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Fireworks Firms Aim for Boom in Business

Times Staff Writer

Playing with fire is in Jim Souza’s blood.

For more than 100 years, his family has made a living from fireworks, and since 1991, Souza has headed Rialto-based Pyro Spectaculars Inc., one of the biggest players in the industry.

So it should come as no surprise that Souza calls the Fourth of July “the happiest day of the year.”

It’s also the most profitable.

Fireworks use is exploding, up 84% since 2000 to 281.5 million pounds, according to the American Pyrotechnics Assn. The Bethesda, Md., trade group attributes the boom partly to swelling patriotism -- on display at Fourth of July celebrations around the country tonight. The professional extravaganzas such as those put on by Pyro Spectaculars cost an average of $1,000 a minute.

But nearly all of the fireworks growth in recent years has come from sales of backyard sparklers, fountains and the like, said Julie L. Heckman, executive director of the industry group. Commercial sales, which made up about a third of the U.S. industry’s $880 million in 2005 revenue, have been flat, she said.

Pyro Spectaculars and other show producers try to gain an edge in the annual fireworks arms race through a mixture of new designs and tried-and-true audience pleasers such as the “Happy Face” (one guess what that looks like) and big, flower-shaped explosions.

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“We’re always working on new and exciting things,” said Souza, whose company will produce more than 400 fireworks shows this year around the country, including celebrations tonight at the Rose Bowl and in New York.

This year, Souza’s company will roll out 3-D fireworks at most of its shows for the first time, after experimenting with them last year at a couple of locations. These will include geometric designs, such as basketballs or baseballs, he said.

Lakeside, Calif.-based Fireworks America, which will produce 171 shows this Fourth of July season, also has a new product in its bunker. The company has devised a way to spell words in the sky using fireworks.

Marcy Zambelli, chief executive of Newcastle, Pa.-based Zambelli Fireworks Internationale, said her company’s more than 1,300 shows this Fourth of July season wouldn’t feature any new designs. But viewers can expect to see their favorites.

Zambelli said she preferred “Crackling Palm Tree,” which, as the name suggests, “sizzles and crackles as it leaves the mortar and explodes into a silver or gold palm tree.”

“It has both the visual and sound elements,” Zambelli said of the design, which her company introduced about five years ago. “It sparkles and shimmers. As someone in the fireworks business, you have to like color and be a little flamboyant.”

Zambelli, whose family has been in the business since 1893, said that although Fourth of July was an exciting day for her, it also was the most stressful. Souza of Pyro Spectaculars agrees.

Planning for the Fourth of July celebrations starts July 5 of the previous year. Fireworks companies must place orders early for their wares, most of which are made in China. While the fireworks shells are being crafted overseas, American companies start to script shows, pairing songs with fireworks designs.

Some cities pick their own music whereas others leave it to the experts. Either way, the songs are normally patriotic in theme, reminding revelers about the country’s founding fathers and traditional American ideals such as freedom.

Fireworks shows cost as much as $3,500 a minute, depending on the size and complexity of the show.

Pyro Spectaculars charged about $1 million for the Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks Spectacular in New York, the biggest fireworks show in the country (with shells lobbed from barges in the East River), and $100,000 for the Rose Bowl show, which is one of the largest in Southern California. Souza said that most cities spend from about $15,000 to $50,000.

This year has been more stressful than years past, Souza said.

In mid-June, he was still waiting for the last shipments of fireworks -- normally they arrive in January to April. Souza’s employees have had to work overtime in recent weeks to make sure the fireworks were unloaded, organized and distributed to the various locations throughout the U.S. in time for the Fourth of July celebrations.

The delay is the result of an accident aboard a vessel in March that carried several containers of fireworks, said Heckman of the American Pyrotechnics Assn. The cause of the fire is under investigation. Since then, only one shipping line, A.P. Moller-Maersk, has been willing to bring commercial fireworks into the United States from China, although several lines still carry consumer fireworks, she said.

The commercial fireworks industry also has been hit with higher insurance and fuel prices and increased government restrictions, she said.

“Following the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, the industry has been under a siege of new regulatory burdens that has caused companies to add more security provisions, including putting their personnel through multiple criminal background checks,” Heckman said.

The big increase in gas prices this year has been particularly painful. Some companies were forced to eat the extra cost to transport the fireworks across country.

“We wanted to increase our prices -- fuel costs have gone up through the roof -- but they signed the contracts before prices went up,” said Pete Gillenberg, operations manager for Fireworks America. “There was a 25% higher margin of costs this year compared to last year in just operating costs, with insurance, fuel costs, importing and exporting.”

But the show goes on.

In two weeks, Souza will hop on a plane with his two oldest sons and head to China and Europe to browse and buy the newest goods.

“At the end, we are entertaining,” said Souza, whose father, Robert, founded Pyro Spectaculars in 1979. “That is why we continue and work through the struggle. When you stand and hear the oohs and aahs, it makes you proud of what you have done.”


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