He's tall and thin in a tight white jumpsuit, with a brown mustache and wavy brown hair combed neatly over his high forehead. His name is Bruce Bassman -- pyrotechnic, choreographer. Flamboyant and 42, a former Broadway lighting director and one-time baton-twirler, he frets over the whoosh and swish of the rockets, the chorus line of comet tails and twinkling stars, even though there aren't enough pastels to suit him, and the booming theme from "Star Wars" scares him -- but he'd rather die than use disco.
"I'm doing my own shtick," says the Bob Fosse of fireworks.
"Choreographers make dancers move to the music or express the music or carry out design concepts," he says, sitting on a park bench by the Mall discussing his design for the fireworks display tonight at the Washington Monument. "I do the same thing with fireworks. I take a piece of music and analyze it and try to determine what kinds of things it evokes, what kinds of textures, what kind of colors, what kind of shapes. Is it funny? Is it active? Is it beautiful? Is it twinkling? Is it snappy? Is it silly?"
Bassman has done a number of displays here, including one two weeks ago.
"in the rain. That was very thrilling. Nancy Reagan was upset about that. She called the Parks Department. She wanted to know what the noise was. Nobody told her. We're close to the White House, and it was rattling the windows there. I was secretly pleased that I could wake her up. Now that's power. When you can wake up the First Lady."
The White House, however, said the Reagans were awake and reading; they were not disturbed but merely curious, and called a staff member in to see what the occasion was.
Bassman returns to the subject of choreographing a display.
"Is it "Stars and Stripes Forever"? That would seem to me to be red, white and blue although many fireworks companies will use lots of green in that. You will never see that in one of my shows. . . .
"I pick every shell by hand. There are 3,175 shells in this show. It is enormous. It is larger than three normal fireworks shows would be on the Fourth of July. And every one of them has passed through my hands. I pick it up. I read it. I say where it's going to go. So you will not see green in my patriotic numbers."
He crosses his legs.
"We have a "Yankee Doodle" in this show and it's a Boston Pops version and it's funny. That's the piece I'm going to do for the kids. So I have a little diddly-diddly thing that runs around." He waves his hands. "And things that go WHEEEE and whizzers and hummingbirds and mystic butterflies and bees and birds and things like that. They come with other little bits of other colors mixed in . When you get to that area, it's okay to let go. Most of it's red, white and blue. The strong "Yankee Doodle Dandy" parts are red, white and blue. But then when it does doodly-doodly-doo there's green and gold and white glitter."
A break with tradition?
"Well you have to. You have to allow yourself some flexibility."
Bassman says he's a maverick in the fireworks business, a New Yorker who is Jewish. "Usually they're Italian and they come from a small place, some place away from the people so they don't blow them up."
He says he got his start from the Zambelli Internationale Fireworks Co. in New Castle, Pa., and is doing the Washington show with their cooperation.
Is he making more money in fireworks than he did in the theater?
"You make more money cleaning toilets than you do in the theater."
He had a successful career, he says, but left because he was bored with his colleagues' egos.
He uncrosses his legs.
"I'll tell you a story. My father was a fireman. He was a New York City fireman and he was killed in the line of duty when I was about 7. So there was always a strange thing with light and fire and all the mysteries of campfires. I wasn't crazy about fireworks and blowing things up. I never have been. But the beauty of candles, of sparklers and that kind of thing always got me going."
After graduating from Emerson College in Boston, he became a stage manager and lighting designer in New York before bursting on the fireworks scene in 1978.
"That year Macy's had trouble with their fireworks display. It came out all disco. Macy's freaked. Not only is it awful music, but it's very boring to shoot fireworks to disco. So they came to my house and said, "Can't you do anything about this?" I said, "Why don't we use Mahalia Jackson's "My Country 'Tis of Thee," and why don't we follow it up with this classical piece and throw a march in at the end?" They liked it."
He gave them more ideas. "I said, "This number should be in pastels." Well, there aren't any pastel fireworks, but they wrote it all down. Some colors are so faint that they classify as pastels but nothing is labeled pastel blue."
The next year, Macy's hired him as a fireworks consultant. He wrote the script, and sent off the order to the fireworks company. They came back all wrong. He didn't know the color codes.
"Then the great Zambelli -- also known as Boom-Boom Zambelli in the business -- took some kind of mysterious liking to me. I think he realized I could bring a new dimension to the business. Not only his business, but to advance the art form."
People in the fireworks business resist change, he says."If it worked okay in the last two centuries," Bassman deadpans, "it will probably work today. That kind of attitude."
Zambelli, he says, "let me loose." He learned as much as he could, testing individual shells at $40 a pop, studying the colors and synchronizing them with pieces of music.
He demonstrates, humming a tune, his hands stabbing the air as passers-by stop and stare. "I'll try to get shells to go DA-DA-DA-DA, DA-DA-DA-DA, BOOM BOOM. I'll try to get two booms up there."
A fireworks fuse burns at 65 feet a second."It's not one of these things that goes SSSSSS. It goes SHOOO-SHOOO-SHOOO. It's alive. It jumps. It races around. It's easy to see why the Chinese thought there were spirits in them."
Fireworks were used then in religious ceremonies.
"I see myself as a high priest," says Bassman. "I offer these things up."
He unfolds tonight's ground plan and spreads it on the gravel path.
"Here's the one for "Theme From 2001." I can't sing that one too well. How does it go?"
The interview hums the opening bars of "Thus Spake Zarathustra."
"That's it. DA . . . DA . . . DA . . . DA-DAAAAAAAAH. DA DA DA DAAAAAAAA dee dee deedeee. And then two finales."
He's getting into it.
"Someone has to," he says, brown eyes widening.
But he adds that his biggest concern is safety. He says he's never had an accident. Sometimes he gets premonitions before a show, and calls his men together to warn them to be especially careful.
"Fireworkers like to be close to the fireworks. It's part of the excitement of being real men. I don't like that. I like to be far away.
There are no women fireworkers, he says.
Fireworks is an Italian, conservative, sexist business. I am trying to change that."
When he's not designing fireworks shows, he does seasonal decorations, for hotel lobbies in New York. "Flashing pumpkins at Halloween, Christmas trees. My Christmas trees have been in major magazines.
"I'm connected into life by marking moments. I celebrate Bastille Day."
"No, with French food and French champagne. I have people over and we talk French. I like celebrations.
"That's what separates one day from another. Otherwise, life is one long, colorless line. We are given holidays. It's necessary to have a time of peace and a time of activity. A time of fireworks and a time of quiet."
And when it's all over, he says, when $50,000 worth of dye and explosives are lying on the ground in a charred heap, sure, he feels a letdown.
"There must be a post-show letdown. Otherwise, you have not had a catharsis."