Niagara Gazette

July 3, 2013

Flame on! Fireworks company owner readies for the biggest day of the year

By Michele DeLuca
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — So, there's that one jolly guy whose job culminates on a very merry holiday each year and who delights children of all ages.

Then, on a day like today, there's all the other guys — men and women actually — whose workload also explodes on one big day every year, and who also bring smiles to the faces of young and old.

They are the producers of the all the fireworks displays that are lighting the nights throughout the U.S.A. on this Independence Day weekend.

And, as the "shooters" light the fuses of rockets that burst skyward to shine a rainbow of colors on upturned faces, each production can feel a lot like a Broadway opening night. Failure to launch can make for a really bad day.

On a good day, when rockets are soaring and people are cheering, the flame lighters can surely feel the glow. "You do feel like a rock star for about the first twenty minutes," said Matt Shaw, owner of Skylighters in Orchard Park, whose company is doing two local shows tonight. 

After the cheers that greet the first blasts, however, it's time to get down to business and do your best to awe the people on the blankets and lawn chairs, who often number in the thousands, he said.

Damian DiCola of Zambelli Fireworks, is producing a show Friday at the Seneca Niagara Casino and Hotel, and he and his crew are following a precise plan in preparation for their big show.

"It does feel like Christmas, because we can't let anybody down," said  DiCola. "We pride ourselves on that," he said. 

His company, located in New Castle, Pa.,  is presenting about 750 shows all over the country this weekend. The Seneca Casino show is "definitely considered one of our larger fourth of July shows," he said. "It's set to music, so it's fully choreographed."

His company has been developing the show with casino staff since last November, and thanks to current fireworks technology, was able to send a computerized version to casino officials for pre-approval. 

"This show is really intense for a land-based show," said DiCola, "and (spacing) is a little tight, so we have to be extra careful with the safety." 

Safety is key for fireworks companies, he added. "It can be very dangerous. That's why we provide a lot of safety training."

Actually, while those who work in the fireworks business are up to their ears in holiday explosives right now, the business of beautiful blasts goes on year round.  

Zambelli, who said DiCola is one of the biggest fireworks companies in American, added that while the industry continues to change and grow, some of the most popular fireworks endure, such as the strobing willow shells, which form effects that appear like willow trees and have a long duration, breaking open in the sky and trickling down like rain. 

He noted that viewers also enjoy his company's multiple effect fireworks, which have up to four color changes and chrysanthemum-type breaks, disappearing and reappearing in thousands of tiny, crackling lights.   

In Hyde Park, where the fireworks show will be held at dusk today, Shaw's Orchard Park fireworks company, Skylighters, is handling the display.

Shaw said his company will be producing 20 shows tonight, including a show in the Village of Lewiston on the plateau adjacent to ArtPark.

Independence Day keeps him and his 93 licensed display operators very busy, but demand is growing and more people are planning fireworks shows throughout the year. "After Labor Day we go right into homecomings, weddings, sporting events and concerts, then Winterfest and all the new years celebrations. "We do about 150 shows a year," he said.

However, every show has its own pressures, he added. "Our setups are pretty intense," he explained, noting that unlike some fireworks companies, his crews do not have to reload, which makes for a better and safer show. All the fireworks have their own mortar (the tube which holds the shell much like a cannon), so no crew member is holding live shells while hot embers are flying nearby.

Shaw, who worked as an assistant and then a shooter for Skylighters before purchasing the company eight years ago, is used to performing in front of large crowds. His company has done First Night Buffalo as well as other engagements in Niagara communities including Porter, Ransomville and Sanborn. He takes pride in hiring local operators from each community. 

Today, his company is returning to Hyde Park after a couple year hiatus.  John Caso, the city's deputy director of public works, led the selection process.  "They did a phenominal show the first year they were here," he said of Skylighters. "The good news is, they're local, just outside of Buffalo, and that's awesome."

Shaw's company is also producing the fireworks display tonight in Lewiston, and his company got that job because of the show they produced during the village's War of 1812 celebration last year.

"It was a spectacular show," said Terry Collesano, mayor of the village, commenting on the 1812 display. "I told my clerk to get in touch with them the next day."  The Lewiston show is partially funded by the Town of Lewiston, Town of Porter, Village of Youngstown, Art Park, and several other private concerns, the mayor said, and costs about $10,000.

Shaw said that while his company produces a lot of big shows, some people may not be aware that, thanks to new laws, fireworks companies can also produce small shows with less costly displays. "Those who meet the criteria as a customer can have a fireworks show in their backyard for about $1,500 bucks," he said. 

Faced with the job of capping off the holiday, both Shaw and DiCola are promising special experiences in celebration of America's freedom.

At Hyde Park and in Lewiston tonight, Shaw promises that people will see "the best show they've seen in a long time. I'm putting so much product out there, it's going to be something to remember."

On Friday, crowds at the casino can also expect a good show, according to DiCola.

"People should pay social attention to the finale we're putting on," he said. "Keep your eyes open. You might think it's over but it's not."