Rockets’ red glare starts here
The biggest fireworks display they did in the U.S. was the Statue of Liberty Centennial event in 1986. “That was done utilizing 11 barges,” said Fireworks by Grucci Inc. CEO and president Phil Grucci. But the grand opening of the Atlantis and Palm Jumeirah in Dubai, United Arab Emirates in 2014 was the ultimate performance of pyrotechnic showmanship, making the Guinness World Records.
“It was 100 times bigger and spanned 45 miles of shorefront,” he said. “We connected an uninterrupted line of fireworks for a six-minute performance.” There were 479,651 choreographed firework effects that lit up the entire outline of the Palm Jumeirah and World Islands to an original composition of music.
Grucci, a Bellport resident, was working closer to home the Friday before July 4. “We have about 81 performances lined up celebrating July 4,” he said. “Half will take place on Saturday and Sunday. We’ll have 350 pyrotechnicians from Honolulu to Key Biscayne in the southern part of the country; Boston is our most northern project.” His son Chris was mounting Freedom and Fireworks at Liberty State Park in Jersey City.
He had just come from a press conference for Nassau County’s TD Bank Celebrate America Concert and Fireworks Show at Eisenhower Park (fireworks were postponed to Sunday night). The next morning, it was on to Boston. He was taking an early Port Jefferson ferry for the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular on the Charles River, a client they’ve had since 1976 when maestro Arthur Fiedler led the orchestra, and was driving there instead of flying. “I have to bring equipment,” he said.
He’s the boss, after all, and makes sure it goes just right.
Grucci was surprisingly calm and focused. So was the Bellport headquarters office staff. No one even remotely hurling firecrackers at each other under stress. Maybe because they have the performances down to a science. And also to exacting planning.
He grew up with a grandfather and grandmother, Felix Sr. and Concetta Grucci, who nurtured caring personal relationships with clients, a successful business attitude to this day. They brought the family to the sites to set up; Concetta hauled homemade Italian food in picnic baskets. Concetta also knew that risks would pay off. (The business started long before the couple lived in Elmont and then Bellport; Angelo Lanzetta, great-grandfather to Felix Sr., was the founder in 1850.)
Phil Grucci’s dad, Jimmy, wanted to enter the annual Monte Carlo International Fireworks competition in 1979.
“My grandfather was against it,” he said. “He was afraid to compete against the Italians, Spaniards and Germans. My dad wanted to take the risks. My grandmother pushed my grandfather to give it a shot. ‘Come on, Phil,’ she’d say (her husband’s nickname). ‘Let him do it.’”
They did. It was a nail-biter for a while because the products, shipped overseas for the first time, were measured in inches, and the shells had to be retrofitted because of Europe’s metric system to sit inside the mortars. “We played a lot of John Philip Sousa music and Frank Sinatra, My grandfather loved Sinatra,” he said. “We set it up on the break wall. To sit there watching with dad and grandpa and seeing my father’s face…”
Grucci was 18 when they won; it was a sterling moment.
The designs, engineering and drawings are produced in Bellport and Grucci said 10 percent of the equipment is stored at their headquarters; satellite storage buildings are located in Dubai, Las Vegas, Oahu, Radford, Va., and the Virgin Islands.
“Most of our projects take place on bridges, rivers, buildings,” he explained. “I look at the stage first. There’s a music score and sometimes you get a rare treat to work with a composer. I can design the pyrotechnics so you can compose a sound to go with it. We have 3,000 different designs we can put into a show. You have to know the medium, how it will work in the sky and how it will complement the other images. It’s noise, the size and the movement. Some descend very elegantly and some are erratic, so you wouldn’t combine those.” It means scripting every device, a painstaking process.
Among other things, the Gruccis have supplied inaugural fireworks for eight presidents. That includes President Trump. “We got that call at night on Jan. 9 and had to make the program within a one-week turnaround,” he said. The show included the beautiful American flag over the Lincoln Memorial that was shimmering on his desktop, a highlight. “Every one of those shells were made in the U.S.,” he said of the pyrotechnics. It meant working with the Secret Service and National Parks Department; they canopied the top of the Washington monument with white pyrotechnics.
“That’s not the normal time frame,” he added. “Ideally, it’s six months.”
But it hasn’t all been glorious openings and inaugurations.
Grucci’s dad Jimmy sadly died in the Nov. 26, 1983 fire, when the former Bellport location where pyrotechnics and rockets were made blew up in a major explosion. Along with Grucci’s dad, a cousin, Donna Gruber, died and about two-dozen others were injured. It knocked out power to 7,000 homes. “We lost everything,” he said, “property, inventory. That May we produced the Brooklyn Bridge Centennial. Then we had the accident.”
But they got back on their feet, eventually producing more and more amazing work, like the Grucci specialty, the goldflutter split comet his grandfather perfected. “When it breaks open, these golden glitter comets come down then split and descend; just as you think it will extinguish, it splits again and leaves a golden lattice of x’s,” he said. “We still make it.”
In 2013, the Grucci family transitioned leadership to Phil Grucci; for over 40 years, Donna Grucci Butler as president, Felix J. Grucci Jr. as executive vice president and CFO, Merlin Phillip Butler (Donna’s husband), who served as executive director of projects, and Phil helped bring the family pyrotechnic business to the pinnacle it’s known for.
Fireworks and Grucci are pretty much one and the same to most people; the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead launched an exhibit in May on the Grucci family, “The Family That Lights the Skies” that’s on display until Sept. 9.
The company also has a facility in Radford, Va., with 130 employees that manufactures training devices for soldiers. “Simulated hand grenades and ground bombs, booby traps,” said Grucci. “The soldiers need to know the time it takes for these devices to explode and the noise they make.”
There is also a research and development facility in Delanson, N,Y.
The Greater Patchogue Chamber of Commerce has utilized Grucci fireworks from the beginning, when Midnight On Main was introduced as a family-friendly night out, several hours earlier than the 12 o’clock countdown. This year will be their fourth.
“When we initially discussed the event we knew having a fireworks display,” said GPCC executive director David Kennedy. “Gerry Crean and I reached out to Phil and he was thrilled to be part of it. He gives us a great show with a discount involved and it’s certainly made it an event people enjoyed. He was part of the planning in the very first one and his staff is very engaged in making it the event it is today.”
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