2013 July 9
From The Daily Summer: The Gruccis Go Boom
Giorgio Niro View Gallery
(NEW YORK) Meet the Gruccis, America’s “first family of fireworks” (no, really) and the busiest clan on Long Island last week. Since 1850, they’ve been blowing stuff up for our amusement, reinventing the art of pyrotechnics at celebrations around the world. Here, Fireworks by Grucci CEO Phil Grucci gives us the explosive inside scoop. (If you ever considered having your ashes mixed with gunpowder and shot into the sky, he’s got you covered.)
BY ALEXANDRA ILYASHOV
How long have the Gruccis been blowing stuff up?
Six generations, starting with my grandfather’s grandfather in Bari, Italy, back in 1850. My grandfather’s uncle, Anthony, set up shop in Elmont, Long Island, where my grandfather worked until he opened his own factory in Bellport. We came through Ellis Island like most Italian-American families. Some brought recipes for sauce or bread. We brought a shoebox full of fireworks recipes.
Where did the “first family” nickname originate?
In 1979, my father encouraged my family to participate in the Olympics of fireworks, a world competition in Monte Carlo. My grandfather was conservative and didn’t want to, but my father was very aggressive and out-the-box. We competed against five companies, and were the first U.S. company to take home a gold medal. Since then, we’ve been the first family of fireworks!
A lot of Gruccis must’ve cycled through the biz by now.
My uncle Felix, my aunt Donna, and my dad, James, worked under my grandfather. I’m part of the fifth generation. In 1983, we had a very bad experience— an explosion that took the life of my father and a cousin. It’s one of the only industrial explosions we’ve ever had in the company’s history. It was certainly our lowest year. But Donna, Felix, and I rebuilt the company after that, and now my son, Christopher, daughter, Lauren, and nephew, Cory, are part of the team.
Is pyrotechnic training a prerequisite chez Grucci?
Absolutely. Even if their primary role is admin-istrative, everyone’s a pyro technician. The only exception is my aunt Donna, who’s always been frightened of fireworks.
Isn’t that sort of a dealbreaker?
I don’t think she’s ever lit a firework shell, though she’s certainly very versed in how to do so. She’s just too scared to put the lighter to the fuse.
Where will all the Grucci’s be this weekend?
My sister, Debbie, produces the fireworks off Caesar’s Palace’s roof in Las Vegas every July 4th, and Corey will be with her. I’ll be at the Atlantis in the Bahamas with Christopher, Lauren, and my nephew, Nicholas. Donna does a few programs in Florida. Felix, will be at a show in Stamford, Connecticut. My uncle, Phil, is doing our presentation on the Great South Bay. We have 80 or so shows this weekend. There are around 20 tristate area shows, and 10 in the Hamptons.
What’s your longest running engagement?
We’ve done the fireworks at Boys Harbor for over 40 years, and our show at Amagansett’s Devon Yacht Club is the longest consecutive running program on Long Island. My grandfather started that over 50 years ago.
Back to basics: How did you learn the family craft?
I have a Ph.D. in lifelong industry experience! Running the business, management, and psychology are acquired through formal education, but the fireworks craft is really the school of hard knocks.
Who makes your ‘works?
We have a Virginia factory with 165 employees. They’re busy little beavers! We manufacture 3,500 different varieties of fireworks. They’re little characters in a play we’re casting. At any given second, there are seven or eight varieties of fireworks in the air during a show. With all the colors, that’s a few hundred in a six-minute show! We determine the budget, mostly based on the show’s duration. A roof is more complex and expensive than an open field, for instance.
Do your clients ever try and micromanage?
No! They commission us as artists, though we do talk about theme and location. We’ve done weddings with poodles and hearts. It’s all custom designed.
Sounds like couture fireworks.
Yes! I like that. I’m going to use that! Designing on an animated computer system takes up to two hours for every minute of fireworks. We’re placing effects down to the tenth of a second, sometimes the 100th of a second. In the old days, you’d just fire some flares.
How big is the posse of pyros for each show?
We have 50 or 60 pyro technicians for major shows. We have a personnel department just to schedule them!
Let’s talk private fireworks shows.
We’ve produced bar mitzvahs, birthday parties, and weddings. And some people just want to throw a party! Our smallest program on Long Island costs about $4,000 dollars, and goes up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. A $4,000 show can’t be out on a barge. That price doesn’t even cover the barge rental!
What does $4,000 buy?
A small event, maybe with some small Roman candles, done in a grassy area.
Do you get a lot of custom requests?
People who plan to be cremated once they’ve passed ask if we can place their ashes in a fireworks show.
Oh, yeah. We’ve had 10 or 11 inquires about that. And we do it, too! We’d produce a product [with the cremated ashes] that gets projected during a private program. We’ve also had requests for shows at funerals. Some people want more of a celebratory event.
How long are most shows?
A show might run for six to eight minutes, but viewers will think it ran for 20 to 25 minutes.
Have you guys invented anything special?
We’re the only company to develop the technology for sky etching [sky writing]. Also, pixel bursts, which control burst altitude and create abstract shapes.
Any famous clients?
Recently, we did a show for Sidney Poitier in the Bahamas. He was having a bridge dedicated to him. In the past, we’ve worked with people like Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Donald Trump, and Michael Jackson.
What’s it like doing fireworks for the president?
We produced the last consecutive seven inaugurations, except for President Obama’s. He hasn’t had fireworks. One of my favorite memories was watching our semi-trailer, covered in explosive signs, drive down Pennsylvania Avenue.
What’s the biggest show you’ve done to date?
We’ve broke the record for the world’s largest show, in Dubai at the Atlantis, The Palm grand opening. It was in the multiple million-dollar range.
What’s the industry competition like?
There are 200 or so fireworks companies in the U.S. Locally, we compete with two or three companies.
Do you deal with Gucci comparisons or confusion?
All of the time! People do say, “You’re the Gucci of fireworks!” We definitely take that as a compliment. Maybe people tell the Gucci family that they’re the Grucci’s of leather!
PLUS! Meet Donna Grucci Butler, Music Maestro!
You’re the Grucci audio pro. What does that entail?
I’ve been doing this for about 18 years. When I hear music, I visualize fireworks! We meet with the client to discuss a program’s theme, then create a soundtrack of songs that match the show’s patterns. It’s very collaborative.
What are the most popular jams for the Fourth?
Jennifer Hudson’s “America the Beautiful,” Neil Diamond’s “America,” and “God Bless the U.S.A.”
What tracks are haute on the bar mitzvah circuit?
They’re young, so they want the pop artists. The techno stuff is difficult. There’s a lot of pulsing, and not a lot of changes. My favorite music to design to is classical.
Any Grucci traditions of note?
We are very religious; very Catholic. We always pray before a show. Thank god we’ve been extremely fortunate, but a million things could go wrong.
What kind of music would you love to work with?
Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli singing live together. Designing a show to that is definitely on my bucket list!
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