Watching professional fireworks displays — or lighting off some amateur ones — is a once-a-year experience for many that punctuates a day of barbecues and patriotic fervor. But for Rocco Vitale, general manager of the fireworks company Pyrotecnico of Louisiana, Independence Day takes on a whole new meaning.
"When we talk about the Fourth of July, it's not just one day," he says, sitting in his Mandeville office. "I haven't gone to a picnic in so many years."
Pyrotecnico is among the most in-demand fireworks companies in the United States, importing 50,000 boxes of fireworks a year to be used in everything from Super Bowl halftime shows to community fireworks displays. Vitale says the company will put on 600 to 700 shows around the country in the week leading up to the Fourth. Vitale alone has designed four shows in New Orleans: the main "dueling barges" show on the Mississippi River, as well as shows for the Boomtown and Treasure Chest casinos and the New Orleans Zephyrs. For Vitale, though, the hectic holiday work schedule is all part of the job.
Vitale was born into the fireworks life. Founded in 1889 by his great-grandfather, Constantino Vitale, Pyrotecnico is all the younger Vitale has ever known. "It put food on the table," he says. Vitale says he can remember becoming hooked while working in a warehouse during college one summer, and he can already see his nephew following the same path.
"Every pyrotechnician talks about the smell right after a display," he said. "I took my nephew out not too long ago and he mentioned that he loved that smell and I knew that he was well underway."
Having grown up surrounded by pyrotechnicians, Vitale likes to say he's never looked at a fireworks show like most people. Even when it's not one of his shows — Vitale says watching a show he's choreographed is "nerve-racking" — he's constantly critiquing, analyzing and learning how to present a centuries-old art in new and innovative ways. That innovation is one of the many reasons why the Riverfront Marketing Group selected Vitale and Pyrotecnico to put on the fireworks show that will punctuate its annual "Go 4th On the River" celebration on the banks of the Mississippi River. Starting at noon, this year's celebration features seven musical acts performing throughout the day and a cake competition honoring Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday. As always, the highlight will come at the end of the night with the now-iconic "dueling barges" fireworks show.
"Pyrotecnico does such a great job coordinating the fireworks and the music," says Debbie Bresler, Riverfront Marketing Committee coordinator. "I cry for the Fourth of July fireworks and it's always the music that does it."
The dueling-barges idea was actually conceived by pyrotechnician David Spears, who ran a local fireworks company Pyrotecnico acquired a few years ago. This year's show will feature two barges launching 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of materials over 13 minutes, including some high-end devices that produce multiple effects and get the desired "Aha!" reaction from the crowd.
Putting it all together, however, takes weeks of preparation. It all begins with a collaborative meeting between the lead designer — in this case, Vitale — and whoever hired him or her to put on the show. While there are many ways to design and execute any given fireworks display, Vitale says shows on the Fourth always involve patriotic themes and music.
This year's display will feature a mix of recorded standbys like Bruce Springsteen and military marching songs with newer tracks like Jennifer Hudson's rendition of the National Anthem. Vitale says that, even with traditional displays, there's room for innovation. At an international fireworks competition WHERE? held in August last year, Vitale had carte blanche and created a five-act rock opera, which took first place. Today, Vitale has the luxury of designing most of his shows beforehand on a computer; the state-of-the-art equipment Pyrotecnico uses allows him to input shows into an on-site computer that fires everything automatically.
Of course, some people still have to get their hands dirty. This year, Donny Aller lead a crew of six men that will take all the cannons and set pieces that shoot fireworks, prep them in Mandeville and then drive them to Algiers where the crew will spend seven to eight hours on July 3 putting everything in place. That's followed by eight to 10 hours on the Fourth placing the actual explosives — or "product," as they call it — and making sure all the wiring is correct.
Aller also has been around fireworks all his life — he grew up in New Castles, Penn., home to Pyrotecnico and Zambelli Fireworks and considered the "Fireworks Capital of the World." Aller will get a front-row seat to this year's show — but that's not necessarily the best vantage point; he says the sound of the explosions within 100 feet of the cannons will knock your hair back.
"It's deafening," Aller says. "You can actually hear the shells lifting into the air before they explode and then it's very, very loud." If there's no wind, smoke will build up at the launch site and obscure your vision, leaving you with only a view of flashes in a thick fog. Even if you had a clear view of the sky, though, Aller says it's best not to look up.
"The instinct is to look up and watch the show," he says. "But then you're exposing yourself to the red embers raining down."
Crews on the barges wear hard hats, goggles, earplugs and life jackets. When added to long sleeves and pants to protect their skin from red-hot falling debris, it can get uncomfortable. Even then there is still the risk of an accident. Eleven years ago, two men died when fireworks went off while they were being unloaded from a truck and put on a barge for a New Year's Eve show on the river. But that was a different company and in more than 100 years of business, Vitale says, Pyrotecnico has never had such a catastrophic accident.
Once the show is over, the crew has to take everything apart, which adds even more hours to the day. Crews go home stinking.
"It smells like a couple of thousand matches were lit in a small area," Vitale says.
For a pyrotechnician, Aller compares this time of year to an accountant at tax season. The physical labor and unconventional work schedule is something many people can't handle; it even deterred Aller when he first started. But for Aller, Vitale and all the pyrotechnicians that came before them, the thrill of entertaining thousands of people through fireworks becomes, they say, close to an addiction.
Alejandro de los Rios will be joining Pyrotecnico as the company sets up and blows off fireworks over the July 4 weekend. Check for his video reports on www.bestofneworleans.com.