By Julia Jacobs
During the early months of the pandemic, the Grucci fireworks business, which has operated from the United States for more than a century, saw the demand for its Independence Day shows plummet at a rate the family hadn’t seen since the Great Depression.
The business put on about a dozen Fourth of July shows in 2020, a fraction of its normal engagements as cities and towns, fearful of COVID, decided against crowding people into public parks to watch red, white and blue peonies explode.
Instead, to keep busy, the Long Island-based company, which was originated in Italy in the 19th century, focused its resources on a different kind of customer: the Department of Defense, which uses the company’s simulated hand grenades to train U.S. troops.
But this year, the demand for fireworks has come roaring 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 holiday — everywhere from Hackensack, New Jersey, to Hawaii — double last year’s number.
“It’s a major logistical undertaking,” said Grucci, whose family business has mounted fireworks displays at presidential inaugurations, Olympic Games and world’s fairs.
And the logistics this year became even more complicated, with global shipping delays, ballooning costs and trucking shortages. Some cities have been forced to cancel their official fireworks shows because of those challenges, coupled with labor shortages, or because of drought and wildfire concerns.
But several major fireworks companies are still seeing booming business, including Pyro Spectaculars, which has staged the Macy’s fireworks show in New York City for most of its history. The company, based in California, is back up to its capacity of about 400 fireworks shows for the Fourth of July holiday, following a 90% decline in that business in 2020.
“We’re thankful and grateful that we’ve made it through the toughest times in our family history,” said Jim Souza, its fourth-generation leader (and no relation to composer John Philip Sousa, whose music is a fireworks show staple).
For the Grucci company, which manufactures part of its inventory at factories in Virginia and upstate New York, the supply-chain challenges have been 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 stocked in 2019 that were left untouched during the first two years of the pandemic.
Luckily, fireworks don’t come with an expiration date.
“You know the old saying ‘Keep your powder dry’?” Grucci said. “As long as you keep the powder dry and the products stored properly, they’ll last pretty much indefinitely.”
In the days leading up to Fourth of July, Grucci deploys about 400 pyrotechnicians to set up fireworks shows in parks and on beachfronts and barges — some not far from the company’s Bellport, New York, headquarters and others farther away, including Las Vegas.
The trucks are mostly loaded at what Grucci calls “undisclosed bunker locations” on Long Island and in Virginia, where inventories are covered with earth to keep them cool. (“We don’t advertise where our explosives are stored,” he said.) The licensed technicians meet the trucks at their assigned locations, where they lay out the wiring according to a detailed script and load the fireworks into fiberglass tubes. Each firework is marked with a number that is linked to an electronic firing system.
Before sunset, the technicians communicate with local police and fire departments to make sure the area where the fireworks land is clear of all revelers. An average-size show will need a fallout zone of a 500-foot diameter, but larger programs might need up to a 2,000-foot diameter.
About 50 of the pyrotechnicians are full-time Grucci employees, but most of the people orchestrating the shows are part-time workers with day jobs.
“For someone who may be an accountant or a mechanic or something like that, they become a performer for that 20 minutes,” Grucci said. “And when the show is over and that audience roars, there’s nothing like it.”
For the Macy’s show Monday, Souza’s company will orchestrate the launch of more than 48,000 fireworks shells from five barges on the East River.
Although the company’s holiday business has returned to 2019 levels, it is a new kind of normal: The cost of shipping containers of fireworks from China has tripled, Souza said, and because of delays, his company is ordering next year’s supply now — several months earlier than before.
The competition for space on shipping containers has been steep, and space for potentially dangerous cargo is even more limited. The situation became so dire last fall that some fireworks companies, including Stephen Vitale’s company, Pyrotecnico, chipped in to charter their own vessels, which could ship a few hundred containers of fireworks each.
“Demand is robust,” said Vitale, whose Pennsylvania-based company is executing about 800 shows for the Fourth of July, using roughly 700 workers who mount multiple shows over the week. “People want to get out, they want to be together and go to fairs and festivals and community celebrations. The demand has outpaced the capacity that the industry really has.”
By May, Grucci’s company had to start turning away new customers requesting shows. The schedule was booked with events ranging from a yacht club in the Hamptons that the company had been servicing for nearly 80 years to a large-scale celebration at Caesars Palace on the Vegas Strip.
Most of their fireworks shows are computer-automated now, Grucci said, though some are still electrical, rather than digital — initiated by pressing buttons manually rather than clicking a mouse to start a preloaded sequence. The technology has progressed significantly: Grucci recalls that his grandfather, Felix Grucci, Sr., would often start a fireworks display with a lit cigar. Then they started using a torch, before those were phased out around the turn of the century.
Still, the process, and the nervous anticipation around it, has remained much the same since his childhood.
“As the sunset goes over the horizon and it starts turning to dark is then when the heart starts to pitter-patter,” Grucci said. “And then comes the ‘3, 2, 1, go.’”