two subsequent years.
Dixon says the Peluso brothers worked with him off and on in the years that followed. “Primarily Joe and John. Sal was a little standoffish. We really didn’t have the best relationship once I bought the company. Sal kind of felt that it was something he wanted to do, but he owns Kearny Mesa Welding, so he really could not run both.” Dixon was attempting something very similar — continuing in his job at HP, “burning the candle at multiple points, besides both ends.” But by 1984, he says the net profit generated by San Diego Fireworks “exceeded my salary at HP. I could see that things looked bright.” Eligible to take an early retirement, he withdrew the contents of his retirement fund, got a second trust deed on his house, and poured the money into expanding the business, which he then worked at full-time. “The first year I think we had had about 14 to 16 accounts, but by 1993, the company was a multimillion-dollar operation doing more than 500 shows a year.”
Much of that business had been snatched from the grasp of Pyro Spectaculars, and in 1993 Jim Souza hoisted a white flag. Dixon says that Souza offered to buy all the assets of San Diego Fireworks and operate it as a division of Pyro Spectaculars, which by then had grown to rank as one of the biggest fireworks display companies in the world. It was supplying all the fireworks for Disneyland, Disney World, and Six Flags, for example. It was running the Mac/s annual Fourth of July show in New York (one of the biggest annual shows in America), and in the late ’70s the Souzas won the contract to stage the annual Chinese New Year blast-o-rama in Hong Kong Harbor. Souza’s offer sounded good to Dixon, who agreed to serve as a consultant to the San Diego division for five years. In this role, he has continued to choreograph all the shows presented by the company here, planning how the pyrotechnic effects should unfold and be coordinated with music, whenever music is used. Except for the occasional special event such as last summer’s show for the Republican National Convention (a $300,000-plus affair run by the famous Gruccis of New York), Dixon says the choreographic challenge in San Diego never exceeds that posed by the annual KGB Sky Show.
Introduced in 1976 (for the Bicentennial), the Sky Show represented a major breakthrough, Dixon asserts. Combining music with fireworks was nothing new, this practice dates back at least as far as 1749, when George Frederick Handel was commissioned to write Music-for the Royal Fireworks to accompany the English pyrotechnic display celebrating the end of. the War of the Austrian Succession. “But,” Dixon says, “what
we started doing in 1976 was that a soundtrack was broadcast live over a radio station, and the fireworks were choreographed and electronically fired in anticipation of the music - crescendos, so that a big cymbal crash would happen in the music and a great big gold cymbal-looking firework would break in the sky, in sync with that.” This was the first time fireworks were coordinated with a radio broadcast anywhere in the world, Dixon claims.
The idea sprang from the fertile brain of Rick Leibert, then the program director for rock-and-roll stalwart KGB and the father of such other promotional classics as the Homegrown album and the KGB Chicken. Leibert left the station in 1980. He now runs a San Pedro-based business that has developed a specialty in castillos, an interesting subset of the pyrotechnics universe.
A traditional Mexican folk art, castillos first appeared perhaps 400 years ago. Lacking the technology and the refined chemicals necessary to create sophisticated aerial shells like those being developed in Europe, Mexican artisans instead channeled their ingenuity into building structures on which wondrous effects unfolded: fiery butterflies that flapped their wings, or crosses that transformed into chalices, or angels that appeared out of hearts and then showered the surrounding crowd with brilliant sparks.
Leibert says he first learned about them from a television documentary that inspired him to contact some of Mexico’s best-known castillo builders. This led to the creation of a castillo that exploded into action at the 1986 Los Angeles Street Scene. Dixon’s San Diego Fireworks helped with that production, and Dixon recalls an old Mexican man who came up to them after the firing. “He had tears running down his face, and the first thing we thought was, ‘Oh geez. He got something in his eye.’ But he was just happy. He said, ‘I’ve never seen our traditional style of fireworks anywhere in the United States until now!’ ”
Other early reactions to the castillos were more discouraging. Dixon recalls the first time his company ignited a castillo at Jack Mu rphy Stadium (after a Padres game on Cinco de Mayo). “The thing went off fine, but people booed,” Dixon says. “It lacked the oomph that the traditional American fireworks have had.”
Thinking back on the incident, Dixon reflects that castillos traditionally have been meant to be experienced “up close and personal.... There are no regulations whatsoever [in Mexico], so they’ll do it right in the middle of a fiesta. And if a piece of a firework falls off and strikes someone, it’s considered to be a sign of good fortune and good luck. You’ve been blessed. I remember when we first started doing castillos with Rick, we went to Tecate for several fiestas. There were probably 5000 people in this one patio area, and they set the fireworks up right in the middle of everyone. When we set this thing off, a piece went into a food stand that was selling tortas or tacos or something. And it caught on fire. Instead of a major panic, everyone was laughing! They got into a bucket brigade and they all threw buckets of water on the food stand. Everyone was dancing and laughing like, ‘Hey, this is great!’ Up here, it would be lights, sirens, and lawsuits.” Because of the American attitudes (not to mention fire and insurance regulations), Leib-ert says crowds here typically have to stay more than 200 feet away from a castillo. But among Mexican-Americans, “They’re beloved,” he says. “Fathers hoist their four-year-old ninos on their shoulders and they say, ‘See, this is what it was like back in Mexico!’ We do one every September for the Fiestas Patrias at the Pomona Fairgrounds, and the 10,000-seat grandstand fills up the moment the doors open.” Leibert’s company has done castillos in San Diego, though never at the Sky Show. However, that extravaganza has acquired plenty of other elements over the years. Dixon, who has choreographed 16 of the 21 shows, enumerates these developments with pride. Video played on the stadium score-board was added to the music and the fireworks about ten years ago, and lighting has grown more sophisticated every year. “We use theatrical lighting — Panaspots and Intellibeams and other lighting elements that are used onstage. Plus there’s outdoor lighting — sky trackers and searchlights.” Last year, for the first time, skydivers with strobes mounted on their helmets floated down onto the playing field to open the show. The helmets contained radio receivers that enabled the radio station to send a pulse to fire the strobes in time with the music. “We played the song ‘Eye of the Tiger,’ and all the helmets were flashing in sync.”
On the day we talked, Dixon was deep in the throes of choreographing the upcoming 22nd Sky Show (to be held on August 29). He works out of his home in Tierrasanta, a comfortable dwelling that looks a lot like its middle-class neighbors but hints in subtle ways at the calling of its occupants. Little red, white, and blue firecrackers adorn a straw wreath hung by the front door. Uncle Sam dangles from a wind chime and grins up at visitors from the doormat. Inside, Dixon’s vocation is even more evident. Poster-sized images of exploding fireworks cram the walls of the recording studio added on next to the kitchen, and a large bookshelf holds hundreds of soundtracks.
A jumble of sound and computer equipment sprawls across one end of the studio. When Dixon pushed a button, the galloping force of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” overtook us. On a nearby computer monitor, a list appeared, and an electronic highlighter began moving down through the items on the list in time to the music. “These are the fireworks,” Dixon interjected. If you knew what a four-inch Rainbow Comet Shell looks like as it races through the sky or what Fish and Whistles are or a five-inch Yellow Dahlia, you could read these names illuminated on the screen and listen to the music and let the spectacle-to-be fill your imagination. Computerized show planning is only one of the changes the fireworks business has seen over the past 25 years. Two others have been even more dramatic. Dixon says that for a complex production like the Sky Show, all the controls for all the elements can now be put on one master source, usually videotape or a laser disk. This makes it possible for related actions to occur at the very same second, he explains. The other development is that computers can now send the firing signals, something they do with much more accuracy and precision than any human. The marriage of these two advances has made California the setting for the most avant-garde pyrotechnics in the world, Dixon asserts.
That doesn’t mean that most of the shows scheduled for tomorrow will enjoy that distinction. Only the show at the Del Mar Fair will be fired by computers. In other cases, the pyrotechnician will huddle.
Yet another area of improvement has been in the manufacture of special-effect shells — ones containing inserts that create secondary or tertiary effects such as whistles, strobes, serpents, reports, and other things. “If it’s a handmade shell that comes out of the Orient or Italy or Brazil or something, those things will be ragged,” Dixon explains. “They’ll break at random times.” He contrasts that with an American-made shell known as the Hatching Spider, in which the eight legs all burst open at the same instant. The difference between the two is “like listening to the junior high school band play John Philip Sousa’s behind a blast wall and touch a probe to metal contacts on a firing panel, sending current down wires to ignite the “quick match” attached to each of the shells. And an even greater number of shows will rely on cruder technology. Wearing tough, fire-resistant clothing, the pyrotechnicians will stand right next to the mortars that hold the explosives and touch a burning road • flare to the fuse, then whirl away (so that if the shell explodes, the shrapnel will tear into their less vulnerable backs and buttocks, rather than their faces). This isn’t very different from the way people were setting off fireworks in the days of Peter the Great, Dixon acknowledges, but it’s no longer the state of the art.
Compared to the advances that have been made in the controls, the improvements that have been made to the fireworks themselves sound tamer. The last 10 to 15 years have seen the advent of “more colors, brighter colors. Unique colors that you didn’t see before,” Dixon says. “A lot of these come from different countries. For example, the best and first orange I ever saw was from Ruggiere Fireworks in France. Or there’s a lime green from Canada. There’s a company called Howard & Sons in Australia that came out with a beautiful mauve.”
Also, tinkering with the way shells are packaged has led to the development of unusual aerial patterns, according to Dixon. He tells of one manufacturer in Fargo, North Dakota, who figured out seven or eight years ago how to get shells to break open so that they would produce a five-pointed star. The company’s shell designer then went on to create heart and strawberry patterns, and Dixon says this manufacturer now can produce shells that create line art in the sky; the call letters KGB, for example, or the elephants featured in last summer’s Republican extravaganza.
‘Stars and Stripes Forever’ versus listening to Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, where the musicians are exactly, precisely together.”
The Hatching Spider happens to be made in Imperial County by a man named Rudy Schaffner. I wanted to drive out and visit his factory, but Schaffner was too busy to schedule an interview, something I found understandable. Manufacturing fireworks is only his hobby. Farming is his main job. “We milk about 800 cows and farm about 4000 acres,” he told me over the phone, then rattled off a list of his crops — sweet corn, broccoli, cauliflower, onions, cantaloupe, lettuce, melons, bell peppers, jalapenos, tomatoes, cucumbers. The 41-year-old Schaffner says, “My grandfather came over from Switzerland in 1914, and we’ve been here in Holtville ever since. So the fireworks isn’t the main thing. It’s just the one that keeps me sane.”
As a kid, Schaffner says he loved whatever fireworks he could get his hands on. That included the “safe and sane” products legally sold in Imperial County. “And of course,” he chuckles, “there were some that seemed to trickle over here with our employees from Mexico. So I got to play with that stuff a little bit.”
One day in the mid-’70s, a friend and neighbor brought him an ad in a magazine offering mail-order pyrotechnic components. Schaffner says he answered it, “and the guy sent me some tubes and a little bit of fuse and told me about some chemical houses where I could order [various components]. Basically I went from there.” Learning on his own wasn’t easy, he says. “For many, many years, all the fireworks companies — especially the old Italian ones — were very secretive. Grandpa would taste some of the chemicals and say, ‘Oh yeah, this is good stuff.’ And nobody told anyone anything.” However, the aura of mystery only enflamed Schaffner’s curiosity. He says he pieced together information in two ways. “One, you could get on the phone and call these old-timers all over the United States—whatever names you could find. See if they’d talk to you on the phone. Be nice to them. Maybe trade a little information. And see if they would become friends and open up. The other way is to experiment. And that was exciting. There are things I invented that had already been invented by somebody else. But it was fun discovering them by myself.” Schaffner says at some point he also learned about an organization for fireworks hobbyists called the Pyrotechnics Guild International. He says he received its newsletter, American Pyrotechnist, for several years, but he never realized that the founder, Max Vander Horck, was a longtime San Diego resident, so the two never met. Retired from working for the weather bureau, Vander Horck was a fireworks enthusiast who had started the PGI in 1968 in order to share his passion with kindred spirits. He finally died in the mid-1980s, but Dixon says that do-it-yourselfers are still “alive and well” here. “Mainly they're no danger,” comments the genial entrepreneur. “They’re not doing anything that’s destructive. A lot of people, surprisingly enough, are professionals — attorneys, professional chemists, a doctor, a couple of dentists — all of whom just like to mess around with fireworks as a hobby.” Schaffner says he would have remained in this category, were it not for Ron Dixon. “He had just bought San Diego Fireworks, and he called me up one day. He said, ‘I’ve got to have this stuff. You like making it. You need to get a license.’ ” Though the fees cost around $2000, Schaffner decided to do this. “I figured, if I could break even, at least my hobby would be a little more legal. So I made a few things, and Ron’s company just exploded. I mean, not literally. But he needed more and more and more. I had to get a few employees to keep up.”
Today Schaffner says his fireworks plant is not “a factory-looking thing with big billowing smokestacks coming out of it. I always laugh and say the best fireworks plant is a picnic table under a tree. The saying in the fireworks business is don’t ever build anything you can’t run away from. Literally. But I have some workrooms and things like that. And lots of bunkers.” Counting all the variations, he and his crew make hundreds of different shells that command wholesale prices ranging from $4 (for a standard three-inch one) up to as much as $200 (for a complex, customized item). Schaffner says fireworks companies often press him to devise something special for them. “Like in San Diego now, Fireworks America is competing with San Diego Fireworks now, so they’ll call me up and say, ‘What can you make me that the other guys don’t have?’ You’re always trying to come up with something new....”
The competition Schaffner is referring to dates back three years. At the heart of it is a man named Kevin Brueckner. If Brueckner were a firework shell, he’d be at least a six-incher: big, rotund, hard to ignore. Like Dixon, Brueckner entered the fireworks world via unconventional channels. Raised in Utah, he says his parents disliked fireworks so he had little contact with them as a child. “I never saw a fireworks show until I was 25. I came to the fireworks business through the business end and fell in love with the
A trained accountant, Brueckner explains that one of his accounting clients was a Utah consumer fireworks company that hired him to be their general manager. “One of the things they did on the side was fireworks shows; and one night they were short a hand. Being the workaholic that I am, I offered to help. It was a small shopping-center party or something like that. It was cold. This was, like, October of 1983. But when we got done, people cheered.” Brueckner basked in the reaction. He says he went back to the office and wrote up about ten pages of notes on how the show could be improved. The more he learned about the aerial fireworks display business in the months that followed, the more it fascinated him. At some point, Brueckner met Ron Dixon, and by early 1986, he was ready to move to San Diego to help Dixon further build his growing enterprise.
Today Brueckner says he was “happy...for Ron” when Dixon sold out to the Souzas three and a half years ago. “That was his goal all along, to build the business and sell it.” But at the same time, “Ron for years had told us what jerks [the people at Pyro Spectaculars] were. Who were we not to believe him? He was our boss.” So when Sal Peluso (John Peluso’s older brother) approached the former accountant with the idea of starting a competing firm, Brueckner didn’t need much convincing. He says he and Sal found eight other investors, and they incorporated Fireworks America in early 1994. “We’re now the second largest fireworks company in California,” Brueckner boasts. “We’re almost as big as San Diego Fireworks was when it was sold.”
You’d never guess this if you drove by Fireworks America’s headquarters — an aging house on a dusty road in Lakeside. No sign alerts passersby to the identity of the business. You have to know it’s there to find it. San Diego Fireworks’ offices on Mission Gorge Road (where John Peluso now works as the area manager) are almost as inconspicuous, something that’s intentional, according to Ron Dixon. “Unfortunately, the whole explosives world attracts undesirables who try to get their hands on chemicals and formulas and processes. For that reason, fireworks people are kind of close to the vest.... San Diego Fireworks has been approached through the years by people wanting to buy components, and you know they want to blow something up.”
Neighbors also can feel threatened by the presence of a fireworks company. Brueckner mentions one former employee who bought property intending to store fireworks on it. “It was just outside the city of Poway, on 20 acres in a very isolated area. But one of the neighbors complained, and [the local authorities] wouldn’t give him zoning. He had plunked down $200,000 on an albatross!” Brueckner continues, “I have to be very careful about how we expand the company. It’s not like I could move the business to Pacific Beach and put down a container of fireworks there and say I’m now Pacific Beach Fireworks. I’m regulated as to where I can store things and the quantities I can store. I’m regulated by zoning.”
The thicket of legal controls doesn’t stop there. “When I first started in this business [ 14 years ago], you used to show up at the fireworks factory and get some mortars and some shells, and you’d throw them in the back of your pickup truck and drive out to do a fireworks show. It was no big deal. Today it is.” Brueckner says the federal Department of Transportation now requires pyrotechnicians to have special licensing in order to transport fireworks. They have to get special training in how to load die truck, which must be plastered with warning stickers. Brueckner says five years ago he calculated that “one fireworks show generates a minimum of 74 pieces of paper — by the time we do the proposal and pull all the permits. And it’s probably worse today. If we do a fireworks show in San Diego Harbor, it requires permits from five different agencies.”
If Brueckner sounds a bit irritable about all this, he’s nonetheless no pyro-libertarian. He applauds the laws that prohibit the average San Diego resident from touching the tools of his trade. “I’ve got one of those townhouses built on a canyon in San Diego, and I remember a couple of years ago sitting in my back yard on the third of July and thinking, ‘Isn’t it nice that we don’t have consumer fireworks?’ All I need is my neighbor coming out and not knowing squat about fireworks and setting one off and burning the canyon down.” Brueckner goes so far as to say, “The most dangerous firework ever made is a sparkler! Because people are irresponsible. They give a three-year-old a welding rod and say, ‘Run around and spell your name.’ But the kid goes, ‘My name is stick-in-the-eye.’ And when they’re done with this hot wire rod, they throw it on the shake roof and bum the house down!”
Accidents are not restricted to the world of the amateur. Brueckner personally has known two professional pyrotechnicians whose deaths were linked to fireworks. One reportedly was using a stapler to affix quick match for a show in Las Vegas, a dubious practice. “This guy was leaning over the mortar rack, and it went off. It tossed him back over against another rack. He was a big strong kid and lived for three weeks after they took him off life support.” The other victim, a close friend, was testing product that somehow ignited and started to burn down his warehouse in Arizona. “Instead of running away, he ran in to try and save [the place], and he was burned very badly.” Though this man recovered from the burns, he died as a complication of one of the corrective surgeries. “He had a beautiful wife and an 18-month-old child,” Brueckner notes.
But for the professional pyrotechnician, the danger is relative, he contends. “For us, driving in Southern California is far more dangerous than shooting fireworks — because of all the crazy, uninsured motorists on the highway.... Once we’re there, we have a good safety zone. We’re trained in how to handle fireworks.... We tend to know everything that can go wrong.
“The most dangerous thing you can do with fireworks is manufacture them,” Brueckner points out. And Fireworks America tends to avoid this. Employees do combine components for the more benign products that are ignited in indoor settings (everywhere from churches to theaters staging productions such as the Old Globe’s Time and Again last year). But for the majority of his aerial shells, Brueckner turns to 14 suppliers in a half-dozen countries. “Each country does things differently,” he says. The Chinese and Taiwanese “make your basic bread-and-butter shell. If you see a stan-dard red, a .standard white, a standard blue in the sky, and it breaks in kind of an oval or a round shape, it’s probably Chinese.” If it’s a smaller burst, that Chinese shell may cost as little as a dollar. “When you’re paying your people a bowl of rice a day and a fish head on Sunday, your fireworks are relatively inexpensive,” Brueckner says. That’s important in a business where customers need to see a certain volume of sky bursts to feel satisfied. Amidst that quantity of fireworks, however, “I also have to put some star performers up there. I have to show you something you’ve never seen before.” And Brueckner says the Chinese haven’t yet learned to mass-produce aerial effects that are unique and exciting.
American companies such as Rudy Schaffiier’s have claimed that niche, and a few other countries have also developed specialties. The Japanese have perfected floral patterns. “Australia makes some awesome fountains,” Brueckner continues. “They sit on the ground and spray 60 feet in the air. Spain and France make big-bore Roman candles — two inches in diameter. If I shoot ten of them off at a time, you know it.”
Blending these ingredients to produce the biggest emotional impact is where the choreographic artistry comes in. “If I take my star performers and I cover them up with other stuff so that you can’t see them, what good are they?” Brueckner says. “I’ve wasted that product. So at some point, I’m going to let the sky go dark and clear for a minute. And then you’re going to see one of these superstars. You may not know that it’s called a crossette. But you will go, ‘Wow! That was cool!’ On an emotional level, you’ll feel the difference.”
Brueckner adds that he finds it difficult to let the sky go dark for long. “It drives me crazy,” he said. “A one-second pause, which is no big deal in anybody’s life, feels like a lifetime to me.” He says one of the Fireworks America partners who lives in Utah has a very different choreographic style. “He’ll fire off a lot of stuff at once. Let it clear. Then fire a lot of stuff. So with me you might get more of a bam, bam, bam, bam. Pause. BIG performer. Whereas with him, you’ll get WHACK ... WHACK ... WHACK.... He and I could sit down with the same piece of music and come up with an entirely different concept.” Besides the timing, perspective is a key variable. “Fireworks are best in an intimate setting,” Brueckner maintains. “If you’re in New York, and everything’s centered around the Statue of Liberty, and you’re a mile away onshore somewhere, well, whoopee. But if you’re sitting in the stadium at Mira Mesa High School, and we’ve got stuff going off 150 feet away, that’s better! Fireworks are a function of size and time. The more they fill your peripheral vision, the more you lose track of time. If you go to Disneyland and you watch their fireworks show, it’s generally pretty hopping. The sky’s full. And after it’s over, if you ask someone how long it was, they’ll say, ‘Twelve, 15 minutes.’ In fact, it’s really 4 minutes long. But the music and the fireworks are larger than life, and you lose track of time. We can make people cry with fireworks and music. The music brings the emotion. The fireworks brings the excitement. It’s a real simple formula.”
The other big variable is budget, and here the range is substantial. At the low end, “You might get into a high school show for $850.” That would buy you a modest two- to three-minute show. At the other extreme, “We’ve been on $ 100,000 shows on the Fourth of July,” Brueckner says, adding that the most expensive Independence Day shows in San Diego more typically run about $40,000 to $50,000. “We don’t raise our prices on the Fourth, like a lot of companies. But we do set a minimum. We don’t do anything less than $10,000.” Brueckner also limits the number of Fourth of July contracts that Fireworks America will accept to fewer than 30.
In contrast, he says, Pyro Spectaculars does about 500, and San Diego Fireworks did about 90 before it was sold. “We think that’s too much. You can’t control the quality then. Fourth of July becomes amateur night. And that doesn’t fit our business model, which is professional pyrotechnics.”
To see the model in action, I tagged along with Chuck Tucker a few weeks ago. Tucker, who’s 44, is one of the more experienced pyrotechnicians in town. Raised in Normal Heights, he first got invited to work on a fireworks show back in the early ’70s, and today he recalls that the experience scared him. But he also felt intrigued by it and he volunteered to work on other shows. In 1974 he obtained the license that the state requires for putting on outdoor aerial displays. About three years later, he also got a license that allows him to set off fireworks indoors — something increasingly demanded by theatrical producers, rock music groups, and other events creators.
A tall, balding man, Tucker is friendly, exuberant, and energetic. He estimates that over the years he’s put on well over a thou -sand fireworks displays, one every week or two pn average. He does this in his spare time; by day he’s the Grossmont School District’s director of maintenance and operations. Throughout the fireworks industry, such moonlighting is the norm. Pyrotechnicians work as independent contractors, hired by the fireworks companies when there’s a show to be done. The company supplies the explosives and the equipment needed to fire them, along with precise directions for what must be fired when. The pyrotechnician makes it happen. For this he typically earns 12 percent of the price the fireworks company is charging for the show after the cost of insurance has been subtracted. That can amount to anywhere from $100 up to several thousand dollars (for a major Fourth of July blowout). Out of this, the pyrotechnician has to hire helpers and pay for such incidentals as dinner for the crew.
Besides the extra income, Tucker has amassed a stock of lively war stories. He describes, for example, how he once confronted the specter of a cattle stampede at the Reno Rodeo. On the verge of canceling the show, he finally was reassured by the lead cowboy that his crew of wranglers could keep the 250 animals calm in spite of the explosions. When the firing began, “There were ten cowboys out there, singing to the cattle — literally,” Tucker recounts. “And it worked. The animals just stood there and looked around.”
Tucker says just last year he had to order singer Michael Bolton’s golden retriever out of the backstage area of the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim. “They told me that the dog comes to all Bolton’s shows, but I didn’t know whether it would turn around and bite somebody or run.” Sometimes the settings for shows have been more exotic than the participants. “I shot a show one time off the top of one of the ABC Entertainment Towers in L.A. We were shooting between the two towers. That was for the world premiere of The Wiz. ” On the evening that I accompanied him, Tucker was to oversee a more mundane production: a five-and-a-half-minute aerial display for a private party at Sea World. For the past two years, Fireworks America has done all the pyrotechnic work at the marine park, a coup for the fledgling company. This work includes all the explosive special effects used in Sea World’s “Bay-watch” show, nightly aerial displays throughout the summer, and special events during the rest of the year. Because the aerial displays are a fixture on its entertainment menu, Sea World has created a permanent launch site for them: a barge anchored off Fiesta Island. When not in use, this looks as though it could be some waterborne penal colony for errant -children and canines. There’s a black-painted shed that could be the guardhouse. It towers over six black structures that look like doorless doghouses. Six similar structures about the size of playhouses are lined up next to the doghouses.
In fact, after a Sea World employee had ferried Tucker and three assistants and me out to the fireworks barge about 5:00 p.m., I learned that the “roofs” on all the doghouses and playhouses unfold to reveal row upon row of mortars positioned within wooden racks. The mortars hold the explosive charges and direct the shells after they’re ignited. Fireworks America makes its mortar out of tough high-density polyethylene tubing, rather than the more traditional cardboard and steel. Mortars traditionally were set in trenches or placed in boxes and supported with sand, so in the past, professional pyrotechnicians did a lot of digging. In recent times, above-ground mortar holders, which have to be erected before the show and taken apart afterward, have become the standard. But all the mortar holders stand in constant readiness on the Sea World barge. So Tucker and his crew were able to skip the tedious job of setting them up and move on to the next step in the process.
First they removed any paper debris they found remaining in the tubes, and then they started laying out the shells. These look like parcels. They’re heavy cardboard globes of various sizes that have been wrapped in brown paper. Into the bottom of each package, the shell manufacturer has loaded black powder, and the fireworks company later inserts a length of quick match into the granules. Once Tucker and his crew had balanced each shell on top of the mortar from which it was to be fired, they began grabbing the lengths of quick match and gingerly lowering the shells into the tubes. Only then did they connect the lengths of quick match to the electrical terminals, a step equivalent to cocking the hammer on a loaded gun. “You never, ever, ever want any part of your body to come over one of these,” Tucker commented, waving to the loaded cylinders. “A three-inch one could take your head off, and you can just imagine what one of the six-inch ones would do.” Once all the mortarS were connected, we gathered together inside the control shed to test the electrical connections. One of Tucker’s crewmembers, an electronics engineer named Charlie Holdaway, took a seat at a battered white desk next to a large window overlooking the racks of mortars. Holdaway would be doing the actual firing at this evening’s show. It’s a job that sounds glamorous, but it may be the least satisfying of all the pyrotechnic tasks, since the per: son who’s doing it can’t take his or her eyes off the firing box for even a second.
During the wiring test, of course, there isn’t anything to see. Instead we listened for the strong, clear tone indicating a good connection. Most of the time, we heard it, but in several cases the sound was high and tremulous, and sometimes Holdaway could raise no tone at all. He muttered about the corrosive forces at work on the barge: smoke that’s full of sulfuric acid, salt and moisture from the bay. Throughout the next hour and a half, the men would continue to fiddle with the wiring. They looked nervous about the troublesome connections, and Tucker explained why. Every shell that failed to fire would have to be pulled out of its mortar after the show — the most dangerous job of the evening. “Probably about one operator a year gets killed somewhere in the country checking shells after a show,” Tucker said. Sparks from the other shells can fly into the tube and smolder, provoking an explosion long after one might expect it.
But the barge on Mission Bay provides one of the safest possible firing venues, Tucker indicated. Most of the burning debris would land in the water. Any chunks of ignited chemicals would continue to burn underwater, since they need no external oxygen source for their combustion. But they wouldn’t set anything else on fire, a constant concern on land. “The shell is designed to go up a certain distance [usually between 300 and 600 feet], fire, break, and then be out by the time it hits the ground,” Tucker said. If a shell happens to be manufactured with less than the proper amount of black powder, however, it might only go up 50 feet and then explode. When that happens, “It’s like a cluster bomb.” Depending upon the wind and ground conditions, “You can have 16 spot fires start at one time.”
Tucker has canceled shows when the risk of this was too great. “There was a show in Orange County one time, when I had 7000 people sitting in the stands waiting to see the fireworks.” As darkness fell, the Santa Ana winds that had been blowing all day failed to abate, and Tucker finally declared that conditions were too dangerous to continue. “I said, ‘I’ll come back and shoot it for you next week. I’ll come back next year. But I am not shooting the show today.’ And the fire marshal was great. He backed me up completely.”
Around 8:30 p.m., a fire marshal arrived to check the preparations for the Sea World show. A hearty man who smiled a lot, he seemed delighted to be out on the water. The clouds by then had thinned to a wispy veil that did little to obscure the nearfull moon. The marshal raised no objections to any of Tucker’s preparations, and by 8:45 p.m. he, Tucker, and one of the other crew members had stepped on the transit barge and headed for a position where they could chase any stray boaters away from the blast zone.
As they did that, Charlie Holdaway, a third crew member, and I locked ourselves into the control shed. Overhead a small light illuminated the firing panel, but through the window, we could still discern the mortars poised outside in the moonlight. At five minutes before the show, the portable radio crackled to life. One minute before performance time, the Sea World employee at Shamu Stadium began calling out a countdown, and seconds later, Holdaway touched the probe to the first metal pin.
Within the thick-walled ' shed, I was wearing earplugs and I pressed my fingers over these. Yet still the noise of the first explosion rocked us. It rocked the whole barge in a gentle rhythm that seemed incongruous with the mayhem so close at hand. Every second or two, Holdaway touched another pin, following prerecorded commands being broadcast over our radio, and a fog of smoke was soon billowing outside the window.
I slipped the earplugs out, to hear the salvos better. With each of the biggest ones, yellow-orange fire blazed for a second, lighting up different spots on the barge. All this action on the deck was so stupendous it was hard to believe it was mere prelude, hard to remember that, out of it, shells with burning fuses inside them were being hurtled skyward. Sometimes my ears would pick out a more distant pop — the sound of the second charge within a shell being ignited and breaking open the package and releasing its brilliant contents. From the shed, I couldn’t see any of this, but some of the bigger shells lighted up our view of the mortars as if someone outside had switched on a dim overhead light. For a second, the very air would seem to glow with pale green or pale gold, then grow dark again. But the mortars continued belching fire, and down from the heavens burning fragments of paper rained. Combat zones must look like this at times. I wondered if soldiers ever see the beauty.
After the shells for the finale had finally stuttered and gone off, Tucker’s crew members waited for a few moments before opening the cabin door. Even with the doors closed, a smell laden with sulfur and burnt cardboard enveloped us. Max Van-der Horck, the San Diego resident who started the national guild for amateur pyrotechnicians, used a slogan that’s still printed on every issue of the guild’s newsletter: “He who hath smelled the smoke is ne’er free again.” As we waited for the cinders to go out, Holdaway threw his head back and inhaled. “I love that smell,” he murmured.
Only two or three small shells had failed to ignite, and when Tucker climbed back onto the barge, he announced, “That was beautiful! No duds. No detonations. That’s just the way it’s supposed to go.” But for all the eerie theatrics I had witnessed, I hadn’t seen any of the shells burst open.
So the next time Fireworks America was scheduled to put on a show at Sea World, I drove over to Crown Point. I arrived a few minutes before 9:00 p.m., and sitting in my car I thought about why it is that people like fireworks. Bob Weaver, the Kensington authority on consumer fireworks, has one theory. He speculates that at least for many men, the concussion of a loud explosion does something pleasurable to the central nervous system. Weaver also notes the symbolic association between fireworks and orgasm, adding that if he ever makes his own video about fireworks, he thinks it would be funny to intercut a sex scene just as the pyrotechnic action approaches its climax.
I noticed something else on that second night that I went to watch Fireworks America’s Sea World show. A layer of marine clouds had moved in, so the sky looked leaden. It should have stayed that way, placid and immutable. For most of history, the night sky has been a soporific. But when the colored light began ripping through the darkness overhead, unnatural and startling, the sight made me tingle with attentiveness. It wrenched involuntary exclamations from me. For five minutes, at least, it made me forget all about sleep and feel very much alive.