Something like the rocket's red glare flashes over George Zambelli's well-fed banker's face, and then vanishes. The powdery smile of America's fireworks king won't ignite. Instead, pain muscles its way in, a pitiable wince triggered by his loss of the greatest soar-show ever sold, the super sparkler, the big fuse -- the July 4th dazzler tonight at the Washington Monument.
Why, George Zambelli, Marco Polo of the Mall for 16 of 17 years until last July, will you be shooting your shimmering stuff at Mount Vernon College tonight?Why, achingly near downriver, will those upstart Gruccis be firing for the federal government once again?
"It appears that their presentation had to be better," he mumbles at last about his paisan competitors, not believing a word of it. Fred Schwartz, chairman of the Technical Evaluation Panel that chose the Gruccis for the National Park Service, thinks Zambelli should believe it.
"He's right," explains the Department of Transportation lawyer. "He didn't get it because the Gruccis had the best proposal." Schwartz calls the Zambelli proposal "also suberb" but says the Gruccis "took the time and trouble to explain explicity what they wanted to do and what it meant for the Fourth of July."
Italian families and fireworks have been going together longer than eggplant and parmesan. Like Italian families more frequently chronicled in our time, "le familie pirotechniche" compete vigorously for business. Back in 1749, a few of the restless Ruggieris -- their descendants grabbed off that missing year in the Zambelli reign -- ventured to Paris to help it celebrate France's TKO a century before in the Thirty Years War. Rival French pyrotechnicians argued with the Ruggieris about who would light up first. Unable to agree, the stalemated competitors lit their displays simultaneously. The explosion killed 40 people, injured 300, and severely trimmed the pyrotechnical population of Europe.
George, as competitive at 54 as when he built his first "star" out of paste, powder, paper, and twine, describes todays rivalries as gentlemanly by comparison: "We'll say 'Come stai,' and all that stuff when we meet."
The Zambelli story in America began in 1893, when George's grandfather Antonio emigrated from Casserta, near Naples, to New Castle, Pa. The western Pennsylvanian community attracted many Italians in the fireworks trade and at one time boasted seven fireworks companies and 25 percent of the country's fireworks manufacturers. The 200 acres of hillside there that now contain the main Zambelli Internationale plant and 60 manufacturing blockhouses testify to which family survived that contest.
Although George Zambelli won't discuss how much the company rakes in each year, repeating over and over that "we do a big job," no one in business challenges Zambelli Internationale's status as the highest volume producer in the country with more than 1,000 shows annually. The more than 1 million rockets and other devices it sells go kaboom anywhere from Kuwait to Kansas. George himself says the industry gauges size by the amount of one's insurance premiums -- Zambelli wins that one too.
Fireworks fans all know that the trade remains the last refuge of slaphappy alliteration. Whether the charcoal-treated contraptions are carried to New Castle from far away places like Spain and Hong Kong, or constructed on the premises under the supervision of brothers Louis and Joseph, they abide by the tradition. Among the Zambelli's contributions to the world poetry are Towering Toros, Sicilian Sizzlers, Bavarian Bursts and Shimmering Shamrocks. A recent imported shell from Hong Kong checks in as Yang Bang.
No family business could survive without kids eager to push Mom and Dad into early retirement. So it was with George when he returned home after earning a degree in business and accounting at Duquesne University.
"I said, 'Dad, what do we do now?'" George recalls. Dad handed over the business and George has been president since 1951. His son George Jr., an ophthalamologist, takes off a few weeks each year to pitch in. Daughter Marci, a former Miss Pennsylvania, works for the company. Daughter Donnalou, a dentist, sometimes helps. And wife Connie, who joins George on his business travels, "does a great job."
George Zambelli can use all the help he can get. In the space of half an hour, the refrain "I'm too busy" punctuates his conversation at least 20 times. His dark, vested, pin-striped suit, and conservatively striped shirt and tie send off rich "business" signals to anyone expecting a happy-go-lucky guy just off the boat. He's too busy to go to the yearly Pyrotechnical Association convention, too busy to compete in the Monte Carlo fireworks competition won by the Gruccis last year ("even though the festival people insisted") and too busy to worry about creating records -- though he enjoys a "Guinness Book of World Records" notch for launching fireworks at the highest altitude: atop the U.S. Steel building in Chicago.
What he's not too busy for are the serious aspects of the serious business of a pyrotechnist -- fighting what he calls oppressive governmental regulation by Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco bureaucrats ("they force you to keep records that aren't pertinent"), maintaining stringent safety precautions (Sam Caimano, George's brother-in-law, died in an explosion in 1950), and keeping customers big (kuwait) and small (Walter Anneberg once a year on his wife's birthday) happy.
Even to an interview, George Zambelli comes equipped with Zambelli pens, Zambelli shirts, and Zambelli-endorsed candies. If he can't sell a show, he's at least going to sell somebody new on George Zambelli. George just doesn't want to slow down, and that's why the Mt. Vernon College show, with just 10 percent of the budget of the Washington show, can't sate his appetite. Sure, he talks about there always being "another show to do" and allusions to how fireworks buff George Plimpton may have helped the Gruccis, and the quick smile in noting how one of their giant bombs bombed, makes it clear that George Zambelli wants back into the Palace of pyrotechinques.
And for how long? Zambelli, who used to follow Karl Wallenda around on tour and do his fireworks, likes the idea of going down on the job. He tells the fireworks version of the Wallenda saga, the story of a Wilmering, Pa., fireworks commissioner who, during the community's final show, fired his last shell and "fell right over, had a heart attack, and died.
"What a glorious way of going," marveled Zambelli. "Fell right over the mortar."