The elegant mahogany table and plush chairs in the conference room of the Bellport office of Fireworks by Grucci are fit for the boardroom of any major corporation, but the walls tell a different story. Framed family photos are hung side by side: Black and white pictures of earlier generations building fireworks by hand, a shot of a man peering up from inside a fireworks shell and a portrait of family members in blue lab coats. Scrapbooks line the shelves, the yellowing pages detailing the history of a business spanning more than a century.
On Long Island, the Grucci name is synonymous with fireworks. Five generations have worked through both triumph and tragedy to maintain their place as “America’s first family of fireworks.” The Gruccis now hold the world record for largest fireworks show, set in Dubai this past New Year’s Eve, and they continue to innovate. Phil Grucci is the man at the helm.
The president and CEO carries a black notebook with him at all times. The graph paper pages are covered with sketches of firework bursts and ideas for new designs—he always knew he wanted to be in the family business. As early as seven years old, his father and grandfather would let him ride along in the truck on the way to set up shows. He would be at his father’s side, observing his every move until right before the show started when he would be ushered away to a safe distance.
“You get in a truck, and you’re like ‘this is cool, I’m with the guys,’” Phil said. “You hear the audience screaming, people come up to your dad or grandfather congratulating them, and it’s easy to say ‘hey, that’s what I want to do.’”
Five Generations of Gruccis
Phil’s great-great-grandfather started the business in 1850 in the seaside town of Bari, Italy. At the time, it was a labor of love. They would build the shells and then shoot them off in contests, maybe winning a few lira in the process.
The business was brought to the US in 1870 and set up in Elmont, where Phil’s grandfather apprenticed under his uncle. In January 2013, the company changed hands to the fifth generation in the person of Phil and the sixth generation is quickly coming down the pipeline. Phil’s siblings and cousins don’t all work full-time with the company, but after being brought up in a fireworks family, it’s hard to avoid. “They may be stockbrokers and lawyers and mechanics, but there’s nobody in this family that’s at a barbeque on the 4th of July,” Phil said. Every year Phil’s sister fires the New Year’s Eve show at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, then she goes back to her regular job as a fiber optics specialist. Even the retirees find it hard to hang up their hats.
“Mostly, the whole family goes out on a show or two and they come back and share war stories,” Phil joked, describing the scene at holiday dinners. “It’s ‘this is what I did.’ ‘No, it was harder at my site.’ ‘Well we had more equipment.’”
Phil credits the family dynamic of the company for many of its successes. This tenacity was put to the test after a tragic explosion in 1983 killed Phil’s father James and his cousin Donna and almost brought down the business.
Phil’s dad was the innovator of the family and liked to be in the plant every day, which is why he was there on that Saturday in November. A series of large explosions not only leveled the facility and wiped out all the inventory, it also rocked the town of Bellport where the factory had stood since 1929. “…We lost family members. We lost our entire business. We’d sit around my grandmother’s dining room table and had to make that hard decision: What are we going to do?” Phil said. “We were all beat up. We didn’t even know if we could go back in business. Financially, emotionally, we were down to zero.”
They forged ahead, moving into Phil’s garage. The cold draft leaking under the garage door, biting at their ankles, was a far cry from the facility they were used to, but it was all they had and they made it work. “My grandmother was the glue of the family,” Phil said. “Every Sunday, we would get together for dinner and that was our board meeting. We’d talk about fireworks over pasta and sauce.”
The company was able to keep all of its New Year’s Eve commitments barely a month and a half after the accident. Soon enough, they bought close to 100 acres in Bellport and a new facility rose from the rubble. “If it wasn’t for the strength of the name and a few friends in the business, we never would’ve gotten through it,” Phil said.
Building a Reputation
The Grucci family is big on delivering—promises to a client are an unbreakable bond. But what really elevated the company to international status was the Monte-Carlo International Fireworks Competition in 1979. The Gruccis took first place, which is where they were dubbed “America’s First Family of Fireworks.” Since then they have produced some of the most-viewed shows in the world including seven consecutive presidential inaugurations, the bicentennial celebration and the opening ceremonies at the Olympics in Lake Placid, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Beijing.
“When they invite you from China—where fireworks were invented—to come design their ceremony, that’s a pretty big honor,” Phil said. But no matter how many shows Phil fires, it’s still nerve-racking: Unlike other forms of entertainment, there’s no dress rehearsal. You get only one shot.
That reputation, and execution, has launched Grucci to the forefront of the industry, including achieving the Guinness World Record for largest fireworks show this past New Year’s Eve. The show, at the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai, fired 479,651 shells in 6 minutes and traced the more than 60-mile outline of the palm-shaped island with 250 floating platforms. The 6-minute performance took 200 pyrotechnicians, around 5,000 man hours to install. A few miles away at the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, the Gruccis shot fireworks off the façade of the building. Pyrotechnicians rappelled down the sides of the structure to place equipment at more than 400 locations. And that show wasn’t even part of the world record.
Innovation is a priority for the Gruccis, not only in designing shows, but also in designing new fireworks. (See sidebar.) They measure the height of the fireworks, the sound of the blasts and the speeds at which they fire. They also take high-speed video so they can review every aspect of the launch. Long gone are the days of lighting a fuse and then ducking for cover.
Phil is working on incorporating technology into the fireworks like computer chips that could control the height of the burst. He is also experimenting with environmental safeguards such as biodegradable materials and propellants that limit smoke to make shows more visible. But surprisingly, despite all the technology being explored, most of the fireworks are still made by hand and almost every Grucci show contains a family signature: The Gold Split Comet. “It’s something my father developed,” Phil said, describing the firework as leaving a golden trail as it falls.
But for all of the marquee events they produce and all of the different countries they fire in, for Phil, the best shows are still the small ones at home on Long Island. “I get more excitement out of the smaller shows,” Phil said. “They’re a bit more innocent, a little less of a spectacle. You sit there on the beach and you watch a modest, beautiful fireworks show. And you just listen to the people talking and reminiscing. That’s the real reward.”
Rockets Red Glare
The Gruccis not only produce fireworks for festive occasions, they also create military simulation tools. Phil said the practice began in the 1950s when his grandfather developed an atomic bomb simulator. The explosive recreated a mushroom cloud as well as the sound of a nuclear blast and was used in military training exercises.
From Blueprint to Boom
Though Grucci has over 2,000 firework varieties in stock, some shows warrant creating custom originals. Plans for an upcoming Star Spangled Banner centennial show include a firework that will explode into a 600 x 900-foot. American flag consisting of 700 individual bursts. Additional refinements for the centennial include explosions timed to the lyrics of the national anthem: The words “twilight’s last gleaming” will be accompanied by a strobe; “broad stripes and bright stars,” will see red and white streaks decorate the sky; and “the rockets’ red glare” is, of course, self-explanatory.
“We treat the fireworks as our cast, our performers, and the sky as the stage,” Phil Grucci said.
After a design is engineered, production on the firework begins. A cardboard or plastic biodegradable shell is loaded with compressed balls of pyrotechnic chemicals. Each orb, about the size of a marble, produces colored flame when ignited. The balls are packed into the casing manually in the pattern they are intended to produce—a process Grucci admitted is “arduous.” A bursting charge—essentially black powder—is inserted in the core of the firework and this catalyst ignites the individual marbles. A timing mechanism, either a fuse or a computer chip in the unit, is also used to control the height of the explosion. Finally, a lifting charge is attached to the base of the shell to get the whole package airborne.
“It’s a lot of science and design, but it’s also very much a craft because it’s a manual operation,” Grucci said.
When they reach the site the fireworks are loaded into a series of numbered mortars. The mortars are wired to an electric igniter and the launches are controlled from a laptop computer. Each shell is triggered through what Grucci called an “Excel spreadsheet-like program.” This “script” matches the bursts to the music.
“If you break down all the parts, its fairly simple,” Phil said. “The challenge is to do it consistently. You need to make sure you’re not overproducing the show to the point where it’s not reliable.”
Top of the World
Joseph Mercante, director of international business development for Fireworks by Grucci, spoke to Pulse about installing fireworks on Dubai’s Burj Khalifa—the tallest building in the world.
The only way to get to the pinnacle is take the elevator to the 160th floor, then walk up multiple, multiple flights of steps. The last 400 feet we had to climb up a hand-rung ladder. So think about a vertical ladder, you’re inside a tube, not even five feet across, and you’re climbing up, step, step, step, for 400 feet. Then you open a submarine hatch that’s just wide enough to climb out, and only two people can be up there at the same time. We hung out over the side, clamped in, full harnesses, and then hoisted up the pyrotechnics because we couldn’t carry them up.
Some parts of the building you couldn’t reach except by hanging down on a rope. But it makes all the difference in the world in terms of how the show looks, so it was worth the effort for us—even though it’s very dangerous. What it all boils down to is that at that midnight moment the building erupts in color and it’s worth it.
It’s an amazing look, when you’re up there looking down over the edge. It’s a beautiful city, but it also just sprung up from the desert. The water is nearby, and you can see it very clearly from the top, but then you face the other direction and you see stark desert sands.
I grew up in East Meadow, so I’ve been to the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. New York is the most beautiful city in the world, but all you see from up there is buildings. At Burj Khalifa, the tallest man-made structure in the world, you can practically see the Iranian shores across the Persian Gulf. That’s when you realize you’re in a different world.
Photos courtesy of Fireworks by Grucci