It was a few days before Independence Day, and in a corner of North East, Cecil County, the only Maryland-based fireworks display company was preparing for its biggest day of the year.
Amid the chaos, Paige Reed, co-owner of Fireworks Productions Inc., was in his element.
In several tiny buildings and trailers on a well-hidden lot, this summertime Santa -- a portly man with a white beard and a ready laugh -- designs as many as 125 public fireworks displays a year.
Many will be seen this weekend.
"Three to four million pounds of fireworks are shot off in the United States during the Fourth of July," said Mr. Reed, who in 1990 turned a lifelong hobby into a part-time job with his partner, Dennis Coster. The two had met at a local fireworks club, the Crackerjacks.
Two years later, as the defense industry in which he had worked for 34 years waned, Mr. Reed made his fireworks job full time. Mr. Coster, who works for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., acts as a salesman and as manager of the company's warehouse on Mr. Reed's farm in Glen Rock, Pa.
"Someday, I'd like to say we do all the shows in Maryland, but that won't happen," Mr. Reed said.
Fireworks Productions does design most of the shows in the state, from Inner Harbor displays for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to the Westminster Jaycees' program Monday, he said. The company also is responsible for the nightly fireworks program at Kings Dominion in Virginia.
"We're proud of being a regional company, but we don't want to be a national one," Mr. Reed said. "You lose touch with your sponsors [customers] that way."
L He said 75 percent of the company's business is in Maryland.
Rough planning for each show begins almost a year in advance as Mr. Reed places his fireworks orders with several Asian
companies, U.S. manufacturers and his own small factory in North East.
Maryland State Specialty Products Inc., the manufacturing arm of Mr. Reed's business, also produces consumer fireworks that are sold in at least 15 states, he said.
Maryland law permits only sparklers, "pop-snaps" and "snakes."
Planning is based on a $5,000 show that lasts 15 to 20 minutes, he said. A larger budget can provide bigger, fancier fireworks and a longer show, but there's a practical limit.
Studies have shown that audiences stop paying attention after 26 minutes, he said.
"I work each of them off a basic formula," Mr. Reed said. "But I try to give each customer something special, give each a different flavor."
That flavor is enhanced with the purchase of three or four items a year that Fireworks Productions hopes are unique to it, Mr. Reed said. Exclusive contracts with U.S. manufacturers and Asian buying tours provide that opportunity, he said.
"You go to the factory [in China], they shoot some up for you, and after a while you say, 'That's neat. Who else has seen this one?' " Mr. Reed said. "Of course, they say, 'No one else' but you take your chances."
The fireworks -- or shells -- manufactured in North East under the eye of foreman John Werner are exclusively for the company. "I know nobody else has those," Mr. Reed said.
Mr. Werner, who worked his way through college at a small fireworks company, was a Walt Disney "imagineer" creating special effects for Disney theme parks before beginning his job designing products in Maryland a year ago, Mr. Reed said.
"We saw an ad in a [fireworks] trade journal that said, 'California pyro looking to move East,' " he said. "It was a perfect match. We were very fortunate to get him from Disney."
Most fireworks, including those made in North East, are derived from a formula that produces gold-colored sparks, Mr. Werner said.
"The basic mixture has about four chemicals," he said. "You add other chemicals to impart the color."
Various effects are achieved by varying the way the ingredient pellets, called stars, are loaded into the paper and cardboard shell, Mr. Reed said.
The stars in patterned fireworks, which explode into hearts or interlocking circles, are carefully laid out within the shell, he said. "Multi-break" shells, those with more than one effect, have all their components packed within the same casing, Mr. Reed said.
"Oriental [fireworks] are pretty sophisticated, with two, three or four effects in one shell," he said, pointing out a "peony" with a multicolored "pistil."
In that shell, both the "petals" and the "stamen" change color.
"You've got four different effects going on at the same time," Mr. Reed said.
Fireworks with "tails" have become popular in recent years, although purists shun the trails leading up to the explosion, preferring the effect to "magically" appear in the air, he said.
Final design decisions are made the afternoon of the show as "shooters" set up the display according to Mr. Reed's outline.
"Most shooters look at the shells and say, 'I'd rather see this one go with this one,' " he said. "We give them as much freedom as they've proved they can handle."
Shooters, who must be trained by Fireworks Productions and be certified by the state, are responsible for spectators' safety during a show, Mr. Reed said.
"Our contract states that we can stop the show at any time if it is unsafe," he said. The displays' sponsors provide fire protection and crowd control.
Under federal regulations, the distance between the fireworks and the spectators and inhabited buildings must be at least 70 feet per inch diameter of shell, Mr. Reed said.
Fireworks Productions crews sweep the area immediately after a show to prevent curious children from handling any duds, he said.
"We've never had any audience injuries and, knock on wood, we never will," he said. "Safety is our No. 1 priority. Our last words to our shooters are, 'Be safe' and 'No dark skies.' "