During the early months of the pandemic, Grucci’s fireworks company, which has operated out of the United States for more than a century, saw demand for its Independence Day shows plummet at a rate the family hadn’t seen since the Great Depression.
The company ran about a dozen Fourth of July shows in 2020, a fraction of its normal business as cities and towns, fearful of Covid, decided not to crowd people into public parks to watch red, white and blue peonies explode.
Instead, to keep busy, the Long-Island-based company, which originated in Italy in the 1800s, focused its resources on a different kind of customer: the Ministry of Defense, which uses the company’s simulated hand grenades to train American troops.
But this year, demand for fireworks has bounced back to prepandemic levels, according to Phil Grucci, the company’s chief executive, and the leaders of other fireworks outfits that stage professional shows. The Grucci company has booked more than 70 shows around the holidays — everywhere from Hackensack, NJ to Hawaii — double the number last year.
“It’s a big logistics company,” said Grucci, whose family business has set off fireworks at presidential inaugurations, Olympics and world fairs.
And logistics got even more complicated this year, with worldwide shipping delays, hot air balloon rides and truck shortages. Some cities have been forced to cancel their official fireworks displays because of those challenges, coupled with labor shortages, or because of drought and wildfire concerns.
But several major fireworks companies are still seeing business booming, including Pyro Spectaculars, which has hosted the Macy’s fireworks show in New York City for most of its history. The California-based company has returned to its capacity of approximately 400 fireworks displays for the July 4 holiday, following a 90 percent decline in that business in 2020.
“We are grateful and thankful that we got through the most difficult times in our family history,” said Jim Souza, the fourth-generation leader (and no relation to the composer John Philip Sousa, whose music is a staple of any fireworks display. .)
For the Grucci company, which produces some of its inventory at plants in Virginia and upstate New York, the supply chain challenges were less acute than for other companies that ship the vast majority of their products from overseas. And Grucci had a safety net to rely on: an inventory of fireworks stored in 2019 that went untouched for the first two years of the pandemic.
Fortunately, fireworks don’t have an expiration date.
“You know the old saying, ‘Keep your powder dry’?” said Grucci. “As long as you keep the powder dry and store the products properly, they will last almost indefinitely.”
In the days leading up to July 4, Grucci will deploy about 400 pyrotechnicians to set up fireworks displays in parks, beachfronts and barges — some not far from Bellport, NY, the company’s headquarters and others further afield, including Las Vegas.
The trucks are usually loaded at what Grucci calls “unknown bunker sites” on Long Island and Virginia, where fireworks stocks are covered with soil to keep them cool. (“We don’t advertise where our explosives are stored,” he said.) The certified technicians meet the trucks at their assigned locations, where they lay the wiring according to a detailed script and load the fireworks into cylindrical fiberglass tubes. Each firework is marked with a number associated with an electronic firing system.
Before sunset, the technicians communicate with the local police and fire department to ensure that the area where the fireworks land is clear of all revelers. An average sized show will need a rainfall zone of 500 feet in diameter, but larger programs may need up to 2,000 feet in diameter.
About 50 of the pyrotechnicians are full-time Grucci employees, but most of the people who orchestrate the shows are part-time workers with day jobs.
“For someone who can be an accountant or a mechanic or something like that, they become an artist for those 20 minutes,” Grucci said. “And when the show is over and that audience is roaring, there’s nothing better.”
For Monday’s Macy’s show, Souza’s company will orchestrate the launch of more than 48,000 firecrackers from five barges on the East River.
Although the company’s holiday business has returned to 2019 levels, it’s a new kind of normal: The cost of shipping containers of fireworks from China has tripled, Souza said, and due to delays, his company is now ordering next year’s delivery. – several months earlier than before.
Competition for space on sea containers has been fierce and space for potentially hazardous cargo is even more limited. The situation became so dire in the fall of last year that some fireworks companies, including Stephen Vitale’s company, Pyrotecnico, chartered their own ships, each capable of carrying several hundred containers of fireworks.
“Demand is robust,” said Vitale, whose Pennsylvania-based company runs about 800 shows for the July 4 holiday, with about 700 employees putting on multiple shows during the week. “People want to get out, they want to be together and go to fairs and festivals and community parties. The demand is greater than the capacity the industry actually has.”
In May, Grucci’s company had to start refusing new customers requesting shows. Their schedule was packed with events ranging from a yacht club in the Hamptons that the company has maintained for nearly 80 years to a large-scale party at Caesars Palace on the Vegas Strip.
Most of their fireworks displays are now computer-automated, Grucci said, although some are still electric rather than digital — initiated by manually pressing buttons rather than clicking a mouse to start a preloaded sequence. Technology has advanced considerably: Grucci remembers that his grandfather – Felix Grucci, Sr. – often a fireworks display started with a lit cigar. Then they started using a torch, before being phased out at the turn of the century.
Yet the process, and the nervous anticipation surrounding it, has remained much the same since childhood.
“As the sunset goes over the horizon and it starts to get dark, the heart starts beating,” Grucci said. “And then comes the ‘3, 2, 1, go.'”