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Skyrockets in Flight: How Melrose Pyrotechnics blows up Chicago’s skies

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By Elaine Richardson

For most of us summer is—in theory, at least—a time for relaxation, contemplation and maybe even a little vacation. For the folks at Melrose Pyrotechnics, it’s like all the year’s holidays, quadrupled, and packed into the first week of July.

As one of the nation’s largest “display” companies, Melrose produces around 80 percent of its business—more than 800 fireworks shows—during July 4 week, handling everything from the city’s July 3 Lakefront extravaganza to WXRT’s Memorial Day show to smaller shows for more than thirty suburbs, including major shows for Naperville, Rockford, Joliet and Lisle. And that’s not to mention regular commitments to sporting teams, include the White Sox (with whom they’ve worked since the 1950s) and the NASCAR circuit.

“It’s busy, busy, busy,” says Bob Kerns, director of sales for Melrose. “Big shows, like the July 3 show, are computer-choreographed and computer-fired. We have four barges tied to the Monroe Harbor breakwall and it’s all run by controller, and we have people out on the barge, but it still takes three to four days to get everything in place.”

In fact, setting up Chicago’s Independence Eve fireworks actually takes a full year. “The day after the show ends, we start on next year’s,” Kerns says. “It’s a year-long process.” At least part of the process involves designing how the show will look, which requires precise measurements—from how quickly the firework shell leaves the ground to when it fires in the sky. “Say you want something to hit on a cymbal crash or something blue by the time you hit the word ‘blue’ in a song,” Kerns says. “You don’t want to have orange up there. We have to test everything, even products we’ve used before.”

Thus the company’s locale—an industrial park in Kingsbury, Indiana. “We don’t have too many close neighbors,” Kerns says with a smile in his voice. “It’s good for us because we do need to have an area like that to test.”

And there’s even more testing as fireworks displays have taken off in recent years. Kerns says every year the company finds more demand, from store openings to weddings: “A lot of communities find that during festivals, when there are fireworks the attendance levels are a lot higher,” he says. But Melrose isn’t riding a new wave—the company has been around, in some form or another, for more than 100 years. Begun in Italy, Melrose is currently owned by Mike Cartalano, who took over for his father, and with five U.S. offices, including Minneapolis, Louisville, Atlanta and Charlotte, the company can provide displays nationally and internationally. “We’ve done shows from Aruba to Trinidad,” Kerns says. “So we get around.”

Over time the constantly shifting fireworks technology has increased the sophistication of their shows, Kerns says. And, the products aren’t just from China anymore. “We import from eight different countries. Spanish products are noted for their different shell breaks. Rather than just showing color in the sky, they have action to them, they move across the sky in different directions and have multiple breaks,” he says. “Products from France and Australia are known for their color, their concentration on real bright, bright colors. The Spanish and French are also good at lower-level fireworks, products that begin showing their color at ground level and going up one-hundred-fifty to two-hundred feet. Aerial shells go up three-hundred to twelve-hundred feet, so that way you’re filling the whole volume of sky.”

If working with fireworks sounds fun, well, it is, Kerns says. But the job is something you have to enjoy doing—designing fireworks can be somewhat repetitious and  requires a flair for drama. “You want to develop the show like a rollercoaster, so you go up and back down to mood music or if there’s no music, you still need to build intensity so the ending is the high point,” he says.

Of all the shows Melrose does, however, Kerns notes that Chicago’s July 3 fireworks are wholly unique. “With most computer-fired shows, everything is done with taped music. We get the music into the studio and then can go in and place event positions in the computer—tell the computer when you want what type of thing to appear. That creates a firing table, or script,” Kerns says.

“For Chicago’s fireworks, we use a tape to develop the table, but the day-of it’s a live performance, so the conductor has to listen to the taped music in ear pieces and get the orchestra to perform in sync with what he’s hearing in one ear on the tape,” Kerns says. And it’s not like someone can learn it once and then get the hang of it. “I think it’s been a different conductor every year. But they do a good job keeping time,” he says. “That makes it a whole different experience.”

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