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Feature story: Fireworks fanatics

Every year, crew with Palo Alto ties mounts patriotic Shoreline spectacle

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For Dan Nitzan's first professional-fireworks job, he was supposed to remove a tarp protecting the final group of fireworks so that sparks wouldn't accidentally land on them and set them off early.

It was the grand opening of a J. C. Penney in Los Banos, Calif.

"Well, I didn't pull the tarp far enough away, and when the finale went off, lots of burning things landed on the tarp and burned a big hole in it," the Palo Alto resident recently recalled.

The friend who had hired him wasn't too mad, though.

"His first show as a licensed operator, he shot right through his tarp," Nitzan said.

Many are the potential mishaps when fireworks are involved, but fortunately for Nitzan, what's gone wrong since that first show in the early 1980s has been minor: an occasional brush fire, the burnt tarp and an on-the-ground explosion or two.

"It's been 30 years now of, you know, one fun thing after another," he said, sitting in his living room.

Nitzan these days mounts the Fourth of July fireworks show at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, an event that takes two days of set up and weeks of preparation.

For many Americans, Independence Day means relaxation. But for Nitzan and his crew, the holiday means Department of Homeland Security background checks, sore backs and -- hopefully -- a job well done.

"It's 18 hours of hard work, 15 to 20 minutes of 'Wow,' then another two hours of hard work," said Jeff Hoover, a crew member. "It's a labor of love -- for us at least."

Shawn Hoover, Jeff's wife and also part of the team, readily confesses to exhaustion on July 5. But she still considers the work to entertain tens of thousands of spectators worth it.

"I've never said, 'Never again. Forget this,'" she said.

The Hoovers' and Nitzan's commitment notwithstanding, professional displays of fireworks have taken a hit over the past decade. Anti-terrorism measures following 9/11, escalating insurance costs and the tumbling economy have led cities across the country to forgo the traditional highlight of America's birthday celebration.

San Jose eliminated its downtown show in 2009. Half Moon Bay's July 4 fireworks have been intermittent since 2006. And Oakland has canceled its pyrotechnics several times since 2007.

National sales of display fireworks -- those used by professionals -- illustrate the trend. In 2002, more than 64 million pounds were sold. Last year, that figure stood at just 22 million, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association.

"The number of fireworks shows has gone down in the past few years," said Nitzan, whose work included the 75th Anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge in May. "Some municipalities were harder hit than others.

"Things are pretty well flat right now. I think the term is 'Flat is the new growth,'" he said. But, he added optimistically: "They'll come back."

It's unlikely they would ever go away, given their enduring popularity. Fireworks were invented centuries ago in China, where 90 percent of the world's fireworks are produced today. By the Renaissance, Italians and Germans were enthusiastically manufacturing them. Newly minted Americans celebrated their first Independence Day in 1777 with fireworks, several newspapers reported at the time.

Despite the recent decline, California-based Pyro Spectaculars, which produces the Shoreline fireworks shows, still organizes upwards of 70 Independence Day events from Monterey to Santa Rosa, according to Jeff Thomas, the company's Greater Bay Area show producer.

And right now it's crunch time.

"This is Christmas for Santa Claus -- the high pressure moment," Thomas said.

The smaller shows cost $15,000 or more and require a half-dozen workers; larger shows cost between $50,000 and $100,000 and employ 10 to 15 staff members, he said.

In charge of each show is a licensed operator, such as Nitzan. In addition to hiring staff, the operator is responsible for ensuring safety, from transporting the fireworks to preventing security breaches on the night of the event. Operators coordinate their work with various governmental agencies and private organizations involved in the event.

Nitzan deals with nine groups, from the Federal Aviation Administration to the Shoreline Golf Links, where the pyrotechnics are launched.

It can get a little tricky.

"If they don't have their security (measures) together, if they don't have the fire safety set up correctly, then I have a safety issue," Nitzan said. "So, my job is to influence people who don't work for me, to make sure they do what they need to do so everything goes off as planned."


In some ways, launching fireworks has gotten safer over the years, Thomas said. Loaded into cylinders known as "guns," the aerial shells, as fireworks are called, used to be set off by hand using a road flare. If a shell was defective, an accident could occur.

Nitzan has one favorite fireworks rule of thumb: "We don't put anything above a gun that we want to keep."

More recently, fireworks are set off remotely in one of two ways: using a nail board, wires and electricity from a battery; or by computer.

"It moves us further away from the explosions and gives us a lot better opportunity for timing and design when working with music," Thomas said of remote ignition.

For the Golden Gate Bridge celebration, which Thomas produced, the sequence of the fireworks was programmed into a computer, which launched them in synchronicity with the music.

The Shoreline show is fired using a nail board. A person touches a metal stylus to a metal contact point, relaying via wire the electric signal that ignites the firework's fuse. The board is set some 135 feet away from the shells.

Occasionally, the signals will fail, despite the checking and re-checking of wires prior to the show. But with hundreds of shells filling the sky during the 20 minutes, the audience rarely, if ever, notices, the organizers said.

Of course, Nitzan notices. He designs the display each year and knows the type and timing of every firework. Choreographing the show starts weeks in advance, after the San Francisco Symphony sends him an MP3 of the songs that will be played. Usually, there are three pieces.

He listens -- over and over -- to get the sequence and timing of each explosion just right.

"My family has endured hearing 'Stars and Stripes (Forever)' too many times, I'm afraid," said Nitzan, who by day is founder and president of a video-transmission equipment manufacturer.

Nitzan maps out the choreography and assigns a cue number to the launch of each shell.

"I'm going to have a study of white shells here. ... I'm going to have rising tails over here," he said, recounting his planning process.

To make sure the audience doesn't leave disappointed, Nitzan likes to tease spectators by building up the end of each song -- a technique he calls his "signature."

"I love false finales. I love to make the audience think, 'Well, maybe this wasn't as big as last year,'" he said. "But we're not done yet."

In other parts of the world, audiences are accustomed to different styles of pyrotechnics. In Europe, fireworks shows are more "dainty," Nitzan said.

"They're a little volley of this and a pause and little more of that and a pause," he said.

But Americans? They like volume.

"American audiences have a very short attention span. And so we're doing blockbuster here, make no mistake about it," Nitzan said.

The style isn't so much artistic as, well, bombastic. The key to a successful show is sending up a lot of shells, he said.

When the finale comes, it's one thing after another.

"When you're ready to do the grand finale, you don't want the audience to mistake it for the end. This is your cue to get in your car and go home, right? So we just let all hell break loose out there," he said.

But shows do also include surprises of a less-apocalyptic nature.

Over the years, the biggest trend in fireworks has been the invention of shells that burst into particular shapes: cubes, Saturns, hearts, bow ties.

The smiley face was an instant hit.

"It's a crowd pleaser. You try to pick the right moments" in the music to launch it, Thomas said. "That element of surprise works."

Nitzan's favorite firework is called the "kamuro."

"'Kamuro' is a Japanese word for a boy's haircut. But more importantly, these are slow-dripping shells. ... They hover, and they glitter, and they take forever," he said.

Manufacturers attach paper stock to the "stars" -- the nuggets within the aerial shell that are thrown outward when the shell explodes and burn as they fall, creating the brilliant streaks of color the audience sees. The wind carries the kamuro's paper-attached-stars, helping them to float.


Though the dazzling, arcing displays convey a certain effortlessness, the work involved in setting them up is anything but. Camaraderie brings the Shoreline crew back together every year, though, the members said.

"It becomes that yearly family thing," Shawn Hoover said. "Some meet for Christmas; we do the Shoreline fireworks. We are 100 percent lucky, but don't kid yourself -- it's hard work."

Jeff Hoover and Nitzan, both Palo Alto High School graduates, have been working together on fireworks for nearly 30 years. It all started when Nitzan recruited Hoover for a July 4 show at the Tanforan Shopping Center in San Bruno.

"I was able-bodied and over 18. He said, 'Come on, let's go.' So I got in a car with him, and we drove off," Hoover said. Little did Hoover know that Nitzan was not planning to do the show with him. "He said, 'Here's your crew; go do it.'"

These days, Hoover is Nitzan's most regular staff member, working three or four shows a year with him. Hoover could have obtained his operator's license, but then he'd be in charge of his own shows, without Nitzan.

"Fact of the matter is ... I want to go work with my buddy," said Hoover, who praises Nitzan's attention to safety and detail.

Together, they've mounted the Shoreline show since its inception in 1984. Every July 3, the crew trucks in the materials to Shoreline Golf Links, first setting up rows of 8-foot-long wooden boxes that hold the guns.

"So the day before the fireworks show, we're out there, placing guns, putting plastic cover over them, and then dumping sand in on top of them," Nitzan said. "Sand is a wonderful material because it's so heavy, and it absorbs the concussions associated with these guns. ... You want something very massive around the guns so you can absorb any problems that occur."

That's the "dirty and grimy" part of set up, Shawn Hoover said -- holding the guns firmly in place and at the right angle as hundreds of pounds of sand are poured and packed around them. The initial set-up can take up to eight hours.

There aren't any explosives on the field until the day of the show. After the shells are sorted by type, each is placed in its designated gun and wired so it's connected to the nail board. The guns are capped with aluminum foil to protect the shells until they're fired.

As showtime approaches, the wires are checked and rechecked. With all the parts in place, the crew takes a break for its own barbecue and to wait for sunset.

Finally, the symphony concert starts, and soon, it's fireworks time. From the amphitheater's backstage, the tech director calls out cue numbers via radio transmission for each firework launch. His voice booms from loudspeakers set up on the darkened golf course: "175! 176!"

Shawn Hoover makes sure to she gets to do some of the firing, touching the stylus to the nail board and hearing the "fwoop" as the shell takes off skyward.

"If I've worked that hard to wire the show, I shoot the ones I've wired," she said. "That's full circle."

It's a magical moment for all, they say.

"As a mom, it's nice to get out and do something incredibly interesting and entertaining," she said. "It's exciting. The shells are beautiful. And every show seems like it's the best one."

Being right under the bursting fireworks carries with it a power that can't be beat, Jeff Hoover said.

"There's an interesting blend of calm and excitement," he said. "You're watching these soaring things go up in the air, feeling the explosions.

"When it goes perfectly, the shells go up and hit their mark. There's a sense of a job well done not just for you, but it's a public job well done. ... Other people got to enjoy it."

Thomas said the audiences' joy motivates him as he produces the dozens of shows every year.

"The magic feeling that everybody has -- it's incredible," he said.

Just how greatly people anticipate that feeling was evident when fog threatened to derail viewing of the Golden Gate Bridge show in May. Spectators at an overlook point in San Francisco's Sunset District grumbled and shook their heads when they saw a fog bank roll across the horizon, obscuring the first celebratory flares, one eyewitness reported.

Their disappointment didn't last long, though. Within minutes, the sky exploded with neon lights, bursting spheres, golden comets and flashing shards that seemed to freeze midair before plummeting through the fog and into the bay.

By the time show reached its crescendo, the audience was gasping, clapping and singing "Happy Birthday" to the popular landmark.

For Nitzan, pyrotechnic work is "a privilege." He likens it to Steve Jobs' famed ability to cast a spell on people, known as his "reality distortion field."

"This is my answer to the reality-distortion field. I get to take an audience and take them on an adventure," he said.

"Fireworks is a unique entertainment form in that it does not require people to know any particular language. It doesn't appeal to one age group over another. It can appeal to families, people of all ages.

Safety concerns, Homeland Security paperwork and hard labor aside, the fun of fireworks to Nitzan is as visceral as the whiz, bang and pop of each bomb bursting in air.

"It's very animated," Nitzan said. "There's a lot of excitement going on, you know. These are explosions after all."

Related stories:

Q&A with Dan Nitzan

The anatomy of fireworks

Celebrating the Fourth of July

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Like this comment
Posted by Greg
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 29, 2012 at 9:34 am

Great piece. Dan is a very talented guy. I remember him coordinating elaborate stage productions at Paly when we were students. Glad to see he never lost his enthusiastic attitude!

1 person likes this
Posted by rem
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 29, 2012 at 9:49 am

rem is a registered user.

As Jeffey's father-in-law and Shawn's father, I am proud of the outstanding work they do. Safety is first with them and Dan...

Like this comment
Posted by Pa
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 3, 2012 at 2:31 pm

I wish the companies in and around Shoreline would open up their parking lots - even for a small fee - for fireworks spectators. Some even had their sprinklers running during the show spraying all pedestrian spectators on the sidewalk.

Like this comment
Posted by KeepPetsInsideJuly4th
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 3, 2012 at 4:09 pm

Please all of us....recall that we DON'T want any wayward fireworks.
Be sure the area is damp and have a fire extinguisher on site, and more than one person needs to KNOW WHERE IT IS.
Don't want injuries to people, or pets, or the environment (trees), it's been pretty dry!
And Keep Your Pets INSIDE for sure.

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