The Explosive History of Fireworks' "First Family"

John Roach
for National Geographic News
July 4 weekend, 2003
This Fourth of July, Split Comets will sparkle, Willows will weep, Palm Trees will sprout, Chrysanthemums will flower, and Salutes will boom over hundreds of thousands of awestruck spectators in cities across the United States.

Many of these firework shows, including the biggest budgeted west of the Mississippi at Dallas Trinity Fest 2003, will be produced by Fireworks by Grucci, "America's First Family of Fireworks."

"Fireworks by Grucci is one of the nation's premier pyrotechnics firms," said Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, an industry trade group.

The list of events lit up by the company is impressive: six consecutive presidential inaugurations beginning with Ronald Reagan; the Statue of Liberty Centennial in 1986; the Lake Placid, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City Olympic Games; and World's Fairs in Knoxville, Tennessee, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Taejon, Korea, to name a few.

The all time favorite for Philip Butler, a senior vice president and husband to the company's namesake daughter Donna Grucci Butler, was the show the company produced for the centennial of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1983.

"Every New Yorker has a special place in their heart for the Brooklyn Bridge and we added fireworks to it and it created a memory for everyone that was there and saw it and they will remember it for the rest of their days," he said.

This Fourth of July the company will produce major shows in places from Delray Beach, Florida, to Dallas, Texas, to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. An average show that lights up the night sky for just under a half hour costs U.S. $30,000. The biggest productions cost $100,000 or more.

But spectators validate the production cost with their priceless "wows" as they watch the reds, greens, blues, yellows, and gold shower down from the sky.

Marjorie Ferrer, coordinator for the Fabulous 4th at Delray Beach in Florida, said they have used the Gruccis for the past six years. "Aside from the beautiful show—the fabulous finale is just wonderful—every year we try to change the show, mix it up, and they are always willing to work with us no matter what we want to do."

At the first year of the first Dallas Trinity Fest in 2002, an estimated 300,000 people showed up to watch the Gruccis' show, said Carol Reed, producer of the event.

"First year events usually take ten years to develop but since ours was highlighting the Trinity River Development Project, we wanted to kind of jump ten years ahead of time," she said. "One of the best ways to do it was to get the best name in fireworks."

Italian Roots

Fireworks by Grucci traces its pyrotechnic roots to Bari, Italy, where in 1850 Angelo Lanzetta, the great, great grandfather to the namesake of the company today, Felix Grucci Sr., is thought to have been an apprentice to an Italian fireworks family.

"The Chinese are credited with the invention [of fireworks], but the Chinese used them for medicinal purposes, for scaring away evil spirits," said Butler. "The Italians brought fireworks to the fore in terms of celebration."

In 1870 Lanzetta immigrated to New York via Ellis Island and passed on the art to his son, Anthony. Then, in 1923 Anthony Lanzetta's nephew Grucci Sr. joined the business as an apprentice.

In 1940 Grucci Sr. married Concetta DiDio, who oversees company operations today. Their three children, Donna, James, and Felix Jr., have all helped build the business over the years. Today Felix Grucci Jr. is a United States Congressman for New York. James' son Phil Grucci is the executive vice president, working alongside Donna and Phil Butler.

The company's headquarters are in Brookhaven, New York, and a second pyrotechnics manufacturing facility is located in Radford, Virginia.

"We manufacture what we make best, the Italian shells," said Butler. In addition, the company designs and produces firework shows that have delighted millions around the world.

Butler says that after 30 years in the fireworks business the closest he can come to explaining the human attraction to fireworks is that we have a primal urge, a primal attraction to fire.

"If you go on a camping trip you must have a campfire and you are mesmerized by it," he said. "That is the same attraction we put in the sky with colors and it does the same thing. During the show people are mesmerized."

Firework Shows

Heckman considers firework shows as an art form with the sky as the pyrotechnicians' palette. Modern productions are tightly coordinated with simulcast music so that the blasts, sparkles, and weeps of the fireworks keep rhythm to the music that fills the air.

"A fireworks display is a way for a creator, or a designer, to demonstrate his craft and his passion through sparks and fire," said Heckman.

Modern pyrotechnicians can program the whole show from a computer that will tell them what type of firework will explode at what altitude, how long it hang in the air, and what sort of dressing should be fired beneath to fill the visual horizon.

Butler said this computer technology will allow Fireworks by Grucci to unveil a patented display this fall at a National Football League game in Washington D.C.: a 1,000-foot (305-meter) long American flag.

"Remember when you were a kid and you saw the American flag in fireworks displays? Well that was a set piece in the ground," said Butler. "You might remember a flag, but it was on the ground. But now with a computer chip you will be able to put a flag in the sky."

The proprietary technology uses a computer chip to fire a shell at exactly the right time, to the exact height and location, and to display at just the right time to behave a like a pixel in a digital image, such as that on a television screen. Each pixel in this case is a firework shell.

More innovations by the Grucci family are sure to come in the years ahead. Felix Grucci Jr.'s son Felix is currently in school but is preparing for a future in the fireworks industry, said his uncle Philip.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.