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This Director’s Business Is Booming

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just as Gene Taylor came to that phase of boyhood when nothing is quite so wonderful as blowing things up, state and federal authorities banned all consumer fireworks that were any kind of real fun.

The feds limited firecrackers, no matter how ominous their appearance, to a piddling 50 milligrams of flash powder, about the explosive charge in your basic ladyfinger. Banished were the old cherry bombs that could set dogs to howling in an entire political precinct. Forbidden were the even more powerful M-80s that could reduce a piece of firewood to splinters, or relieve a lad of a few incautious fingers.

California went even further, outlawing any device with a “surprise factor” (such as ordinary firecrackers), except for religious observances, and banning anything that leaves the ground (such as bottle rockets) or scurries along it for more than four feet. California even outlawed sparklers.

“Like many kids that never grew up, I was always interested in fireworks,” says Taylor, now a 47-year-old father of two, a marketer for a high-tech computer company, and a Santa Clarita resident. “My generation is the one that got cheated.”

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Tonight, though, Taylor makes up for it.

Tonight he will streak the sky over the western San Fernando Valley with colored light, and puncture it with sound. Tonight he will whomp 20,000 human chests with the concussive force of his passion.

As the pyrotechnics operator, or “shooter,” for the Valley of the Stars and Stripes Festival and Fireworks Celebration, Taylor and his crew are making final preparations, likely as you read this. The event, sponsored by the Porter Ranch, Northridge and Granada Hills chambers of commerce and the Cal State Northridge Athletic Department, is billed as the Valley’s biggest fireworks show.

About 9 p.m., the first aerial shell will go up over CSUN’s North Campus, which is off Devonshire between Zelzah and Lindley avenues, on the site of the old Devonshire Downs racetrack. For the next 24 minutes, Taylor’s 150 racks of mortars will be spitting skyward 750 round, explosive shells, some as small as baseballs, some as big as volleyballs.

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All week Taylor has worked on the sequence and combinations of the Brocade Diadems, Crackling Gold Spiders, Palm Crossette Greens, Red Gamboges, and Strobing Silver Falling Leaves, which, among others, he’ll be flinging up by means of an electronic firing console a hundred feet from the mortar banks.

Choreographing the show entails more than delight at watching things explode, however. It takes artistry.

“Do you want some shells with a tail or other rising effects?” Taylor asks. “When the shells burst, do they glitter? Are they color-changing shells? If so, how many times do they change? Do the stars end in a crackle? If you have a good 8-inch Golden Komura or a Weeping Willow, which has a soft, quiet effect, you don’t want to blow that away by putting a lot of crap in the middle of it. You don’t want to cover up the pretty shells with the ordinary shells.”

Taylor embraced pyrotechnics in his early 20s. He was watching a fireworks display at Dodger Stadium when the thought burst on him like a Five Pointed Blue Star With Silver Rings that people actually got to shoot off these things and get paid for it.

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So, for a couple of years he crewed for various shooters and, after passing the requisite state fire marshal’s exam, was licensed as a pyrotechnics operator. In the 20 years since, he’s shot some 300 shows. He was one of several shooters at the Nov. 11, 1986, fireworks spectacular in San Francisco marking the 50th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge.

For 14 years, he has shot the homecoming festivities at CSUN, his alma mater, and for four years the much more grandiose Fourth of July show, annually the biggest Taylor directs. For the latter, he’s paid about $1,500 for his services. All but a few hundred dollars of his fee are eaten up by the cost of paying his crew, transporting the fireworks and other expenses. The cost of the actual devices is separate.

Taylor is one of 502 persons who hold shooters licenses from the state fire marshal. The licensing provisions, like the restrictions on consumer fireworks, are part of the most comprehensive state pyrotechnics regulations in the country.

“We get people from all over the United States coming here to look at our program,” says Hugh Council, chief of fire engineering for the state fire marshal’s office. “Many other states require nothing, or perhaps a blaster’s license, to do this kind of work. But there’s a difference between pyrotechnics and blowing up stumps on your farm or using explosives in a mining operation.”

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California’s comprehensive rules are rooted in two peculiarities of the state. The first is the edgy fear of wildfires. The second is the movie industry’s special-effects segment, which requires the use of explosive and incendiary devices in close proximity to actors and film crew members.

Tighter pyrotechnics regulations are spreading to other states, in part because special-effects films are being shot in more and more places.

Despite the toughened regulation--or, perhaps in part because of the safer products and procedures it has engendered--the display fireworks industry is enjoying sleek times. According to the American Pyrotechnics Assn., a Washington-based trade and lobbying organization, 30 million pounds of fireworks were discharged in the United States in 1976, the country’s bicentennial. Last year, the figure was 120 million pounds.

“With the better safety record, communities are more comfortable having displays,” says John Conkling, executive director of the association. “In addition, displays have improved significantly from the aesthetic point of view. Fireworks are a much more exciting thing to watch these days, shot much faster with better choreography and better devices.”

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And almost always shot by men, says Gene Taylor.

In his 20 years as a shooter, he’s encountered only a few women with an intense interest in pyrotechnics. The noise and the violent release of energy seem to have particular appeal to the XY-chromosome set.

“I see it with my own wife,” he says. “She always goes with me to the shows, but she’s not really into it. We have this saying, ‘He who hath smelt the smoke is ne’er again free.’ I guess that, to a guy, there’s just something to be said about taking a fuse and lighting off a bomb.”


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