The Art of Fireworks

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The Grucci family of Long Island, New York, calls itself "America's first family of fireworks" — and has a solid claim to that title. Since the business began in 1850, Fireworks by Grucci has launched some of the nation's most spectacular pyrotechnic displays, including shows to celebrate the Statue of Liberty centennial, four Olympic Games and seven presidential Inaugurations. TIME spoke with Grucci vice president Phil Butler about this year's Fourth of July.

What makes for a good fireworks display?
No matter what kind of entertainment it is, without variety it becomes repetitious. We get that variety simply by shopping the world for the best fireworks available. Many [manufacturers] even come to us, because they know their inventory might be displayed at the next Olympics or the next presidential Inauguration. We also make our own Italian-style shells.

And what are those shells like?
Generally, the ones that make the most noise, especially in the grand finale. Italians are loud.

The weak economy is forcing many places to scale back their Independence Day plans. Have you seen fewer requests for shows?
Absolutely not. This is a Saturday Fourth of July; that has not occurred since 1998, as the last Saturday was leap year. Historically, Saturday Fourths of July are Katie-bar-the-door, sold-out, booked solid.

According to your website, you charge up to $175,000 for a deluxe fireworks display of about 25 minutes.
It's still rare to have budgets like that. The average budget for a Grucci program is a little over $42,000.

It strikes me that fireworks haven't changed very much over the years. Sometimes they form a star or smiley face as they explode, but that's about as high-tech as it gets. What is the cutting edge right now in firework technology?
Fourth of July fireworks are ageless. It's really a misnomer to try and get a "cutting edge." As long as it's a nice show and has a certain continuity to it, people love it.

What's your favorite kind of firework?
I would say my favorite is the Grucci Gold Split Comet Shell. There are 60 comets in a 6-in. shell; when the shell breaks, they leave a golden trail. Halfway through the burn there's a small charge, which breaks up the comets into dozens of pieces. It creates a golden Milky Way effect.

Are we seeing any improvements in safety? It seems the news is full of firework mishaps in the days after the Fourth.
That's really a rarity in professional programs. What you're referring to is when the average person gets ahold of fireworks and, intoxicated or not — most are — plays with them. But people are starting to wise up and heed [safety] advice.

You orchestrated an enormous display last year to celebrate the opening of the Atlantis resort in Dubai. That 10-minute show has been called the largest fireworks show in history.
It almost makes me tired just thinking about what we did. Ninety-six Grucci technicians went to Dubai, and we had over 200 additional pyrotechnicians from all over the world. We were there 14 days.

Do you remember how many shells were fired?
That we don't [reveal]. Fireworks is an art and a performance. You wouldn't ask Michelangelo how many buckets of paint he used to paint the Sistine Chapel. It's the same with us — it's what your eyes and ears tell you the entertainment value is.