'An Adrenaline Junkie's Dream': Fireworks Pros Light Up The Skies


For a moment, the night sky is painted with kaleidoscopic streaks that seem to sizzle as they fall to earth.

And then, in the time it takes to gnaw through a candied apple, the detonation symphony is over. The crowd packs up and leaves.

But not Phil Gauvin's crew. In spots around Connecticut and New England, they will remain for hours, sometimes days, disassembling the wooden racks that anchor the high-density polyethylene mortar tubes used to launch pyrotechnics that can be seen for miles. They will sweep up spent, cardboard casings, and then it's off to the next launching pad.

The Fourth of July usually means fireworks and a three-day weekend, except for Hamden's Pyro/Fx Entertainment Group, where it's all fireworks. The biggest pyrotechnic and special effects business in Connecticut has nearly a dozen shows planned around the holiday, including one in New Haven, scheduled for tonight atop a summit in East Rock Park.

Before the first fuses are lit, there are government permits to secure, designs to create and days of set-up at each site. The workforce grows from three to 60. Pyro/Fx owner Gauvin, 54, treats the final production like a show conductor might, except his luminaries are combustible with names like Aqua Blue Peony and Multicolor Swimming Stars with Crackling Flower Core and Jetting Comet Tail.

"Anybody can light a firework and let it go bang! There. Great," Gauvin said. As in "not great."

"This is a business where you're controlling the audience's emotions," the East Haven resident explained. "The music, the fireworks, the color, the timing, the sound, the sight. A little kid is sitting on a blanket with the family, watching the show … Your 'oohs' and 'aahs.'

"It's an adrenaline junkie's dream."

A Long Fuse

The fireworks, made in China, are not stored on the Hamden premises. Thousands of them are kept in secret bunkers around the state, as per directives from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"Don't light a match," said Gauvin, chuckling.

A mechanical engineer by trade, Gauvin is a burly guy with gray in his 'stache and a pair of glossy black-and-white clown shoes in his office. On a recent afternoon, he wore a T-shirt with the Pyro/Fx logo near his heart. On the back, cartoonish rockets and bombs are haphazardly piled into a cardboard box labeled "CAUTION! EXTREME EXCITEMENT INSIDE!"

He was busy, though. He needed to check out a barge about a half-hour away. His desk was all scattered piles of paperwork, with barely a spot for a coffee cup.

A typical fireworks show launched from a barge will require permits from eight government and law enforcement agencies, Gauvin said, including the state Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, the local police department and fire chief, and state and local fire marshals. An impact study of hazardous materials is kept on file, Gauvin said.

When the fireworks emerge from their bunkers hours before showtime, it comes after a months-long process that originated in the homeland of pyrotechnics.

The Chinese are said to have created the first firecrackers between 0 and 100 A.D., when alchemists made a mixture that included sulfur and charcoal dust, a combination now known as gunpowder. Bamboo tubes were then filled with the stuff and flung into fires.

Most commercial fireworks in the United States come from China, largely because of American standards. With our strict regulations on chemicals, and an agency like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to police workplace hazards, "you can't afford to do it anymore in this country," Gauvin said of manufacturing the holiday explosives.

So, off he goes to cities such as Liuyang and Changsha, both in China's Hunan province. Gauvin makes the trip twice a year, in October and then February or March, first to see what is new — companies shoot off their products at a show-and-tell — and later to bring back fully assembled fireworks by the shiploads after testing a few in stateside shows.

The voyage to the United States involves multiple container ships, each packed with 45,000 to 60,000 pounds of fireworks. That means insurance premiums that run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars every year, Gauvin said. Fuel and importing costs rack up, too.

"If you go through the Panama Canal, you have to pay a charge to the Panama Canal. … We're getting charged all along the way," Gauvin said.

The logistics can almost put a damper oneing a businessman with a pyrotechnician license.


At one point, Gauvin gestured to a "Phil-ism," as employee Jeff Rolfe called it, printed on office paper and thumb-tacked to a wall in his office: "One of the saddest regrets most people have in their lives/ Is when they finally stop for a moment and realize…….if I only."

"As a kid I used to get yelled at for blowing stuff up," Gauvin likes to say. "Now I get paid for doing it."

'We Have Fun!'

First it was model rockets and — this was the '60s — potato cannons. About age 12, Gauvin would ride his bike to the pharmacy and buy over-the-counter chemicals to mix and propel things into the sky. After he turned 18, Gauvin got to work with the real-deal, aerial fireworks part-time.

As it goes in the biz, he smelled the smoke.

In 1996, Pyro/Fx officially became a company, Gauvin said. His daughter, Danielle, does the marketing and bookkeeping. Rolfe, a Milford native, is opening a Pyro/Fx branch in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Beyond the Fourth of July displays, the business has done the New Year's fireworks at Times Square, weekly shows at Mohegan Sun this summer, concert pyrotechnics for KISS and other artists, corporate and private events, Civil War reenactments and feature-film special effects.

Yet for all the dramatics, Pyro/Fx headquarters almost shrinks from public view.

At 2155 State St. in Hamden, a laundromat is flanked by a boarded-up Thai restaurant and a nail salon with the shades down, decaying newspapers taped to the door and a "For Rent" sign on the window. Behind this small strip is Pyro/Fx, located in a former auto parts manufacturing facility that is next to a cemetery and railroad tracks.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell has walked these hallways. Same with U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman and singer Carnie Wilson, whose visits have been photo-documented and framed on the walls.

From the fireworks sprang the polished, mid-size Tripeg Studios, which opened about six years ago and produces commercials (political, Nutrisystem), infomercials, the occasional Japanese TV episode and B-horror films on site. Gauvin is a co-owner of that production company, which shares space with Pyro/Fx.

And so signs of Gauvin's first love are scattered throughout the 20,000-square-foot building like bread crumbs. Fire extinguishers stand in bunches here and there. Along one sound-stage wall is a 7-foot-tall steel mortar, a 16-inch-wide tube that would be used to shoot a gargantuan firework 1,500 feet in the sky, the burst spanning 900 feet. (It won't be used this season. A minimum $50,000 show budget would be needed to even consider this goliath.)

A door in the coffee room leads to Gauvin's shop, which is used to build props and for storage. It holds, among other items, a barrel labeled "PFX Fireball Compound," a tattered box with the words "Crackling Golden Palm," 4-foot-tall cylinders of carbon dioxide, a jumbo-pack of microwaveable popcorn and a party's leftover, half-empty bottle of Puerto Rican rum.

"We do stupid [stuff]. That's what we do here," Gauvin said about Pyro/Fx, after turning on a string of loud, fake Chinese firecrackers. "We have fun!"

Moments later, Gauvin and Rolfe laughed at a question. Their laughter meant yes.

"But it's controlled," Gauvin assured. "You control danger."

1,000 Pounds Of Fireworks

Fireworks displays can cost $3,500 to a half-million for some of the priciest American shows, Gauvin said. Clients might ask for $150,000 worth of pyrotechnics.

"There's a market for it," Gauvin said, "and, knock on wood, we're busy."

But in New Haven, tonight's annual show almost fell to budget cuts. The city canceled it this spring; then the mayor announced last month that IKEA put forth the $20,000 to cover the fireworks.

The show is usually shot from a barge on Long Wharf, which is several thousand dollars more than a land launch. The affordable option was atop the East Rock mountain, last used for a fireworks show in 1989 for the 350th anniversary of New Haven's founding, said Christy Hass, the city's deputy director of parks and squares.

Gauvin has wanted an East Rock show for years.

"There isn't really a spot that's bad" to watch the fireworks, Hass said Thursday afternoon. She spoke from an elevation of 260 feet, overlooking the city as a Pyro/Fx crew began its assembly work on an area formerly covered with shrubbery. The city cleared it away for the event.

From this point, more than a thousand pounds of fireworks will shoot up 800 to 1,000 feet for the 24-minute show — from chrysanthemums, the popular, spherical shell bursts, to waterfalls, which descend like burning tails. The finale will feature 1,200 fireworks alone, including the biggest: four 10-inch shells that will envelop the night and need to be shot from 5-foot-tall mortar tubes called "guns."

Gauvin won't be there. He needs to head a show on a horse farm in Katonah, N.Y., for a private music school.

In his place, from morning to midnight, will be Phil Gauvin Jr., technically on his summer vacation.

"The explosives will be here at 9, 9:30. The bombs. Start loading them in once they get here, and the show is off" hours later, roughly 9 p.m., says Gauvin Jr., a 31-year-old New Haven firefighter. He speaks in a fast clip and admits to lacking the showman's personality of his father.

But the licensed pyrotechnician knows plenty about the family business.

"You don't want any dead air, unless the music calls for it," said Gauvin Jr., who will electronically fire shells from a computer.

"You want to keep the audience's attention. That's all."

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