Playing With Fire

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Throughout the nineteenth century the re-enactment of battles on both land and sea remained a pyrotechnic staple, but pyrotechnicians also began to mount the first of what might be called modern shows: fireworks with no scenery whatever. There also arose a new fashion for set pieces. These were wooden and bamboo frames covered with pyrotechnic lances that created pictures in fire. The Brock family of England were specialists in set pieces, and during the 1880s visiting potentates such as the king of the Maoris or the Shah of Persia marveled to see their own portraits unfurled eighty feet high in colored fire. An unfortunate malfunction on a Brock set piece once caused the eye of Queen Victoria to wink lewdly at the astonished crowd.

In America the English pyrotechnician Henry J. Pain catered to a taste for historical vignettes using fireworks. He operated an amphitheater at Brooklyn’s Manhattan Beach, near Coney Island, for many years. Patrons watched actors scurry around in togas as Mount Vesuvius erupted, sending fire streaming onto Pompeii. In 1882 the British fleet shelled the Egyptian port of Alexandria; a year later Pain’s customers could view this “magnificent naval and military spectacle” in a fiery re-enactment involving 350 players.

When he was five years old, Legion’s president, Frank Coluccio, set a fire under a porch. Later he blew up a toilet in a Catholic school and fired cherry bombs from a slingshot. An early fascination with fire and explosions is typical of many pyrotechnicians I’ve met.

Fireworks have also helped inspire many budding scientists. “Fired cannon, pop, and firecrackers all day. In the evening had five skyrockets,” reads a Fourth of July entry in the diary of the fifteen-year-old Robert Goddard, whose early work in rocketry put America on its path to the moon.

Coluccio followed his father into the masonry trade and for years satisfied his taste for gunpowder through membership in a cannon club. While on a bricklaying job in 1975 he heard Legion workers testing salutes, tracked down the company, and soon became a part-time shooter.

Legion had been founded in 1920 by Joseph Chiarella, who followed a tradition of immigrants bringing pyrotechnics to this country from Italy. He was noted for his elaborate set pieces, such as “The Battle of Bunker Hill,” “Flight of a Zeppelin,” and a topical “Spirits of 1933”—a huge bottle outlined in fire to honor the repeal of Prohibition.

“Grandpa” Chiarella died in an explosion at the Legion plant in 1970. Coluccio began running the business eleven years later. He continues to use formulas and methods handed down from the company’s founder. He also has followed fireworks tradition by involving his own family in the business: His father, brothers, sister, and in-laws all help out firing shows, especially during the busy Fourth of July season.

Both Coluccio and his partner have the great fortune to have merged vocation and avocation. “I was always involved in the arts,” Jennie Bradford explains. “I drew pictures, I worked in the graphic arts. But when I found fireworks, I was home.” As the designer of Legion’s shows, Bradford selects effects that will enhance one another and surprise the audience. She works in multiple dimensions of space and time and, as a show approaches, she completes a detailed second-by-second script. For electrically fired shows, she sometimes makes an audiotape to cue the shooter and to help coordinate the timing of the firing with any accompanying music.

When I first visited the Legion plant, Bradford, whose enthusiasm about everything connected with fireworks is irresistible, told me, “You have to go to the PGI. That’s where you’ll meet the real pyros.”

The Pyrotechnic Guild International is an organization of fireworks enthusiasts, many of them amateurs. They maintain a deep sense of fireworks tradition; their symbol is the sixteenth-century “Green Man,” who wore a foliage outfit, carried a sparking torch, and assisted the fire master in mounting displays.

The pyro clan gets together once a year to share information, show off their latest fire-art creations, and enjoy great fireworks. Freely exchanging formulas, methods, and safety tips, PGI members have helped break down the long tradition of secrecy surrounding pyrotechnics. Last year their black-powder orgy drew more than twenty-two hundred members and their families to Muskegon, Michigan, a quiet Rust Belt town optimistically dubbed the Riviera of the Midwest. One of this band of amiable eccentrics was Jack Fielder, a machinist from the Detroit area.