Designer of Minneapolis fireworks show hopes viewers have a blast

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 3, 2013 - 5:35 PM

Minneapolis' July 4th fireworks display comes only once a year -- which is how long it takes to put it together.

Dale Nowak has spent a year working on the fireworks display that will serve as the finale of the Red, White & Boom festival celebrating July 4th in downtown Minneapolis. But he’s going to have to wait one more day before he gets a chance to see how it turns out.

“The first thing I’m going to do July 5th is go on YouTube and watch all the videos of it,” he said. “Fortunately, a lot of people post videos. It’s great to watch them because I get feedback from the crowd on what they liked.”

Nowak, who designs shows for Pyrotechnic Display Inc. in Clear Lake, Minn., won’t see the Minneapolis display because he’ll be working at another show. But it wouldn’t matter, anyway, because he wouldn’t see it even if he were there.

When you’re shooting off 2,700 fireworks — which is what Nowak has laid out for the riverfront show — you don’t have time to look up. You need to be completely immersed in what’s happening at the launch site.

“It’s an intense display,” he said. “When we asked the Park Board what they wanted, they didn’t give us any parameters about the style of the show. They just said that they wanted one of the premier displays of any metro area. So we want to make sure that it’s impressive. This event draws a lot of people to downtown, and they take great pride in it.”

The annual show, which starts at 10 p.m., draws 30,000 people to the Mississippi River banks between the 3rd Avenue and Stone Arch bridges.

The fact that Nowak ends up watching the show on video is appropriate because that’s also how he puts it together. His company videotapes all the fireworks in its repository, and the videos are downloaded into a computer. Then he mixes and matches the various aerial effects until he gets the look and flow that he wants.

“It’s almost like making a movie,” he said.

Each year, a few new fireworks are added.

“Our representatives go to the factories overseas, and they shoot off their new stuff for us,” he said, adding that China, Japan and Taiwan are where the company does most of its shopping. “All our fireworks are made just for us. We don’t buy anything off the shelf, so to speak, so you’re not going to see our stuff in other displays.”

When the firework shipments arrive, the designers take them into a remote area and shoot off samples, which they also videotape for use in the “movie” they use in designing shows.

“We want to know what it does,” he said. “We want to see it perform.”

On a spit of shoreline just downstream from the 3rd Avenue Bridge, crews will start working early the day of the show — setting up the banks of mortar racks that launch the rockets, loading the fireworks and running all the necessary wiring.

While there are smaller shows where technicians do what’s called hand firing — lighting fuses — a show this size, like the Harriet Island show in St. Paul, fires everything electronically according to a script that Nowak has prepared.

“It’s all state-of-the-art,” he said. “Every firework has an address — a part number — and is loaded according to whether it’s going to go vertical [straight up], left or right.”

The shells go up 300 to 600 feet, which is the ceiling for the downtown area. Although the technicians firing the rockets never have time to look up, there are spotters watching the display to make sure everything is going according to plan.

Nowak enjoys the design freedom the Minneapolis show affords him. “It’s a display that allows us to be very creative,” he said. “It give us the freedom to include a lot of variety.”

Among the new fireworks this year is one called a silver tourbillon, a French term professionals use to describe a firework that spins. Nowak is excited about it.

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