Eric Elias, Bowl pyrotechnics man.

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

How was last night's show?

It went fine but heavens, the conductor played a little slower than we expected. The show is fired electrically but a human being has to initiate every sequence so he's conducting us as well as the orchestra. So we will make some artistic adjustments tonight, as we do every night based on the previous night's show.

How did you get your start with fireworks?

I was very actively involved in theater arts and film and play production all through junior high school, high school and college, but when I got into graduate school for law, I couldn't take off that kind of time. But my friend who was a very big fireworks aficionado -- he used to collect wrappers, labels and posters, he'd go to every show he could -- he said, 'Well, I've always wanted to light off one of those big ones.' I said, 'Why don't we find out who does it and call them up? Maybe we can help.' So we flipped open the Yellow Pages, went to the largest display ad and called them up. A very nice woman said, 'Sure, come on down next Saturday. Ask for Joe.' And we did our first show. That was in 1978. Ordinarily, the Hollywood Bowl aside, most shows are one day. You go in that morning, you don't rehearse, you shoot it off, you clean it up, you go home. I could take one day out of school that was a Saturday or a Sunday, do something physical, get sweaty and yet at the end, it was very artistic. It fulfilled that need for me.

You have a law degree?

I've been a practicing attorney since 1980. It's my day job. I do entertainment and corporate law.

So you light off fireworks for fun?

This is an out-of-control hobby. I always say I'm going to keep doing this till I don't enjoy it anymore. This is my 30th season at the Hollywood Bowl and in that time I've only missed two fireworks performances. And I did schedule my wedding and the birth of my children to avoid the Bowl season. My wife will tell you that in the summertime she calls herself a fireworks widow. I'm doing 14-17 shows throughout the summer, including the Mariachi show and various rock shows.

How did you get involved with the Bowl?

After our first show, we learned of other fireworks companies in the area. So we called another one. And they said, 'Sure, come on down to the Bowl on Saturday, ask for Gene.' And we did the first ever John Williams Star Wars concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 1978 with lasers, stormtroopers, C-3PO, R2-D2 and fireworks. I've been here ever since.

What's your favorite kind of explosive?

We are here to be a visual accent to the music -- that colors a lot of my thinking in terms of pyrotechnics. Our cues are marked on a copy of the conductor's score. If you can't hear the orchestra, that's not helping us. My artistic taste runs towards things that are not so noisy. I don't particularly like what are called salutes, which just have a loud flash and report to them. When it's called for, like in '1812,' where we have to have cannons, we have large black powder concussion shots that the percussionist gets to set off. Most of the time, I like to go with action, things that move.

What are some advancements in the fireworks world?

I'm always finding new things that I like. Most of the trending goes towards colors. When I started you had red, green and yellow. Now there are purples and blues and shades in between. There's a great deal involved with the chemistry for making these colors. Otherwise, some of the biggest developments have been towards the technology involved in setting them up and shooting them off. The industry is going towards electrical firing for nearly all shows. It's getting harder and harder to find a hand-fired show, that's going the way of the typewriter.

What does that mean, electrical firing?

When I did my first show, the total of my training, prior to shooting off my first aerial show, consisted of, 'Do you know how to light off a flare?' You do? Then you will be in charge of the 4-inch shells.' That was it. So you actually had to crouch or kneel down next to a loaded tube, 3-8 inches in diameter, containing a large black powder charge... you pull off the safety cap, you touch the fuse and in between a sixteenth or an eighth of a second, the fuse burns down, that thing flies up and goes straight for your head. These days, it's done with a little bit of electricity and a lot of wire so there's nobody who's that close to the material when you're setting it off. You're still working with it all day long; I mean, the stuff is designed to explode. There's nothing more important to stress than safety, but obviously, the fact that you're shooting a show within a safe distance, properly dressed, is helping the industry maintain its safety record.

How many fireworks do you shoot off a night?

We will have anywhere from 60-150 pyrotechnic sequences. Each sequence is a push of a button: it can be a single item, or it can be 50 or more items in one push.... It took 3 24-foot box trucks to bring all the stuff in. So, in my professional estimate, that's a way lot of fireworks!

What do you tell people who say they want to set off some fireworks at their home BBQ parties?

I tell them to bring the BBQ here. The stuff you can buy illegally is really scary, it's just plain dangerous and manufactured badly. I was a boyscout leader for years and I used to tell the kids that you can get legally trained when you turn 18, get your license and then you can handle fireworks all you want. My son just turned 18 and this is the first year he's working with me. So now it's a family affair.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World