Sky’s the limit — and the norm — for Frankfort company
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY firstname.lastname@example.org May 20, 2013 10:52PM
Fireworks over U.S. Cellular Field are seen from behind home plate after a baseball game between the Chicago White Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays Friday, April 26, 2013, in Chicago. | AP photo
To see a video of the display that earned a first-place finish in an international competition in Vietnam, visit the “Melrose Pyrotechnics” page on Facebook.com.
Updated: June 22, 2013 6:28AM
Every time the White Sox hit a home run, every time the Bears or Bulls are introduced at a home game, or whenever the city of Chicago has a special event, they are on the scene sparking the celebration.
“They” are the team of technicians, musicians and programmers at Melrose Pyrotechnics, who also light up the skies every Fourth of July.
Melrose Pyrotechnics is based in Frankfort and has been in the family of Mike Cartolano, of Frankfort, for four generations. And it has become part of the family for many clients, including the White Sox: The pyrotechnic team created the original exploding scoreboard at Comiskey Park in 1960.
Many on staff have worked there a long time, including event planner Wynn Cramer.
“What sets us apart is that a lot of companies just do fireworks,” he said. “You don’t want to just throw the stuff up there.”
For Melrose Pyrotechnics, each show is an artistic display, customized for each venue, whether it is one of its 50 shows per year at Navy Pier or at a private wedding reception.
With such attention to detail, timing and creativity, Melrose Pyrotechnics captured first place last month in the Da Nang International Fireworks Competition in Vietnam.
In 2006 — its first year of competition — Melrose won first place in Montreal, Cramer said. The company followed that up with first-place finishes in 2007 and 2010 in Shanghai and Nagasaki, and with second-place trophies in 2011 and 2012.
The Vietnam show was 20 minutes long and followed the theme “Love for the Han River.” The fireworks were choreographed to love songs by Bruno Mars, the Beatles, Whitney Houston and Harry Connick Jr.
“The competitions validate what we do,” Cramer said. “The shows are like nothing you’ve ever seen. They are so big. Sometimes you see things that are pretty cool, but we’re pretty much on top of it. We’re always looking for new ideas.”
The bulk of its business comes during a two-week summer period, including 200 displays on the Fourth of July, but the Melrose staff works all year long. They do all shows for four major league baseball teams: the Sox, Kansas City Royals, Texas Rangers and Milwaukee Brewers, as well as the Bears, Bulls and Green Bay Packers, several minor league baseball teams, and universities such as Northwestern, Purdue and Notre Dame.
They begin gearing up for the summer shows in the dead of winter, working for months to elicit those ooohhs and aaahhs from spectators.
The typical Fourth of July 20-minute musical show takes 30 to 40 hours of prep time, according to Cramer. There is really no such thing as a standard show. Each one is different, tailored to the specific venue and the desired music.
Thousands of fireworks shells are choreographed to customized soundtracks, using snippets of songs. They never use an entire song. With a recording studio at its Kingsbury, Ind., plant, they seamlessly blend together a compilation of suitable music.
All shows begin with the music, Cramer said. Then programmers design the fireworks to fit the tunes.
“We have an extremely creative staff. They can visualize what works,” Cramer said.
All have to know what each type of firework does — its duration, direction, flight time, and the debris factor.
They are out to be detail-oriented perfectionists. Fireworks are tested all the time.
“It has to be perfect,” Cramer said.
The team must also consider the venue. Will trees obstruct the view? Is there room for a ground display? How far away are the spectators?
Even shows that do not include music are still creatively scripted so they flow and grab the attention of the viewers.
They all include a variety of slow and fast, short and long fireworks, of varying colors and styles.
The key, said Cramer, is that more is not always better. Sometimes shows are better with less. It’s all in the presentation, and that’s where Melrose seems to soar.
“When a show goes flawlessly and people respond, you feel good,” Cramer said.
But setting up thousands of shells can be physically hard work.
“Like anything else, it is a job,” he said.
At the Sox games, for example, they set things up at the beginning of the season, on a platform that is 34 feet high, 25 feet wide and 120 feet long. Music is tied into the sound system at the ballpark, while the shells are fired from inside a cement-block building.
Cramer doesn’t miss the days of hand-firing each shell. With computerized firing, the shows “are so much better,” he said. “With hand-firing you could never shoot it fast enough to the changes in the music.”
Each shell is labeled with an “address” — a number that is programmed into the computer to be fired at a precise time.
Melrose is equally precise about safety, he said. Before every show there is a mandatory safety meeting to review the basic rules. One employee is a full-time compliance officer who makes sure everyone is up to date on training, laws and licensing. Those setting off the shells have to be licensed operators, and everyone has to be registered with the state fire marshal’s office. Drivers must be licensed to transport hazardous materials and are subjected to random drug testing.
There has never been an accident on any show Cramer has been on, he said.
“You have to pay attention,” he said.
Although he enjoys watching fireworks, Cramer is so busy paying attention to the tasks at hand, he rarely sees the shows he puts on. And that’s not the only sacrifice.
“We work the holidays. The team knows that what they are doing is important,” he said.