Artists in Light and Sound

Each August, a very small fireworks company shoots a very big show over Oak Bluffs.

People don’t realize how much the barge actually vibrates,” says Joyce Morrison, who designs and orchestrates the Oak Bluffs fireworks show each August. When the largest shells lift off, “You’ll feel the deck go ‘Eeeee’ under your feet.” As the smoke and smell begin to eddy away from the deck after the finale, first-timers on the barge talk about the buzz they picked up beneath their steel-toed boots: “Wow, when the twelve-inch went off, the whole barge hummed!”

Joyce loves it when new members of the pyrotechnic crew talk this way. It means they’re beginning to understand what it’s like to shoot a fireworks show. “You’re shooting the show not only by sight, but by sound, and by feel,” she says. “You’ll feel the shell leave the gun; you’ll feel it going up. There’s a wush! It’s literally splitting the air as it’s going up into the sky.”

The people who own and run CR Pyro of Middleton talk louder than you or I do. Faster too. They stand close to you when they talk. They face you directly, like the narrator in a play, and their eyes are a bit brighter than your own – or anyone else’s you’ve met in the last fifteen or twenty years.

“You’ll notice one thing right away – we’re addicted to these things,” says David J. Kelsen Sr., who with Joyce Morrison and Anthony Rizzo created CR Pyro in 1992, and who have at least 100 years of fireworks-shooting experience among them. “We started our own company because we wanted to do fireworks right, the way we were always taught to do it.”

CR Pyro is a small company, tiny by the standards of an outfit such as Grucci, which shoots the shows over New York harbor on Independence Day and for other national events. It’s small even compared to other pyrotechnic companies in New England. But because the Oak Bluffs show is the only one they shoot each year in the third week of August, the whole crew is in one place, and Joyce and David and Tony have the time to explain everything about what they do and how they do it – not only by sight, but by sound, and by feel.

The three of them, who also shoot the Fourth of July show in Edgartown and the Last Night, First Day show in Vineyard Haven, want you to understand right away that they love shooting both, Edgartown for the festival spirit of the holiday and New Year’s Eve because the crispness of the winter night makes the bangs sharper and the colors more vivid (especially the blues).

But they also want you to know that no show anywhere means more to them than the Oak Bluffs extravaganza. Twenty-five members of David and Tony’s family – the two men are brothers-in-law – come down from Boston and vicinity. They take over the Shearer Cottage in Oak Bluffs, grandchildren and grandparents alike sleeping anywhere they can find a horizontal surface, just so that some members of the family can see the show, others can help set it up, and still others help fire it off. CR Pyro crew members get paid to work other shows, but they come to the Vineyard, sleep in backyard tents, and get up at four in the morning to work Oak Bluffs for free. “This is Old Home Day here,” says David, and when you ask him what’s the big deal about Oak Bluffs, given that this show is modest compared to others that CR Pyro regularly shoots on the mainland, he says, “Well, it all goes back to Carmen.”

Carmen Rozzi grew up in East Boston, but his parents came over from Avellino, near Naples. Carmen spoke textbook Italian, learned from the way his parents spoke in the home, and from the Enrico Caruso records he loved to play. “The greatest thing about my dad,” says Tony Rozzi, “was that he was unsophisticated. He could read and write but not very well. I first learned that when I was about fifteen, and he went up to Maine to get his fireworks license. Maine had a written test, and I think that was the first written test he had ever had to take. The state trooper left the room, and he says to me, ‘You better read these questions to me. I’m going to tell them I didn’t bring my glasses.’ But I knew he had his glasses.”

Carmen’s own father made fireworks back in Italy. Italian fireworks designers show their mastery by creating multiple breaks per shell. Five breaks means that a shell produces five visual effects or sounds after it bursts in the sky. You demonstrate your skills by timing the breaks, visually and aurally. Anybody can take a tube, throw a bunch of powder in it, and make a shell go up and explode. In the Italian style – and by extension the Oak Bluffs style – it’s about the artistry.

“My father loved a shell called the spider web,” says Tony. “It burns a Halloween-orange type of burn. If made just right, it shoots out from the center.” Tony’s hands spread out flat, his fingers separating from each other to show how. “You have what looks like a spider web because the arms of fire are static in the air, so that you see an interlocking effect, like a web. When it works just right, it just breaks open. He loved them. He absolutely loved spider webs.”
When the Oak Bluffs Firemen’s Civic Association decided to restart the tradition of August fireworks in 1974 after a six-year gap – the association wanted to thank Vineyarders and visitors alike for a good summer season, and to raise money for a few Island causes – Carmen was shooting fireworks for a man named John Cairo, a master manufacturer of fireworks who’d come from northern Italy. The Oak Bluffs firemen hired Cairo, and Cairo sent Carmen to shoot the show.

“I remember the first year, we spent three grand or something,” says Peter Martell, an assistant chief for the Oak Bluffs Fire Department. “We got a thousand out of the town, and we raised a couple of thousand, and that’s the first show we did.” Tony Rozzi, working with his father, came down to Woods Hole with two boxes of shells. Explosives weren’t allowed on the ferry, so he waited for two Oak Bluffs firemen to show up in a Boston Whaler. Tony climbed down a ladder at the Steamship Authority wharf into “this little, tiny boat,” he says, “and we went across – me and two guys that I’d never met before. And the boat was riding so low in the water that it was only a couple of inches away. And then – I’m not a fisherman; I grew up in the city – we got into this quiet area, and they stopped and said, ‘This is where the fish are.’ They threw a line over and fished for half an hour. With the fireworks in the boat. And then we proceeded.” For Tony, this is the kicker: “They didn’t catch anything at all.”

When he got down to the Island a day or so later, Carmen Rozzi was knocked out by the kindness and help he got from the Oak Bluffs firemen and the folks they’d corralled to volunteer. He’d never worked a show where the customer pitched in like this. The firemen remember it as plain old Vineyard courtesy. Free housing, Boy Scouts digging trenches for the guns, strangers getting him whatever he asked for – and sometimes things he didn’t think to ask for. “He got his bucket of quahaugs, a couple of cases of beer – we took real good care of him,” says Peter Martell. “And he always used to bring a half a dozen extra boxes of fireworks. Basically, Carmen made the show. He made sure everything was right, and we had big stuff. Lots of big stuff. And that show just evolved.” Each year, more hospitality, more shells off the books. More volunteers from Oak Bluffs, more free labor from Carmen and a young Tony and David and Joyce and the rest of the apprenticing crew.

Each year, Oak Bluffs called for Carmen. And each year, for the next seventeen years, Carmen came.

To reach the place where the fireworks are stored on the mainland, you follow Joyce Morrison’s truck off a paved road onto an old dirt road. You pass the farmhouse with the angry dog. A dusty mile or so down the road, you pull up to the bunker – a twenty-foot, Type-4, reinforced shipping container standing on concrete blocks. “You want something that can contain a blast,” says Joyce. It can heat up to 130 degrees in the summer. Joyce and David open the door and are met by a swarm of wasps, who love the heat. To see the bunker, the magazine promised to keep the location secret – including the name of the state.  

Inside, piled to the roof, are brown boxes, many with Chinese characters on the outside. The basics of fireworks design and manufacture haven’t changed in hundreds of years. From a box, David lifts a small, pear-shaped shell and peels back the paper wrapping to reveal two parts. The upper half is packed with stars. (These are made of black powder and various chemicals to produce different colors and effects. The mixture is rolled out like bread dough and cut to shape; these stars are the size of large dice.) The fuse, or quick match, runs into the top of the shell. It’s made of string soaked in black powder and wrapped in a paper sleeve. The flame zooms so fast through the sleeve that the paper doesn’t burn.

The lower half of the shell, or tail, contains a bag filled with black powder. The quick-match flame runs through the shell and causes the black powder to explode, launching the shell from the tube (also called a gun). At liftoff, the flame also lights timing fuses within the firework, now soaring skyward. These fuses are slower and set off the breaks – the light show and the explosive reports – at specific times. Sometimes David and Joyce want the shell to wait until it gets to the top of its arc to explode. Other times they want it to explode on the way down. Manufacturers adjust the bursting of the shell by lengthening or shortening the timing fuses. When this particular shell explodes over Oak Bluffs this month, it will send the dice-sized stars – coated in black powder and packed with a compound called bianca forte, which burns as a bright white light – arcing off in a great umbrella.

These days Joyce goes to fireworks trade shows and to Alonzo Fireworks, a company in Mechanicsville, New York, to buy almost all the shells in the CR Pyro arsenal. It takes too much time and money to make the tens of thousands of shells the company needs each year. But Tony Rozzi grew up making them with his father Carmen and especially with the late John Cairo, the master fireworks maker and Carmen Rozzi’s employer. “I have formulas handwritten by [Cairo] in Italian, of all colors, all of the effects, and everything. That is put away in a safety deposit box,” says Tony. “That’s what other fireworks companies would fight over. Every fireworks company had something that they did really well. You’d always covet the other person’s great stuff. He probably got them from his father and his father before that. God knows how old these formulas are, but they are all in his handwriting when he was a very young man, in Italian, written on paper in pencil.

“John was very clever. He put them in code. Almost like the quatrains of Nostradamus. Some were written backwards, some were written with other codes; he was quite cute.” If the codes ever fall into the hands of a rival fireworks company, there are false leads, so following the recipe won’t help the thief. John Cairo left these formulas to Tony and only to him. Included in the formulas is the thirteen-break spider web, its shell eight inches across and the base two feet long, that John’s employee Carmen Rozzi loved so much.

You want to know how the show is designed and shot? So did we. If you imagine it involves an Apple computer, a seventeen-inch screen, and a program called FireworksDesign 6.0, you couldn’t possibly be more wrong. That’s not the way John Cairo designed his shows way back when. That’s not the way Joyce Morrison designs them now. Though she started working with fireworks twenty-eight years ago – and was hired by Carmen Rozzi in 1985 – Joyce is one of only a few women to be licensed as a pyrotechnician in New England (and the first ever in Maine). “It’s still very much a man’s game,” she says.
Joyce maps out all the CR Pyro shows in her head, as John Cairo once did. She stands in the bunker, staring up at the brown boxes with the Chinese writing on them, and begins to imagine the darkness over Oak Bluffs on Friday night, August 18, 2006. She considers herself an artist in light and sound, with the whole night sky her canvas. How she fills it matters greatly to her, and to the rest of her team.

“It’s amazing,” says Sue Gardner, one of the CR Pyro crew members. “She’ll sit there and stare at the boxes, and you can see it: She’s watching the show in her head. And she hasn’t even touched a single shell yet. You can see that it’s playing out right in front of her face. She’ll start pulling down boxes, looking at them, and saying, ‘No, I don’t want you. I want you.’”

More and more these days, Joyce likes to send up two or three smaller shells together in a group called a flight. She’s also fond of multi-shot collections of shells called cakes, designed to produce an effect such as a waterfall. These can contain anything from 25 shots up to 300 shots. These shells are tiny – from a quarter of an inch up to 2 inches in diameter. One fuse lights the whole thing.

“I was telling my oldest son,” says Tony, “that I wished I could take him back to a time where quality and pride and craftsmanship trumped quantity or cost or anything else. Now it’s all about competing with the Joneses next door, how many shells you can throw in the air, and how fast. But back then, the masters I learned from, they would literally see the show in their minds, and then go and make it by hand. That’s how I learned, and I was blessed.

“Now with the new OSHA rules and the new laws and the regulations, you can’t even take a kid on until they’re eighteen years old. You don’t get the flavor, you don’t get the smell, you don’t get the brush strokes of the masters. You see the final product only. Today it’s more ‘Two thousand shells and a solid wall of fireworks.’” John Cairo would watch a show and if a shell didn’t break right, “he would literally be bothered by it. And he taught me that – taught me how to take a look at the shell and say, ‘We could do it this way, or that way.’ Not, ‘We could do it quicker. We could do it more economically. We could make more money from the shells.’ It was, ‘If we tied this sixteen times rather than eight times, we’d get a better break out of it.’”

Tony says, almost in passing, that there is still one thirteen-break spider web left in the bunker, waiting for the right time and the right place to shoot it. This is the greatest shell in the CR Pyro inventory. “Thirteen breaks is about the longest you can go on an eight-inch shell without it hitting the ground,” says Tony. “A thirteen-break spider-web shell contains twelve separate spider-web shells in it and one bottom shot. The beauty of the Italian shell is that it always had its breaks, its color, its effect like a whistle, but there is always a loud, earth-shattering bottom shot as the last thing.

“I will need to disassemble it to make sure it’s still in good shape, then put it back together again,” says Tony. “I will. But I’m a very sentimental guy, and I never thought I would be. I don’t want to shoot the last one.”

Joyce and the rest of the crew leave the bunker at 2 a.m. the day before the Oak Bluffs show. They race down to Woods Hole to make the hazardous-materials ferry, an early-morning freight boat. (No more Boston Whalers or stops to fish in the middle of Vineyard Sound.)

On arrival, the great Vineyard welcome embraces the CR Pyro team, just as it did back during Carmen Rozzi’s first trip in 1974. Ralph M. Packer Jr., owner of the eponymous transportation and oil-distribution company in Vineyard Haven, donates the tug and barge from which the largest shells are shot offshore. Peter Forend, an Oak Bluffs deputy fire chief now serving in Iraq, donates a dumpster, and Goodale Construction, the sand in which the largest guns are embedded. The Boy Scouts help dig the quarter-mile trench along the beach from which the foreground part of the finale will be shot. In answer to this generosity, CR Pyro volunteers its labor costs, and Oak Bluffs gets a $60,000 show for about $25,000. (The fire department usually collects about $30,000 through fundraising and summertime T-shirt sales at the head of Circuit Avenue. The $5,000 balance goes to two scholarships, as well as the Scouts, food baskets, and tanks of home-heating oil for the needy, building ramps and other facilities for the disabled, and topping off the fireworks fund.)

The Oak Bluffs show is a three-dimensional thing, involving barge, beach, and walkway along Beach Road. That’s of necessity. Modern rules dictate that the audience must be kept back 70 feet for each inch in the diameter of a shell. “So a 12-inch shell means it has to be shot at least 840 feet from the audience,” says David Kelsen. “That’s why the bigger shells are on the barge offshore. Smaller shells, up to 6 inches in diameter, are still sent up from the beach. The audience is across the road and at least 500 to 600 feet from the closest shells. The finale at Oak Bluffs starts on the beach, at both ends, and works toward the center, with the barge sending larger shells over it, like a canopy. It goes from very colorful to very bright and glittery toward the end.”

On fireworks day, the guns are lined up on the barge, the smaller tubes set in wooden racks. They snake along the deck in rows and right angles, like a battery of mortars. Not so long ago, almost all the guns were made of aluminum, but today most are made of high-density polyurethane, others of construction paper wound up extremely tight. The paper guns can fire shows for at least ten years, the polyurethane almost forever. The largest guns, with barrels twelve inches across and made of steel, are buried at least three-quarters of their length in the dumpster of sand set to one side of the barge. All the guns are wired together and to a pair of battered Pyro-matic boxes with switches and dials.

On the beach, the grass is burned to reduce the risk of fire, and the shells are buried three feet deep in two rows on a terrace of sand between the two sea walls for the full quarter-mile length of the trenches. These are wired to another Pyro-matic box. Set pieces of spinning wheels, yellow ribbons, and a Maltese (or fireman’s) cross are hung from wooden frames and gantries, and erected along the sidewalk railing. They are lit by torches and burn like massive sparklers when set alight.

On the barge and on the shore, the crew members turn dials and flip switches according to the script Joyce worked out in her head back at the bunker. She calls the show by shouting on the barge and by radio to the beach. Both crews wear hard hats, protective glasses, ear plugs, and, on the barge, those steel-toed boots. If a shell or a flight goes up prematurely or fails to break the right way, Joyce can improvise by firing off other sections earlier or later than planned. No computer program would allow her to do that.

A favorite set piece in the Oak Bluffs show is The Drunk – the wooden skeleton of a man who is walked along Beach Road by a daring crew member holding him from the end of a pole. (For many years the crewman was Tony Rozzi.) The Drunk shoots off a billion sparks as he staggers forward and backward, swigging from a bottle. At the end of his ramble, he urinates orange flame onto a lamppost. “One year we stopped it because we had a few comments about it,” says David. “And then the next year we had so many people comment that we didn’t do it, he came back.”

The morning of the show, the barge is loaded with shells from the Oak Bluffs Steamship Authority wharf before seven o’clock and towed to its anchorage a couple of hundred yards off the beach. (When you find a place to lay your blanket at Ocean Park around eight o’clock on fireworks night, bear in mind that the shooters on the barge have been out there for thirteen hours, checking and re-checking the shells, guns, fuses, and wiring; setting up fire stations; munching on snacks and sipping water; trying to find shadowy places on the deck as the sun moves through the day; and walking off their nerves. Once the barge is loaded with shells and moved to its station, the rules say the CR Pyro crew cannot leave.)

The go–no go decision is made by 5 p.m., just before CR Pyro begins to load the shells on the beach. A stiff onshore breeze, the threat of fog or rain – these will cause the firemen and the shooters to postpone the Oak Bluffs show by one night. That’s why the show is always scheduled for a Friday. If the weather on Friday is bad, there’s always Saturday. If the shells are loaded on the beach, the show is fired except in the most dangerous conditions. (They can’t be left overnight, and there are too many to remove.) To the CR Pyro team, safety is a word spelled in italics.

“It’s against company policy to have an accident,” says David. “If you look at every big problem that happens, it usually started when something small happened that wasn’t taken care of. Things down the line weren’t done right. For example, the racks of guns weren’t set up properly, so if you have a gun blow in the rack, it knocks the rack over, which shoots some fireworks on the barge itself, lighting a fire, causing more trouble. Then if there isn’t the proper fire-fighting equipment, the rest of the shells on the barge explode and a small fire becomes a large fire.” (The crew members on the barge shoot the show wearing life vests. If worse comes to worst – and in a CR Pyro show, it never has – they can jump overboard, and wait for police boats to pick them up.)

With safety always the priority, who shoots what from where is vetted carefully. The barge can be a particularly fearsome place, with thousands of shells lifting off from within the steel bulkheads with deck-rattling cries. Some crew members, shooting from this Hades for the first time, find it’s too much. Joyce can see it in their eyes, in the way they move. They are never allowed back on the barge to shoot a show. This is the one time Joyce speaks quietly: “No,” she tells these people. “This isn’t going to work for you again.”

The first shells, fired from the beach, are a blue peony with a silver spinner, a golden spider with a green strobe pistil, and a flight that creates a chrysanthemum glittering in gold and green. The script reminds Joyce to “let shell break and fall then count to 4” and “Let the cake die down then go to Mid.” This is the mid-show finale, designed to make everyone think for a moment that that was the end (“a pretty nice show, not bad, better than last year”) before the performance kicks in for the second half and heads for the actual, blazing, chest-thumping finale.

From a Packer tug idling fifty yards from the barge, you see the guns on the seaward side of the deck, angled slightly away from the beach, fire in wushing succession. Rockets arc past you with that air-splitting scream. From the tug, the fireworks appear to burst almost directly overhead, raining down with you beneath them, turning the black water pewter as the stars and pistils settle on the surface this close to the bow and then go out, the whole glorious life of the shell lived in about ten seconds.

Then comes the finale – 2,000 shells, brocade green, lime to magenta, green to silver peony. The finale uses up nearly half of all the shells in the Oak Bluffs show. You see flames from the guns on the beach race inward along the quarter-mile trench. On the barge, the script says, “send up anything that is left,” and the sky overhead is a thunderstorm of golds, reds, whites, and blues, all appearing to come down on top of you before whiffing out to nothingness. Over the diesel engine in the tug, the cheer from Ocean Park sounds like the call of a distant beast, both high and low, coming from near and far. (Just before the barge was towed away from the Steamship Authority wharf fourteen hours earlier, Joyce had said from the deck, “There is no high like the high you get after you hear an audience go completely berserk after a show, and they’re screaming and yelling, ‘More! More!’ A lot of us are adrenalin junkies. There’s definitely something to be said for the thrill of it.”) The last shells you see are a pair of golden palm trees with a tail – an island symbol for a company whose owners were taught by Carmen Rozzi, and whose initials come from their teacher’s own name.

Which brings up one more thing about Carmen Rozzi himself, and by extension the town whose show he so loved to shoot:

Around about Father’s Day in 1991, Carmen got the news that he had cancer, that it was terminal, that he would probably not live through the summer. Joyce Morrison remembers Carmen saying, “I can’t be sick. I still have Oak Bluffs.” As the third weekend of August approached, Carmen grew more and more weak. Tony, a licensed pharmacist in his civilian life, went to see his father early on the morning he was supposed to make the trip. Carmen was in bed. “I looked at him and thought, gosh, he is very, very ill.” Carmen’s wife Edith had pleaded with Carmen that summer not to go down to the Vineyard. “Carmen, you’re killing yourself,” she’d say. Carmen would answer, “They’re good people. I’ll do it.”

David Kelsen lifted his father-in-law from the bed and carried him to the van. Carmen was driven down to Woods Hole and ferried over to the Vineyard. He was taken to the bandstand in Ocean Park, where the firemen had gathered as the light faded away. Carmen was made an honorary fireman, given a badge, and presented with a plaque that read: “Our sincere thanks for your years of service to our annual fireworks display from the members of the Oak Bluffs Firemen’s Civic Association.” The crowd was told that this show was being shot in honor of Carmen Rozzi, the man who reintroduced August fireworks to the Island. Carmen watched the show, which was set off by his son Tony, his son-in-law David, Joyce, and a crew he had trained through a lifetime of work. A thirteen-break spider web, his favorite shell, was shot early in the show. That night he was taken to the Wesley Hotel, where he slept with the plaque in his arms. The next day he was driven home in the van.

That evening, Tony Rozzi was shooting a show in Coventry, Rhode Island, when he learned that his father had died. Tony had with him another thirteen-break spider web that he wanted to dedicate to his dad. It went up at the beginning of the show.  

“It was beautiful. It performed absolutely the way it should. We stood there and counted, one-two-three-four-five-six . . . and it was perfect,” he says. Tony has that one remaining thirteen-break spider web in his reserves. Fifteen Augusts after Carmen Rozzi’s last show, it sits in the bunker. He and the rest of the CR Pyro crew are just waiting for the right time and a deserving place to send it rocketing into the night sky.