By Karen Brandon
SAN DIEGO - It does not take much to generate fireworks anymore.
A bar mitzvah, a high school homecoming, or the opening of a new Target store will do.
"It's fireworks everywhere all the time," observed Jim Souza, president of Pyro Spectaculars Inc., a five-generation-old family business that began in Portugal, wound up in Rialto, Calif., and is considered one of the industry's leaders. "When it comes to fireworks, everybody is a little kid and loves them."
Annual use of fireworks has more than doubled since 1990 when the American Pyrotechnics Association first began keeping track of such matters. A key reason for the growth is the presence of fireworks displays at events momentous - the arrival of a new millennium - to the mundane - the arrival of another summer Wednesday or Saturday night in Chicago that is the excuse for Navy Pier's show over Lake Michigan.
Business at Pyro Spectaculars illustrates the change. The company, which has choreographed fireworks displays for the Olympic Games, Rolling Stones concerts and the Chinese New Year, produces about 500 or so Fourth of July shows a year and about 1,500 shows for other occasions.
Though their starring performance comes at Fourth of July celebrations, fireworks have never been confined to Independence Day. Disneyland has launched nightly fireworks every summer since 1956, the year after it opened, and the White Sox have been sending shells skyward whenever a player hits a home run since Al Smith's two-run homer on May 1, 1960. "Still not as often as we'd like," lamented Bob Grim, the team's marketing director.
The handful of Italian and Portuguese family-run businesses who are considered to be the master architects of the United States' most elaborate fireworks productions began their work in the old countries, launching rockets on days celebrating Catholic saints and feasts.
But now, fireworks are the staple of birthdays of the rich and famous (Billy Joel, Malcolm Forbes), fundraisers (the Las Vegas Hospital), and, thanks to technological innovations, indoor events (the ritual, pre-game introductions of the Chicago Bulls' five starting players to airbursts and whistling fountains).
Fireworks opened the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Shanghai and closed "Cats" on Broadway. Last weekend a fireworks rainbow announced the temporary move of the Museum of Modern Art from Manhattan to Queens.
When Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston got married two years ago, the couple launched a fireworks display of hearts and smiley faces exploding in the Malibu sky to the music of Radiohead. And the show is likely to be reprised because a BridesMade.com celebrity auction of the Pitt-Aniston fireworks display had won a bid, at last check, of $25,000. So who could blame Amanda Ritter, 25 of St. Johns, Mich., for wanting a firework-studded ending to her own wedding in October? After seeing fireworks at a cousin's wedding, Ritter and finance Roger Smith came up with their own plans. They intend to leave the church through a gauntlet of light, provided by the sparklers their 300 wedding guests will hold. "We'll make sure they're far enough away so they don't ignite my hair," said Ritter, who also plans to have some firework "fountains" launched from her in-laws' home after the reception.
When the class of 2002 graduated from Aquinas High School in San Bernardino, Calif., fireworks commemorated the moment.
"They held it at night for that reason," said Cheryl Samperio, whose daughter, Andrea, was among the 85 graduates. Samperio, who works at Pyro Spectaculars, said high school homecomings have become like "a little mini Fourth of July," with lots of high schools raising money to put the names of their kings and queens in fireworks ground displays.
With patriotism soaring in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the American Pyrotechnics Association says fireworks sales have been brisk.
No one really knows how many fireworks displays take place nationally this year or any other. But Philip Butler, producer for Fireworks by Grucci, the Long Island, N.Y., business that is run by a family that calls itself the nation's first family of fireworks, has come up with his own best estimate: Some 9,000 displays that would fall into the "official" category because they have obtained fire permits for their Fourth of July shows, and an equal number that would be considered unofficial because they have not.
Fireworks are a standard marketing device at sporting events, used to boost turnout and keep people in their seats until the bitter end of a game, and a standard status symbol among the well-to-do.
"The larger budgets come from corporate America, not government," Butler observed. Fireworks by Grucci has produced the fireworks shows for six consecutive presidential inaugurations, anniversaries of the Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty, as well as Saturday's MoMA gala.
"Our biggest fan base is in the Hamptons," he said. "If you have money enough to buy a Maserati, you wouldn't buy a Yugo. These are the people who can afford the best."
The best, for what Grucci calls a "state-of-the-art world class" program, costs a minimum $75,000. This will get spectacular fireworks that are launched and perfectly synchronized to music thanks to computers. Recalling Malcolm Forbes' 70th birthday display, Butler said, "His whole theme was Scottish. I remember that being the only time we did fireworks to bagpipes."
Rose Pacitto, owner of Vineland Fireworks Inc. in New Jersey, said this is nothing new among the rich.
"If you've got money, you could do anything you want to do with fireworks," she said. "But the average Joe can't afford to spend thousands of dollars on something that's going up in smoke."
© 2002, Chicago Tribune.
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.