Big Bang Theory
Phil Grucci knows when he got hooked. It was at Coney Island, nearly 50 years ago, he scampered the boardwalk all day on the Fourth of July. He wasn’t part of the fireworks crew his grandfather had assembled, but in his mind, he feels like he was. Even in the times before baby seat mandates and tamper-resistant seals, the five-year-old was probably pushing a few legal boundaries hanging out near powerful mortar shells, but no matter. These were those formative years, the making of a fireworks mastermind.
He remembers the set-up. Gritty men carrying boxes with shells, wiring them together. After the set-up, a bit of a lull, a sunset, crowds gathering, then finally – the show. For about 10 minutes, the family fireworks enterprise based in Long Island has everyone’s rapt attention; then perhaps the most powerful image of all comes when the show is over.
“I’d see my grandfather afterwards, people coming up to him, the respect, the control he had; it’s addictive,” Grucci, now 54, recalled. “You have the control of the audience and know you can predict when you’ll get a reaction. It’s exciting to have that.”
Today, he is the man and mind behind Fireworks By Grucci, an enterprise started by his great grandfather, Angelo, in Bari, Italy in the 1800s. Today, it oversees Las Vegas’ America’s Party New Year’s Eve fireworks show. His team has done so since the first run in 2002. In addition to Las Vegas, he’ll have 13 other shows to tend to this New Year’s Eve; America’s Party, though, is his largest, with a crew of about 80 manning it.
Choreographing the Las Vegas event
Grucci is most at home in his Long Island studio where he choreographs the majority of the company’s fireworks displays, which can range from massive efforts like Las Vegas or the Times Square New Year’s event, but run as small as a wedding celebration or bar mitzvah.
Today, technology helps Grucci immensely in his work, but he admits that only 15 years ago it was a lot of pencil sketching and storyboarding, a practice that has not escaped him entirely.
“Now with computers you can animate and render … but you can never substitute the inherent ability to mix the music elements. It’s a great tool, but you don’t rely on it completely. … You don’t want to be someone who cuts and pastes,” Grucci says.
This technology allows him to preview vantage points for the Las Vegas show. The show involves six rooftops: Stratosphere, Aria, Rio, Venetian, Caesars Palace, and Planet Hollywood. As you can imagine, the show looks different from each of these sites and anywhere in between and the fact that Grucci can drop himself into the shoes of a tourist at the corner of Harmon Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard, if he’d like, is a fine choreographic luxury.
Choreography requires two major elements: understanding the event’s purpose and the stage with which he has to work. Las Vegas’ six resort rooftops are far from ideal stages. Mortar shells are limited to 3-inch diameters. That forces Grucci to tackle the show with volume – some 10,000 pieces will be involved in this year’s show - and using unique angles to make bursts appear larger. This year’s fireworks celebration will last seven-and-a-half minutes and the choreography takes him between 14 and 18 hours to fully work through.
“Rooftops certainly bring a limitation to the show,” Grucci adds. “It’s different if you’re launching these things out at the [Sam Boyd] Stadium or at the [Las Vegas Motor] Speedway.”
Checks and balances
Fireworks by Grucci has its own production factory in Virginia and a research and development facility in upstate New York. Grucci’s control over the manufacturing of the explosives makes his company attractive for large displays like the one in Las Vegas. A couple months before the show, Clark County Fire Department teams review Grucci’s list of explosives and discharge several of each at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Fire inspectors evaluate safety and weigh potential problems for a rooftop situation, says Girard Page, fire marshal with the Clark County, Nevada, Department of Building & Fire Prevention.
“I’d say we’ve tested about a hundred different explosives over the years; we’ve only thrown out about two,” Page says.
The planning for each year’s show starts in February. Between then and November, it’s a series of filings between Grucci and fire officials where Grucci informs the team of possible explosives to be used for the following year. In the meantime, inspections of potential rooftops are underway. Before a site can even be considered, engineers must inspect the roof for exposed flammables, structural integrity, and an analysis of maintenance records, Page explained. Certain roofs are not suitable to handle the physical toll.
“You can’t just do this on any rooftop,” adds Edward Kaminski, a fire protection engineer with Clark County. “The roofs really shake. … We’ve even found parking garages not suitable. … People think with them being able to hold cars that they’re OK. [These explosives] really rock the structure.”
The push of a button
The six-rooftop display in Las Vegas is coordinated between crews and computers on each rooftop, but ultimately the entire display is triggered by one single computer. However, controllers on each rooftop can override a single mortar shell or even an entire zone of fireworks if they sense a problem. On the night of the show, two or three fire inspectors are on each roof, with radio communications between them, and their word is the final call, Page says.
One manual element of fireworks displays hasn’t changed, however, from those Coney Island days, Grucci says.
“From a production perspective, the back of a semi opens up, and no computer is going to carry that stuff up there,” Grucci says.
Michael Tochstein, whose website Pyrotechnic Innovations serves as an education portal for future pyrotechnicians, says a large display will typically have 20,000 pounds of equipment to unload and new crewmembers are often surprised by the amount of manual labor still involved in the process.
“There’s a lot of swinging hammers and moving heavy equipment around, not a lot of glorious work,” he says. “The passion for pyrotechnics comes out, though, and it is pure adrenaline. That’s what keeps you coming back. Most people, once they do their first show, are hooked.”
The week prior to the event is critical, explains Christopher Ganier, a Clark County fire inspector.
“We have to secure the venue at each hotel,” he says. “What routes are we bringing the mortars through? There are plans to secure them and never leave them unattended. It’s full coordination between hotel security, engineering, police, and fire. There needs to be people in place, restricted access to areas. It’s not just our department, but hotels and first responders.”
When a firework explodes, there’s a designated fall out zone. Law requires a 70-foot radius per mortar inch. So, the fall out zone for the Las Vegas show must be at least 210 feet. Organizers, however, have implemented a 270-foot radius and area sweeps are conducted by fire inspectors and organizers leading up to the show’s start time.
“One year, a truck strayed into the fall out zone and we had to have him move before we could fire,” Kaminksi says.
Wind can also be a factor. Winds above 10 miles per hour may cause a cancellation, Ganier explains. Leading up to the show, a single test mortar is fired to gauge the wind’s influence. Thankfully, Page says, winds have been very cooperative in all the years of the show.
After the show, the crews sweep the fall out area again, and some crew members are designated to stay on the rooftops until daylight, when another sweep must be done. They’re looking, primarily, for shells that may not have had their final detonation and could still explode.
“You could find those in shrubbery. … There have been times when palm trees had small fires from smoldering debris, too,” Ganier adds.
“The better the product, the less fallout you have, though,” Kaminski says, which can be seen as another nod to Grucci’s ability to control its own manufacturing and quality.
Becoming a pyro
Since large displays often require considerable manpower, pyrotechnicians are in demand. Tochstein is an electrical engineer by trade who is also a fireworks display operator himself. He has created major displays for events like the Los Angeles Coliseum’s annual Fourth of July show. However, he has focused more of his work on pyrotechnic education. Living in California, his state has some of the strictest licensing requirements .
Tochstein started working on crews when he was 18 and has created an online training program to help people get into the field. The first part of the program takes roughly two hours to complete and emphasizes basic safety, the wiring of shells, rack set up, and gives a person a “Rank Zero” status. With this, a person can work on a crew. You must work as a crewmember on at least eight displays within two years to be considered for display operator licensure in California.
On the path to becoming an operator, the program also has a second round of online training, which has three times the content of the initial “Rank Zero” platform. If you want to become a display operator in California, you must also have five letters of recommendation from licensed operators, be fingerprinted and background checked, all in addition to passing a written exam. The whole process takes about two years, he says.
Operators and pyrotechnicians make up a close-knit industry, he adds. There are conferences hosted by industry trade organizations and a high level of professionalism, even amidst the casual adrenaline-junkie worker camaraderie you may find at any given display. Many of the crew members for the Las Vegas show have been doing it for years.
“It’s kind of like a family reunion when these guys get together,” Page adds.
Tochstein says sometimes people may have misperceptions about the professionalism of pyrotechnicians.
“I’d say the biggest thing we try to explain to people is that we are pyrotechnicians, not pyromaniacs,” he says with a laugh.
The Grucci team gets ready for the big night.