The historic summit convened last October in a suite at the Plaza Hotel. Perhaps only Tommy Walker, the veteran fireworks impresario with five World's Fairs and three Olympic Games to his credit, could have brought it off.
It was no small feat merely to assemble representatives of the first families of fireworks around one table. But then to suggest that the rival clans join forces for the Fourth of July extravaganza to honor the Statue of Liberty's rededication -- that was close to heresy.
The industry is dominated by half a dozen venerable, implacably independent, family-run firms that are, Walker explains, "very unto themselves, and very jealous of one another."
" 'Competitive,' Tommy," suggests Gene Evans, Walker's pyrotechnic designer and aide-de-camp, listening to his boss' account of the meeting.
"I guess that's a better choice of words," Walker agrees. "During the last five or six years, they have started to go into each other's territory, which has added fuel to the fire. West Coast companies have come into the East; East Coast companies have gone west."
Tommy Walker, though, had dealt with most of the families before. As a special events producer extraordinaire, Walker, 63, had hired the Souzas (trade name, "Pyro Spectaculars," out of Rialto, Calif.) for the Los Angeles Olympics. He'd worked with Long Island's Fireworks by Grucci on the Lake Placid Winter Games. He'd produced the Yorktown Bicentennial display with Zambelli Internationale from New Castle, Pa. He'd teamed up with Austin Fireworks Inc. of Wichita, Kan., at the New Orleans World's Fair. Rozzi's Famous Fireworks, from Loveland, Ohio, had supplied shells for various Walker-staged events. Only the Santores, who own Garden State Fireworks, were new to him, though familiar by reputation.
Designated "pyrotechnic producer" by Liberty Weekend executive producer David Wolper, and charged with giving new meaning to the term razzle-dazzle, Walker had an idea for a three-day blitz over New York that would command not only the obvious superlatives -- biggest, brightest, most spectacular -- but would also set standards for artistry. It was too big a job, he declared, for one family.
So as his wife Lucille took notes at the Plaza, Walker -- who normally works out of Southern California, but hasn't been home since Christmas -- proposed that the six assembled companies work together as the All-American Fireworks Team. "Everybody was very cautious, doing a lot of listening and not too much talking," he remembers.
A combination of patriotism and diplomacy helped forge the coalition. "It was sentimental," says George Zambelli, whose parents, immigrants from Naples, both came through Ellis Island. "How many times in your lifetime would you see a production like this? These are big budgets" -- close to $2 million for the weekend's several displays. "Who else could do it?"
It helped that Walker -- known in the industry ever since Walt Disney hired him to stage the opening of Disneyland more than 30 years ago -- was running the show. "I got no problems with him," declares August Santore, who with his brother Nunzio runs the family's 96-year-old firm. "He's not afraid to travel to Japan or Plainfield, New Jersey, to see what he needs. He's not afraid of the hours. He'll stay on top of a job. I don't know of anyone else in the country who's more qualified to do this."
So without much dissent, though with some lingering contentiousness, six firms used to undercutting one another's bids for prized jobs told Walker to count them in.
"I think the Lady was what got them together," Tommy Walker says seriously. "The Statue. We talked about the importance of the celebration, the obligation to do a job that had never been done. I think the pride in being a part of it -- or the fear of not being part of it -- brought them in."
Putting together the All-American Fireworks Team is one of Walker's proudest accomplishments -- no one can remember such an alliance in the past, or imagine the occasion that could create one again in the near future. He assigned the Santores to two concerts, the Boston Pops on the Fourth and the New York Philharmonic in Central Park the next night. The Rozzis drew the daylight display above Op Sail; the Austins will handle closing ceremonies at Giants Stadium. And for the "big show" -- the International Fireworks Spectacular the night of the Fourth -- he selected, amid some grumbling, three firms with previous experience in New York Harbor and expertise in firing from barges: Pyro Spectaculars, Zambelli and Grucci.
The Spectacular itself will constitute Walker's other major achievement -- presuming the production escapes such curses as fog, computer failure or a wayward taxi transmission interfering with the pyrotechnicians' radio link. That's when Walker is going to put his stamp on the future of pyrotechnics. "It is the largest fireworks show ever put on in the U.S.," Walker shrugs, "but the thing that's more important is that this show is truly choreographed to music . . . It's easier to fire up 10,000 shells than to develop an artistic vision . . . This is taking the art further."
For all his years of staging aerial hoopla, the inaugural parades and Super Bowls, Walker still gets excited when he talks about fireworks. He still tells about visiting his grandmother and seeing his first fireworks display, in Powder Horn Park in Minneapolis. "He starts getting into his own sales pitch," comments Evans, who's worked with Walker for almost two decades. "His hands start waving, the tempo of his voice picks up. He's visualizing his show."
Walker calmly explains that he began his planning for the Fourth with composer-arranger Joe Raposo, probably best known as the music man for "Sesame Street." "I sat Joe here for over eight hours, watching videotapes of fireworks, what a tourbillion did, what mine bags and strobe shells looked like. So he could see the effects.
"Most big shows you see are done to 'needle drops' -- take a piece of music from a record and put fireworks to it," Walker continues, still calm. "This music has literally been scored for fireworks. After four minutes or so, people will feel it. We've linked the music and the eye!"
For example -- and sure enough, Walker begins to trace patterns in the air with both arms -- there's the Mexican Hat Dance, one of a series of musical numbers meant to evoke the international theme. "BOM bom bom BOM bom bom BOM," Walker hums, adding two claps at the appropriate moment. "I hope they clap." And as the music blares from several million radios picking up the simulcast, two dragontails will go shimmying up from each of 10 barge clusters forming a necklace around lower Manhattan, timed to punctuate the claps.
"BAM BAM," Walker announces.
There will be tigertails during the opening chords of "Blue Bells." "You're listening to the radio -- dwanggg, dwanggg," Walker explains, trying to sound like a droning bagpipe, "and you're seeing something like a stack of feathers going up" -- his arms ascend. Specially built racks, designed by Evans to hold Roman candles, will sway back and forth during the "dee dee dee dee dee, dum dum, dum dum" of the Blue Danube Waltz. "This has never been done here," Walker says, swaying back and forth himself. "People have never seen it."
The half-hour show will require 250 miles of wire, 42 barges and 20 tons of fireworks, from red peonies and gold flitter chrysanthemums to titanium reports and mid-spoke gold sunflowers. Phil Grucci's computer has already been programmed to backtime the shells, so that a six-inch chrysanthemum that takes 3 1/2 seconds from time of ignition to gain 500 feet in altitude bursts open at the appropriate musical ka-boom. Walker and his key lieutenants will be monitoring obsessively from a special command post on Governors Island, where the East and Hudson rivers converge and where Walker can see the barge necklace and its "pendant," two barges fronting the statue.
He'll have a radar command center on a large tug offshore to keep the barges in position, the master controls for his 24-channel tape machines close at hand, computer-synchronized airlinks radioing commands to each position, and the ability to override the electronic commands by voice if something goes kaflooey.
And something might. For the Olympic Games ceremonies, "we rehearsed everything -- the planes, the blimps, everything except the real athletes." This time, Walker has scheduled technical rehearsals only. "We'll play the music, hear the cues, we'll check the sound and make sure our frequencies aren't being interrupted by the FBI or one of the twenty or thirty thousand boats in the harbor." But whether the 8,000 shells in the finale go off as planned will only become clear during the finale itself.
Ah, the finale -- there's something that makes Walker practically levitate with anticipation. He's planned several finales, actually. The 8,000 shells fire first, then 180 parachute shells "that just hang in the sky, but you don't see the parachutes, so people wonder how they're hanging up there. Then everyone's clapping and screaming," Walker says, clapping, "and you hear, out in the distance, a voice coming back at you, a song, a chorus." He's reaching into soprano registers. " 'Li-ber-ty, Lady Li-ber-ty' . . . Musically it starts to build . . . Then Gene puts a halo -- 100 shells -- up around Liberty Island. Then a 40-second barrage of pure silver, 4,004 shells, all one color, from the barges.
"Then we fill the sky! Over a million candlepower in illumination, pure silvery white. A look you've just never seen anywhere."
Walker takes a breath. He smiles. "You could turn out all the lights in New York," he says, "and people could see to walk home."