At Pyro, It's State-of-the-Art Safe, Sane and Spectacular

Times Staff Writer

Don't smoke at the Souza spread in Rialto. Don't even think about smoking. Don't even think about somebody you know who smokes.

The Souza spread is 160 arid acres of scrub, sand and sidewinders. The graceless terrain, dappled with dun-colored concrete bunkers, is the headquarters of Pyro Spectaculars, world's biggest--and arguably best--producers of fireworks displays.

Sudden Starburst

They're breaking new ground at Pyro these days--new colors, new sounds, new trajectories, new configurations--so think Los Alamos if you will (the comparison is irresistible), but for heaven's sake don't think smoking. Think boom. Think sizzle and whoosh and ka-pow! Think of a sudden, breathtaking starburst of colored flame painting a canvas of black sky.

Don't think these smoky thoughts aloud though, at least not in the presence of Jim Souza, vice president and heir apparent to Pyro Spectaculars.

Souza, an affable, imaginative, enthusiastic 33-year-old, has fireworks in his blood, which would be uncomfortable if he didn't also have safety on his mind.

Accident-Free Record

He remembers the accident that cost his father the use of two fingers and his father's partner his hand. He is at once aware of the tragic explosion last week in an Oklahoma fireworks plant, and of his record at Rialto, where the accident-free operation is state-of-the-art safe and sane.

These are experts, the only persons who fire department spokesmen say should be involved with fireworks.

"The leading cause of injuries on the Fourth of July are common, hand-held sparklers," Capt. Gordon Pearson, community relations officer with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, said Wednesday.

"Serious burns can occur to the hands and face," Pearson said.

As for the obvious danger of privately used fireworks starting a blaze, Greg Acevedo, information officer with the Los Angeles City Fire Department, said:

"The combination of record-high temperatures and low humidity has posed the most serious fire threat in recent years.

"Fireworks are illegal in the city of Los Angeles (and in most of the county's other cities and the unincorporated areas of the county).

"The only persons authorized to have fireworks displays must have obtained a permit from the city fire marshal. These persons also must be licensed pyrotechnists."

Gearing up for the Glorious Fourth--one-third of its yearly business--the Rialto plant resembles an anthill the day before the first frost.

A normal work force of 50 has swelled to 300--assorted Souzas and in-laws and cousins and friends. Even Bill Page, the resident Mad Scientist, has suspended his cogitations to lend a hand; Page, who would far rather be back in his lab concocting a puce-colored chrysanthemum shell, a whistling pink fishtail, a fuchsia shock.

Numbered and Coded

Thousands of mortars--the reusable tubes, or "cannons," through which the shells are fired--stand sentinel outside the warehouses. Thousands more cartons are stacked for shipping, cartons packed with fireworks, each numbered and coded as precisely as the London Bridge en route to Arizona.

Hundreds of trucks gorge on hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of pyrotechnic magic, destined for Wyoming, Ohio, Florida, New York, California's whopping Rose Bowl show.

Watching the trucks trundle out, then touring the bunkers, one is reminded that fireworks are big business. Also fun business. Especially when you're at the apogee, when you're reputedly the best.

Souza, of all people, bridles at the adjective, eschewing invidious comparisons on the grounds that pyrotechnics is "an art form. I mean, you don't argue over who's the best, Rubens or Monet. . . . "

Unbiased observers are less reluctant. Hong Kong, of all cities, hires Pyro annually to mount its four-barge Chinese New Year extravaganza; if the Chinese, who invented fireworks, don't know the best, who does?

Closer to home, you might just find a jaded Angeleno or two willing to admit that the Olympic Games fireworks were not exactly chopped crackers.

Still, Souza demurs. "We all play the same instrument," he says. "We all have the same piano. It looks the same, it's tuned the same, it has 88 keys. You can play Stravinsky, I may play Stevie Wonder, somebody else plays Shearing. Or we can all play Bach but interpret the piece differently.

Souza's eyes mist. A man clearly enamored of his work, his enthusiasm is inflammatory.

It is a desiccated and deprived old curmudgeon indeed who doesn't thrill to a good fireworks show, and Souza is asked to illuminate the appeal.

"It's fascinating," he says. "It's mysterious. It's beautiful and it's spectacular.

Atavistic Fascination

"The mystery is this: Something's going to start on the ground and be 'fired'--man has an atavistic fascination with fire. Whatever it is goes up into the air. You see it going. There's that delicious moment of anticipation. You don't know what it's going to do. Up, up, up, up! You're wondering, 'What color? What shape? What sound? What movement?'

"All of a sudden--boom! Then beauty--the planets, or a flower, or the Milky Way. It's a bouquet of stars. Beautiful!

"Then there's the sheer scale, larger than life. Enormous. It dwarfs, say, the Capitol of the U.S., which is 200 feet high. You get a shell bursting 600, 1,200 feet in diameter and it can make a huge stadium look like a cereal bowl."

Still, considering what appears to be a limited number of variations on the same theme, is the public getting blase over fireworks?

"Not at all," says Souza. "People--all ages, races, colors--keep coming back. Even myself. Hey, I know what the shell is going to do, what the next one coming up is going to do, and I still get excited.

"As for the general public, we can hear the excitement, we can feel it. And we love it. We're still the wizards of ah's.

'It Has to Excite Us'

"And it's always changing, getting better. Maybe you're never going to see a go-go dancer pop out of a thousand-foot-high chrysanthemum, but we're always inspired to work harder to find something that's new and different."

Under the spell of change are the world's major pyrotechnicians, who now gather regularly to exchange ideas. "I love coming together with the great families," says Souza, "sitting down and talking fireworks, exchanging ideas."

And sharing secrets? "To a point," says Souza. "It's maybe like the great chefs swapping recipes--but leaving out that touch of nutmeg that brings it all together."

For a number of years, though, the art was dying. "Most of the manufacturers--the firemakers--are old Italian families, or Portuguese, like the Souzas. They're older now, in their 60s and 70s, and no one younger had picked up the trade. Now we have new blood, the sons and grandsons of the old legends.

"I'm blood in the business myself. My great-grandfather brought the trade with him to America from the Azores.

"Why Italians and Portuguese? I don't know. We were great voyagers and traders, of course; maybe it's because we're hot-blooded."

Strictly American

And nepotistic. Jim's father, Bob, 55, is chairman and president of Pyro Spectaculars, while Jim is chairman and president of a new company called Celebrity Fireworks--a breakthrough in that the new firm is designing a strictly American product.

"Pyro is not a manufacturing company," Jim explains. "We don't get out there and mix the chemicals and make colored stars. What we've done is import components from 14 different suppliers around the world and assemble them the way we want them.

"Up to now, we've never had a quality American product. We need to order components according to our specifications. Hence Celebrity.

Back out on the spread--an old World War II rocket facility--Bill Page, Pyro's Mad Scientist, is hunkered down in a tiny hut, muttering "Lime."

Lime? "Why not?" asks Page. "You ever see a shell the color of lime?"

Declassified Documents

Page, 31, plant chemist and now general manager/chief pyrotechnician of Celebrity, found the lure of fireworks irresistible 10 years ago and proceeded to read everything he could get his hands on, including declassified military documents.

"You take the basic components--an oxidizer and a fuel--and you work from there," he explains.

Sure, but why fireworks?

"The sheer pursuit of excellence," says Page. "Making something better than the next guy. A better green. Pink. A better purple; purples are pretty new to fireworks.

"Something that people have never seen before, that'll complement what we already have.

"Something like lime. Like chartreuse! Why not?

"Special motions. Animated effects. Sound effects. Things that have an unusual pattern. A ring of small shells with a big complementary color. A field of color with eight starfish legs. . . .

"The possibilities are limitless!

"And the crowds! When I hear a good crowd reaction, believe me, I get some kind of rush. . . . "

They continue to talk fireworks, these young comrades-in-arms, and when they do, they glow. No, they don't smoke. They don't have to.

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