NEW CASTLE, PA. -- When half a million upturned faces are lit up tonight at the Mall by silver slivers of light streaking across the sky, here at the end of a pothole-ridden road 400 miles away, in a setting that looks like a crude cross between an aging war shelter and a fun-filled summer camp, more than 40 weary workers will have unfastened their flashpowder-stained aprons or switched off their typewriters and heaved a sigh of relief.
For more than 1,000 hours, these employees of Vitale Fireworks have been on a war footing to ensure the 32-minute fiesta of lights at the Washington Monument is not blemished by even a flickering second of glitch.
The New Castle factory where they work is scattered over 50 acres of unkempt hedges and overgrown grass rudely crisscrossed by rusty lampposts and muddy roads. Here in ramshackle buildings with peeling paint and crumbling walls, the Vitale people fill shells, insert fuses, string them into chains and then carefully wrap them into cardboard boxes, ready for shipment to cities from Boca Raton, Fla., to Covington, Ohio.
Sixty-eight years after Constantino Vitale, a young immigrant from Naples, moved his fireworks company from Chicago Heights, Ill., to New Castle, his grandchildren and their children who manage the company are not concerned about the weathered buildings. In fact, they say the rundown structures are elegant testimonies to the timeless appeal of fireworks, the continuing public fascination for streamers of light even in today's world of glitzy electronic images.
The Vitale Fireworks Display Co. Inc. arranges more than 1,100 shows every year, but none ignites as much challenge as Washington's Fourth of July display. The company has had the Washington contract since 1986, when the National Park Service decided that Vitale offered "a better bang for the buck" than its predecessor and cross-town rival, Zambelli Internationale, according to Earle Kittleman, spokesman for the Park Service.
"It is the most prestigious show for us," said Stephen Vitale, the 24-year-old general manager of Vitale Fireworks and great-grandson of the founder. "We are proud to be a part of it and we do our best to make it as spectacular as possible."
According to Kittleman, this year's show will be shorter than last year's 45-minute display because "we realized that the fireworks last year seemed to go on and on, and found that we could have the same amount of excitement in a 32-minute show for a lesser amount of money."
And though this year's budget has been cut to $75,000 from last year's $90,000, Vitale insisted tonight's show would be no damp squib. "We will be using shells and effects that the people in Washington haven't seen before," he said with confidence. "In one word, it will be awesome."
His 58-year-old aunt's face lighted up with a childlike glee as she remembered the first time the Vitales were asked to do the Washington show. "It was and has always been like putting on a ballet show except that the dancers were above, painting the sky," said Mary Jo Rossman, Constantino Vitale's granddaughter and the company's corporate secretary for 17 years. "Seeing that spectacular display in the sky made me really love the country."
Rossman also praised the "family unity" that has fueled the growth of the company. She worked at the factory offices during the summer after her high school graduation, helping her father. And when her brother, Rocco Vitale, the president of the company, took over, it was "a dream come true to see the ambition being carried on by the members of the family and the employees," she said.
Company employees, sitting on benches and stringing shells or lugging hefty boxes into the huge pickup trucks, agree that though the work can be strenuous, there are compensations.
Joseph Conti, a former technician at a steel manufacturing plant, started working summers at the factory in 1950. When the slump hit the steel industry seven years ago, he joined Vitale Fireworks full time. "There was more money in the steel mill but I like it a lot here. The Vitales take good care of us and it's like being a part of the big family," Conti said.
It all began in 1922 when, after 33 years in Italy as a fireworks manufacturer, Constantino Vitale brought his bundles of dazzle to the New World and passed them on to his four sons. Those were the days after the First World War, and postwar euphoria helped business boom. The only significant interruption came during the 1940s, when World War II forced the Vitales to divert their energies from sparklers and fountains to TNT igniters and flares.
To this day, the legacy of the founding Vitale is cherished by his heirs. "Most of the recipes that we use even now are the ones my great-grandfather developed," Stephen Vitale explained, scooping up a handful of the dull, grayish-brown nuggets that ride inside the shells that light up the darkened skies. But Vitale, who was initiated into the family business 10 years ago by accompanying his father to choreographed shows and displays, admitted that "we are constantly changing and learning new ways to adapt to the change as more people are getting into the business and the costs are rising."
It is not only skyrocketing costs and the increased competition that have sparked the need for slicker shows. What started as a rambunctious glitter-and-bang display has developed into a complex affair brought about by the "constant process of evolution in the world of fireworks," said Rocco Vitale, the father of Stephen Vitale.
In the 1920s, the shows had a distinctly European flavor with a heavy emphasis on the ornate: loud reports, ground shows, decorated facades, huge stages, large fountains and grand finales. Also, the technology dictated that fireworks be fired manually. "You had a group of launching people who used mortars. There were several periods of silence and darkness as they hustled to load and reload," said Rocco Vitale.
Today, the demand for variety has led the Vitales to find ways to display their time-honored skills in a new light. "The crowd is still fascinated with fireworks but they want to see a difference. It's just like people getting used to color television. They want less and less gaps of darkness, and more and more momentum in their shows. We have to introduce more excitement into the program," explained Rocco Vitale.
"Now, we have to compete with MTV," said John Conkling, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, the industry's trade organization. "The principal change over the years has been the increased sophistication in the methods of firing, and this has helped us to ensure that the shows move much faster."
Synchronization of the display with a musical score and electronically controlled firing of shells also make it easier to create unique forms and patterns, Rocco Vitale said.
About half of the products that the Vitales will ignite tonight are from the Far East, primarily China, Taiwan and Japan. In fact, China, where fireworks were invented during the 10th century, is the largest supplier of fireworks to the United States. "The manufacturing of fireworks is labor-intensive and the products from these countries are more economical," said Rocco Vitale. But the artistry and unique aesthetic forms from the Far East also make these imports attractive.
"They have a flair for designing and replicating flowers like dahlias, peonies and chrysanthemums and hence most of the shells they use are effect-type," said Vitale. The Chinese names for their fireworks displays are equally creative -- "Prosper Spring Over Grassland," "Blossom After Thunder" and "Grapes Over the Vineyard," for example.
These themes, along with the indigenous designs, are synchronized to make up the final display. In the absence of rehearsals, the patterns play in the minds before they reach the skies.
"It is very much like putting on a stage production," said Rocco Vitale, architect of the show's design. "There is an opening, an interlude and the grand finale. And that's the way we construct our shows. Also, we include a 'mid-finale' to avoid the lull."
But unlike a stage production, this visual drama is played beneath the skies, and the Vitales are wary. "The biggest risk that we run is Mother Nature. Fireworks and water don't mix," said Stephen Vitale.
There is no rain in the weather charts for tonight. But if the forecasters are wrong and the heavens do break loose, the Vitales want Washington to rest assured. "We have it in the contract," said Vitale. "If we can't do it on the 4th, we will do it on the evening of the 5th."