By Annette Hinkle
Fireworks are as American as apple pie and baseball, and like those other traditions most often associated with Fourth of July.
But on Saturday, as part of HarborFrost, a pyrotechnics show will be offered at the end of Long Wharf at 5:45 p.m. Fireworks in February? It’s not commonplace, but because the show will be presented by Fireworks by Grucci, the Brookhaven firm whose name is synonymous with fantastic displays — it’s likely to generate a fair amount of winter oohs and ahhs.
Grucci producer Philip Butler admits that is unusual for his firm to offer fireworks at this time of year, but he expects it to be a great experience for those willing to brave the cold.
When you think about it, there are a lot of benefits to winter fireworks —the sun sets early, so the show can begin well before dinner time. And let’s face it, after the winter we’ve had so far, a lot of us could use a bit of cheering. That, Butler says, is something Grucci can surely do. While he stresses this will be a relatively small show by Grucci standards — a City Class program running around six minutes — Butler promises it will be a good one.
“In this case I’m thinking an all white scene over the water would be very dramatic,” he says. “In the winter it’s that much more stunning.”
Though firework displays here are viewed as a fairly literal interpretation of “the bombs bursting in air” referenced in the Star Spangled Banner, their origin can actually be traced to 12th century China when they were purportedly invented to scare away evil spirits. It was another Chinese invention – gun powder — that gave the fireworks the lift they needed to break the bonds of earth.
Today, the goal is not to scare people away, but bring them together, and Butler explains that no matter the size of the show, there’s a certain protocol.
“Much like any entertainment, there’s always an opening,” explains Butler. “And then the program settles into scenes and those may be of different colors — red, white, green or gold. Then there’s a finale. ”
The color of each individual firework is a matter of chemistry and the different metal salts used determine the specific colors that are seen in the sky.
“Red, white, blue, green, yellow — those are the five primary colors and other hues are combined exactly as they are with paint,” says Butler. “To make red, you use a compound of strontium and your blues are copper compounds. The green is barium. The chemicals are of a fine baby powder constituency to make stars, which are the individual points of light.”
“Purple is the most difficult color to make, and almost always the most expensive,” explains Butler who has found that despite the endless color possibilities, white remains a crowd favorite.
“It’s so stunningly beautiful,” he says. “That’s why it’s always been popular. All white scenes draw the most ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs.’”
Though designs have changed, the practical realities of getting fireworks into the sky hasn’t, and in order to launch and break the shells, black powder (gun powder without the graphite) is used.
“Fireworks are almost ageless, having stayed exactly the same in the manufacturing and display mode,” explains Butler. “What has changed is the firing sequence.”
That, explains Butler, is done electronically now — from control panels similar to audio boards like those used for concerts.
“Because of electronic firing, the old fashioned ‘light ’em up,’ isn’t done anymore,’ explains Butler. “It’s just like with electricity in a house, if you have 15 switches, you need 15 wires.”
“In this case, you need wires for every shell,” he says.
And how many shells will there be Saturday? Butler’s keeping mum on that one.
“You don’t want people to concentrate on the number,” he says. “It’s what your eye tells you.”