Hagley Museum and Library’s fireworks shows surely are a top contender for the best crowd-pleasing early summer ticket.
Since 1982 Hagley Museum annual fireworks ticket holders have been treated to a pyrotechnic masterpiece that weaves together a story illustrated through music, narration, aerial shells and intricate set pieces.
The members-only event is set for June 12 and 19 with the 2015 theme, “The Art of Advertising.” The shows pay tribute to Hagley’s consumer culture collections featuring such brands as Avon and Seagram as well as other well known product jingles and slogans the audience will recognize.
Located on 235 acres along the banks of the Brandywine River in Wilmington, Hagley is the location of the gunpowder works founded by E. I. du Pont in 1802. The site produced black powder in the foundry yards for over 100 years.
“When E. I. du Pont came to America from France he would go out shooting and his gun would often misfire due to the powder,” said Jill McKenzie, Hagley’s Director of Philanthropy and External Affairs. “Having worked in powder mills in France, he knew how to make a better powder and that became the company’s first big product. So, we look at the firework shows as an extension of those early days, which not many museums can say.”
Lighting up the night is no small task. Hagley’s dazzling, nearly 29 minute shows take the good part of a year to plan and require upwards of 2,ooo firework shells and devices.
This year marks the 13th year that the carefully choreographed firework displays have been produced by Fireworks by Grucci, based in Long Island, N. Y. The family business traces its pyrotechnic roots back to 1850 in Bari, Italy. Today, it stages 250 shows annually, setting off more than 750,00 shells and devices.
Grucci’s signature performances have included four Olympic Games; seven consecutive U. S. presidential inaugurations; countless July 4th celebrations and the New Year’s Eve 2013 stunning show of 479,651 fireworks above Dubai’s iconic skyline that set the Guinness World Record for the “Largest Fireworks Display”. Last summer Grucci staged the Star Spangled Spectacular in Baltimore in honor of the 200th anniversary of America’s national anthem. It featured the largest set piece ever, an American flag 900 feet wide by 450 feet wide.
“A lot of times the show’s theme is based on our library collections which are varied and deep,” McKenzie said about the Hagley production. “There are more than 1,000 businesses represented. It can be a point of departure based on research done here. We also spotlight du Pont family interests. William du Pont, Jr. was the inspiration for the Sport of Kings show we did in 2012.”
The Hagley staff comes up with the music as well.
“The music drives the performance, it takes us where we want to go,” McKenzie said. “A lot of it is upbeat, catchy songs that the audience knows. Watching the first night performance for me is like solving a mystery. We’ve sent the script and music to Grucci and they match the types of fireworks to it. They make sure to change the pattern of fireworks display so it remains fresh every year.”
So how do fireworks work?
“To get it airborne, pyrotechnicians load the firework into a mortar, a tube that propels a fireworks shell high into the air where an explosion occurs,” explains Phil Grucci. the President/CEO/Creative Director of Fireworks by Grucci.
“Inside the shell is black powder, and embedded throughout the gunpowder are explosive spheres called ‘pyrotechnic stars’, which become the points of light that burst through the sky. Shells can be put within shells to create multiple explosions and bursts. They can also include whistles and booming salutes.”
Chemistry holds the secret to the color of a fireworks burst, says Grucci. Exact chemical combinations produce the variety of colors. Strontium is utilized to create vivid red, calcium for orange, sodium for yellow, barium compounds are used to produce green, and copper for blue. Thanks to new breakthroughs, colors today are much brighter than in earlier years.
“Blue is by far the hardest color to produce,” acknowledged Grucci, who represents a fifth generation in the family business. “The particular light that copper gives off at high temperature is blue. But if your temperature gets too high, the color becomes washed out. If the temperature is not high enough, you’re not going to get any type of intensity. We’ve also developed rich colors such as tangerine and chartreuse in recent years.”
Today computer chips play a major role in the productions.
“By embedding small computer chips inside of our aerials that enables us much more precise control over what firework shell will explode at what altitude in the sky, what time it’s going to explode in the sky and how long it hangs in the air,” Grucci explained.
The aspect that makes Hagley’s shows unique are the set pieces. Also referred to as fire paintings, each set piece has an image that when ignited outlines a portrait or picture as the narrator tells the story.
“These days it’s a rarity to see set pieces in any fireworks show in America,” Grucci said. “They are a very special type of art form. We sketch out the scene on paper then work on the design of the hundreds of lances (small cigarette-sized flares) that are attached to a wooden frame in the outline of artwork. The lances are the paint. They illuminate for approximately 30-45 seconds in specific colors and design. Putting together the show is a true collaboration with the folks at Hagley over six or seven months.”
Grucci and his family come to Hagley’s shows each June.
“It kicks off the summer season for our business,” Grucci noted. “It’s such an intimate setting at Hagley with the staging so close to the audience. Spectators sit on blankets and in chairs on this beautiful grassy knoll. For a half-hour or so people can forget challenges in their lives, problems of the world. Those ooohs and aaahs are magical moments. I can turn around on stage and see the joy and wonder in the eyes of a ten-year old or their grandparents who might be in their mid-80s.”
“We do a lot of huge firework displays, which are another animal. Hagley’s shows are so organic, everyone should experience it. It’s high-tech, but the setting is very old-school, almost like a Norman Rockwell painting. In this day and age it’s a precious gem.”
Terry Conway is a Delaware Arts and Culture writer. You can view more of his work: www.terryconway.net.