Fireworks - Giving July 4th The Business

Posted: July 03, 1986

You think you deal with explosive situations where you work? Ha! At the Garden State Fireworks Co., where folks routinely toil up to their elbows in gunpowder, they know the real meaning of those words.

Just recently, there was a thunderstorm in northern New Jersey's Great Swamp, where Garden State Fireworks is located. Vice President Augie Santore immediately turned out the lights, disconnected all electricity and shut the whole operation down.

"I hate thunderstorms," he said.

He was taking no chances that some errant electrical charge might strike up an acquaintance with a live wire on his premises and blow a great many upcoming Fourth of July celebrations (including Philadelphia's) to kingdom come.

Pyrotechnics, as the pros call it, is not a relaxing business to be in.

Or a simple one, either.

For most of us, a discussion of fireworks is a matter of "Did-ja-see that one? uhhhh . . . ohhhhh . . . ahhhhh . . . woooohh . . ."

But at Garden State Fireworks, the company that will be producing the city's big Fourth of July extravaganza above the Art Museum tomorrow night, they discuss the subject in a great deal more detail.

They talk of "multiple cannonades" and "flutter effects," of the differences between Italian-style fireworks (great bursts of color accompanied by crashing noise), Japanese-style (one perfectly formed image, a perfect circle or an elegant willow) and Chinese-style (many different effects that tell a story, like falling petals).

You will be able to see what Garden State means by all this by coming to the Parkway or just by looking up from most streets in the vicinity.

The show, about 30 minutes of fireworks at a cost of roughly $1,000 a minute, has been carefully designed to provide variety in color, shapes and noise, all carefully choreographed to accompany such musical selections as ''Philadelphia, Get to Know Us," "God Bless America" and John Philip Sousa's "Liberty Bell March."

(You can enjoy fireworks without music, of course. But to get the full effect of tomorrow night's sky show, you should either stake out a spot on the Parkway close to a loudspeaker or tune your radio at 9 p.m. to WSNI at 104.5 FM, which will be broadcasting the show live.)

In some people's view, Nunzio and Augie Santore's Garden State Fireworks, founded in 1890 by their grandfather, is the best fireworks company in the world. Just two weeks ago, Garden State, representing the U.S., won the International Fireworks Festival in Montreal. And the company is also a two- time winner of the International Fireworks Competition in Monte Carlo.

In 1982, the Santore brothers demolished their Monte Carlo competitors with specially-designed 135-lb. aerial display shells that exploded into a series of sumptuous displays.

Unfortunately, the reverberations also demolished hundreds of windows in Monte Carlo. The judges thereupon ruled that in the future no fireworks shell could weigh more than 22 pounds. The Santores came back the next year with smaller shells, won again and then decided to retire from competition for a while.


An aerial display shell, no matter what size, doesn't look fancy. It's made out of cardboard. Some look like coffee cans, others like tennis-ball containers. Inside, the canister may contain several layers of compartments, each filled with a different arrangement of chemicals or gunpowder.

The chemicals that produce all that color in the sky are primarily metal compounds. It is a fact of nature that metal compounds, when heated, produce light and heat. Iron compounds turn orange, strontium carbonate turns red, etc. The Santores have their own secret formulas for producing particularly brilliant effects.

Within the aerial shell, each layer - or sometimes an arrangement of mini- shells within a layer - is connected to a fuse - basically a piece of string coated in gunpowder and wrapped in paper. This fuse has pinholes pricked in it at carefully spaced intervals to get each planned combustion going when the going is right.

Obviously, in this business it is important to know how to connect a fuse. It's something like making sure the headbone is connected to the neckbone - and not to the kneebone or the toe. The art and craft of fireworks involves launching a precisely packed shell to just the right spot in the sky and having it ignite at just the right moment to get exactly the color and noise effects desired.

Fireworks people, incidentally, make a definite distinction between ''color" and "noise." The explosion of chemicals is not a silent process, there is always some snap and crackle. But to a fireworks expert, that is merely "sound." Noise is something more. Noise occurs when extra explosive is deliberately included in the shell to produce a dramatic KA-BOOM or a series of them, or maybe a thin, screaming whistle.

(For the record, the processes that produce noise effects are no more invisible than color effects are silent. They produce light, if not color. Have we all that straight?)

Now, about launching . . .

Aerial display shells are launched from heavy cardboard or (for very heavy shells) metal tubes. Each shell sits in the tube on top of a package of exlosive powder. The launcher ignites that powder, which then blows the shell into the air and ignites the fuse leading to the chemicals inside.

These days, nobody runs up to the launch site with a match. The shells are launched by electrical signals from a distant control panel.

In a Garden State show, the decisions on which shells are launched, and when, are made by Bruce Bassman, the company's official fireworks choreographer. Bassman started out as a theater lighting designer, then became an organizer of special events - like Macy's Fourth of July celebration. Seven years ago, he came to Garden State as full-time coordinator of fireworks and music.

To achieve his effects, Bassman times tapes of the proposed program (the customer always picks the music), then selects the fireworks that will accompany it, drawing up the launch schedule second by second.

For "Philadelphia Get to Know Us," Bassman plans to send up a myriad of shapes and colors - rarely seen greens and purples, great big bursts accompanied by little ones, a series of "breaks" like a green spray of color at 350 feet to be followed by a red one 50 feet farther along, sprinklings of stars that seem to fall out of the sky . . .

Tomorrow's program includes a reading of the Declaration of Independence and Bassman plans to punctuate it with a barrage of noise like drumbeats ("When in the course of human events" . . . BOOM . . . "it becomes necessary" . . . BOOM . . .)

The finale, with the "Liberty Bell March" in the background, will be a riot of red, white and blue up the sky with lots of KA-BOOMs, CRASH-es and BANGs tossed in.

That finale will also include a type of fireworks display called a set piece, or lance work. Garden State has built a huge wooden frame, five stories high. It is to be placed atop the Art Museum steps and on it, outlined in bamboo and covered with fireworks, are the figures of William Penn and Miss Liberty, holding their arms out toward each other. Only when the fuse is lit, will the figures become blazingly visible. (The flame races along at 52 feet a second.)

This set piece will be visible only to those whose line of vision takes in the Art Museum, of course. However, not being able to see it won't spoil the finale for sky-watchers and for those who plan to take in the show from the Parkway, it will be a bonus.

Almost all of the fireworks which will be seen here tomorrow night have been made by hand in Garden State's factory in Millington, N.J. Nunzio and Augie Santore may be the owners but they work side by side with their employes in carefully assembling the shells.

The factory in Millington, N.J., in Passaic County, is a group of small one-story buildings spread over seven acres (if something happens to one, the whole place won't disappear).

Color compounds are mixed in one building, fuses made in another, and the fireworks assembled in still another. The building in which the fireworks are assembled has a rubber static-free floor, a sparkproof telephone, lights encased in thick globes. Employes wear cotton clothes because nylon or polyester might create static and static can create a spark and a spark with all that gunpowder . . . well . . .

The Santores want business to boom, but not that way.

The Santores do about 300 shows a year - most of them in the first weeks of July when, it seems, the whole country catches fireworks fever. Members of the Santore family who have other occupations are called to fireworks duty on and around the Fourth of July. The Santores have also put on displays at non-July events ranging from a Rolling Stones concert to a Kennedy wedding.

Plain old rain, incidentally, never stops a show. In fact, Augie Santore says, fireworks look even brighter in the rain.

"Nobody has a negative reaction to fireworks," says Bruce Bassman. "They get people excited; they really get the juices going."

He thinks there is something elemental in our love for fireworks, just as flags imitate the movement of leaves in the wind, just as fountains imitate natural waterfalls, fireworks build on our fascination with Mother Nature's fire and lightning.

Mother Nature can put on a pretty flashy show and, as mentioned before, one of her thunderstorms can even cause Augie Santore to shut down business. But when it comes to flashing colors and thundering noises, Garden State Fireworks has been known to intimidate Mother Nature.


The Parkway show starts at 9 p.m. It features Phyllis Nelson, the Stylistics, and Peter Nero and the Philly Pops.

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