Ka-Boom!: The Explosive History of Fireworks
Consider the following two terms: pyrotechnics and pyromania. Webster's defines the former as "the art of making or the manufacture and use of fireworks," the latter as "an irresistible impulse to start fires." Two entirely different things, right? Perhaps, but the two definitions hint at meanings not altogether dissimilar. After all, isn't the act of creation, for the artist, somewhat of an "irresistible impulse?" What then, can be said of the artist whose medium is fire, or fireworks? That the pyrotechnician is, by necessity, a pyromaniac? Well, maybe not. But after a cursory examination of the world of pyrotechnics, including an interview with a gentleman who designed a fireworks show, it's clear that the people involved are by no means ordinary. In fact, some of them are a little weird.POP ART WITH A BANGJames McNulty is the self-proclaimed "pontate of pop." In a burst of spontaneous energy back in 1976, the slender but wiry 48-year-old Reno, Nevada, artist invented what he calls "the only true art of fireworks." McNulty creates collages out of the colorful wrappers used to package firecrackers, Roman candles, bottle rockets, smoke bombs and other across-the-counter fireworks that have been popular worldwide for more than a century.In itself, this doesn't sound all that amazing, but a startling synergy emerged once the Rhode Island native began pasting labels down nearly 20 years ago. Instead of a light bulb going off in his head, imagine an image of a firecracker superimposed over a mushroom cloud. In that flash, McNulty saw 2,000 years of history, from the accidental discovery of the firecracker by the Chinese to the 20th-century development of the A-bomb. "Marco Polo, Nobel, Einstein, Oppenheimer, Teller, von Braun, Goddard all have one thing in common with me," McNulty exclaims breathlessly. "They all developed products that began with fireworks!!"Stellar company, to be sure, but McNulty's heady associations have much more to do with his work than his attempts to promote himself. As a bona-fide fireworks junkie -- he's a member of both the Pyrotechnics Guild International and the Western Pyrotechnic Association -- McNulty's synapses fire like those strings of crackers exploded during a Chinese New Year's parade in San Francisco. Once the fuse is lit..."It's the most potent form of pop, because it actual explodes!" he explodes. The bare rafters of his basement studio are adorned with Christmas tinsel; at one end of the room is a full gym with a large-screen TV. In the corner is his latest and perhaps most ambitious work, "Arms for Art." The piece chronicles the events of the Persian Gulf War and was originally titled "Air Superiority." More than any other McNulty work, it illustrates the inherent paradoxes of his chosen medium. The packaging used in the collage came from pre-existing fireworks products: torpedo boats, battleships, ghost planes (representing the Stealth fighter used heavily in the campaign). There was no need to make anything up -- the means for illustrating the carnage were all readily available, tightly wrapped in celebratory packages."All armaments are derived from fireworks," McNulty explains. "This shows off the Persian Gulf War better than any other medium because all the elements of the war are there -- the ghost planes, the overlord in the sky." After the war, he adds, one manufacturer even issued a special edition "Scudbuster," complete with a picture of Saddam Hussein.But although such fireworks were made to celebrate victory in the gulf, McNulty points out that the purpose of "Arms for Art" and similar works is not to commemorate war, it's "to get the pendulum swinging the other way." "Those are real firecrackers," he says, pointing to a work commissioned by his sister and brother-in-law called "War Toys and Celebrate." Ladyfingers lie glued to the piece like ammo bandoleers. "If you lit them, they'd go boom-ba-ba-boom-ba-boom!" He smiles at the thought, then jokes, "I'm a baby ba-boomer, ya know."PYROMANAGERIan Gilfillan is speaking on the telephone from somewhere near Rocklin, California. Somewhere because he doesn't really want to reveal the exact location of Pyro Spectaculars Inc.'s Northern California fireworks factory. Not that it's any big secret -- he just doesn't have time to be bothered. "It's a crazy business," he says. "It's way too busy this time of year and not busy enough the rest of the time."Busy is putting it lightly. His regular staff of 50 will grow to more than 1,000 in the weeks before the Fourth of July as Pyro Spectacular prepares to put on fireworks shows in dozens of California cities. And that's just a fraction of Pyro Spectacular's schedule. The company, headquartered in Southern California, is one of a half-dozen or so family-run corporations that dominate the global fireworks market. While James McNulty has carved out his own niche in the pyrotechnic art market, it is companies like Pyro Spectaculars that most people think of when the subject of art and fireworks is raised. "I married into the family," Gilfillan says. "The family" is the internationally renowned Souza brothers, who have been in the fireworks business for four generations. Since they are American-based, the Fourth is their bread-and-butter day. Not that their services aren't in demand elsewhere. When asked about the company's most memorable shows, Gilfillan ticks off the Olympics, World's Fairs and competitions in Canada. But the most prestigious event they've put on is the Chinese New Year's show in Hong Kong harbor. "It's a vote of confidence," he says of the Hong Kong government's perennial decision to have the Souzas fire up the program in a country that's famous for manufacturing its own fireworks. "Primarily, it's the technology involved in our displays." For the Hong Kong shows, Pyro Spectacular will fire anywhere from 6,000 to 7,000 shells -- more than four times the amount fired in a big U.S. show. On the average, larger U.S. shows can cost in the neighborhood of $120,000, while some of the bigger celebrations in Asia spend more than $1 million. More than 1 million people will watch the display in Hong Kong.Each show is different and requires a separate approach. For instance, the proximity of the audience determines how high the shells must be aimed. "The design process starts with the venue," says Gilfillan, explaining how each show is choreographed. If there is music, the shells must be electronically timed to explode on beat, or special shells can be selected to match the mood of the music. This selection is purely international: Japanese shells for a chrysanthemum effect, Chinese for a floral pattern, Australian for unique colors such as pink, purple and mauve; German and Italian shells for a serpentine effect. Different colors are achieved by varying the materials in the shells: magnesium and aluminum yield white, sodium salts burn yellow, strontium nitrate or carbonate give off a red hue, barium nitrate or chlorate burns green, coppers salts and chlorine create a blue flare, charcoal and carbon give off amber."You want to select products tailored for the venue and the audience," Gilfillan says. "There are literally hundreds of products. We have our own manufacturing plant, plus we import from 14 other countries." The manufacturing process is the most dangerous component of the fireworks trade, and one Gilfillan declined to talk about, other than to point out that the Souzas have an unblemished safety record. "It's a very unique business; everybody involved is a bit of a showman," he says. "But you're performing with a medium that's inherently dangerous." You can almost hear him knock on wood.GIMME DANGERWhen James McNulty was in eighth grade, he brought an M-80 (an extremely powerful type of firecracker that is illegal in all 50 states) to school one day for a friend. The friend decided he didn't want it, so McNulty placed the firecracker in the school building's overhead, along with a cigarette that served as a delayed fuse. "BA-BOOM!!" he remembers the blast. The noise startled the school's superintendent so much that he ordered the building evacuated, and the only thing that saved McNulty from a severe reprimand was the fact that his mother was a member of the school board.Unfortunately, many stories involving fireworks don't have such a humorous tone. Enter "fireworks" and "accident" into a computer newspaper database search, and all sorts of gruesome events are called up: "Deaf boy, 4, loses hand in blast of firecracker at Queens home." "In Frammington, Mass., a father of two was killed when a fireworks rocket exploded in his face." "In Chicago, a 3-year-old was watching neighbors light works when a rocket streaked across the street, hit her in the eye and lodged in her head. She died on Monday."Then there's Diwali, the festival of lights in India, in which it is estimated at least 100 people are killed annually by fireworks. Such catastrophes are by no means confined to the Third World. On July 4, 1903, in the United States, 466 people were killed in fireworks accidents and thousands more injured, according to George Plimpton's book, Fireworks: A History and Celebration. Particularly deadly was a foot-and-a-half-long firecracker about which Plimpton writes: "Because of such devices, nearly as many people died celebrating independence -- around 4,000 over the years -- as actually died fighting in the War of Independence itself. The glorious Fourth became known as the 'Bloody Fourth' and, because of the large number of severe infections from burns, the 'Carnival of Lockjaw.'"Nowadays, such large-scale horrors have been regulated out of existence in the United States, most notably by (sorry, Randy Weaver and Waco conspiracy theorists) the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. However, as Plimpton (who is perhaps the most well-known fireworks aficionado in the United States) notes, the manufacture of shells for the fireworks shows we watch on the Fourth remains an extremely risky business."One of the terrifying adages in the fireworks industry about a bad accident," Plimpton writes, "is not if there will be one, but when."Plimpton knows of what he writes. On Thanksgiving weekend 1983, his good friend Jim Grucci, a member of the world-famous Grucci fireworks clan, was killed along with a co-worker when the Grucci compound in Bellport, N.J., exploded for unknown reasons. Perhaps this explains Ian Gilfillan's reluctance about discussing the dangers of the fireworks business. Gilfillan was willing to talk about the hazards of the trade -- errant sparks from static electricity or compounds that become unstable with a simple change in humidity -- and the rigorous training procedures taken to prevent such occurrences. But as to the possibility of an accident? "It's certainly nothing I want to dwell on for the purposes of the article," he says.In essence, working in a fireworks plant is akin to living on top of a bomb set with an indeterminate fuse. It could go off today, next week or maybe never. It did go off in a plant in Houston in 1953, and the resulting explosion mushroomed over a neighborhood, killing four and causing some witnesses to believe their city was under nuclear attack.END OF AN ERA?James McNulty has an Army tech manual that explains how to make a nuclear blast simulator. "You take a 55 gallon-drum and an M-142 and fill the drum with 105 pounds of smoke powder," he says. "The resulting chimney effect looks just like a nuclear bomb. It's better than stuff that would do real damage -- it's just the looks. It would be a great daytime firework." And, he might add, a great prank, one that might be taken altogether too seriously, if the reaction to the Houston explosion is any indication. On second thought, maybe setting off a phony A-bomb isn't such a great idea. Oh, you thought it was the end of the world? Sorry! Just kidding! Such a stunt would be beyond McNulty, who has loaded mortars, set finales, and lit fuses with some of the best fireworks companies in the world. Still, there's something of a prankster sparkling in the eyes set in this boyish face, a leftover delinquency (remember that M-80?) that supplies a large part of his artistic motivation. It may be as simple as his knowledge that the hobby that has engrossed him since he was 5, the gunpowder-stained packages of Black Cats, Golden Bats and Zebras, the across-the-counter fireworks that have served as a rite of passage for generations (albeit a passage marked by a missing finger here, an eyeball there) are on the verge of being regulated out of existence. "This art has littered the street for 100 years, and no one knows it, unless they're pyrotechnically inclined," he says with the air of an anthropologist. "It's one-way art. It's so loud, nobody heard it."For McNulty, such regulation is like the end of the world, and he has spent a considerable amount of time and energy maintaining his collection of vintage fireworks packaging, both to keep his art going and the legacy of fireworks alive. He's as proud of individual pieces in his collection as he is of his own works. Some are arranged by genre: monkey brand, cock brand, horse brand, mandarin duck, or as he puts it, "A virtual Noah's ark of fireworks." Others are arranged chronologically, like "Crax Boy," a Cubist figure composed of miniature firecracker boxes that resembles duChamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase," except the figure is ascending into the 1930s, a period that would see packaging change from peaceful natural scenes to more warlike settings, thanks to the Sino-Japanese war. Then there are the localized anomalies like "Super Geo'gia Cracker" brand, with packaging that depicts authentic redneck hillbillies -- even though the entire product was manufactured in China.Sometimes, though, the caricatures get lost in the translation. Consider the "Texas Buster," which features a saddle bronc rider attempting to tame a wild stick of dynamite, a la Slim Pickens in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. Except the cowboy has the face of Tang Bick Tong, China's premier fireworks manufacturer.Coyote brand. Yan Kee Boy. Noi Zee Boy. Apache. The Spirit of St. Louis. Atomic. The list is endless, in what appears to be an attempt by the Chinese to meet everyone's needs."They all try to outdo each other," McNulty notes, indicating labels that proclaim a particular brand to be "the best" or "super-charged." "A couple of factories over there blew up because we wanted a bigger bang from our firecrackers." McNulty, who has sold works to Plimpton and other pyrotechnic celebrities and exhibited in the Pacific Asian Art Museum in Pasadena, calls his latest show The Grand Finale of Firework Art. "The message is that our future survival as a human species depends on whether or not we celebrate ourselves as one people under the sun," McNulty says, "or annihilate our existence with what began as fireworks." If that sounds a little heavy for you, well, you can always go out and watch Pyro Spectaculars do their thing. In a very real sense, the message is precisely the same.