The Man Behind the Otisville Fireworks
NEWBURGH, N.Y.—The spark that ignited Mike Romano’s passion for fireworks was a sparkler given to him by his dad when he was five years old.
“He figured ‘I might as well break in my son right.’ He gave me a sparkler and that was it,” Romano recalled, telling how his father would shoot now-illegal fireworks he brought from the south, much to the displeasure of the authorities.
As Romano grew older and his firework ambitions got too big for his backyard, he moved to the Randall Airport near where he lived in New Hampton.
It was the mid 1990’s when he was told he couldn’t use the airport anymore because of development plans there, and coincidentally, that was around the time Romano was approached by two firemen from the Otisville Fire Department to do a fireworks show in Otisville.
Now a Mount Hope resident, his firework show around the fourth of July is how he shares his talent and generosity with the local and extended community.
“I take nothing for it because it’s a hobby for me, so that’s my way of giving back to the community,” he said when Epoch Times caught up with him before a show in Newburgh.
He estimates he spends roughly $7,000 in fireworks alone and another $1,000 on insurance for the 25-minute show, giving the Mount Hope Fire Department an opportunity to fundraise by collecting donations at the event.
Years of Fireworks
Romano has a long fireworks career—he not only works as a subcontractor for Fireworks Extravaganza, a fireworks event company owned by his friend John Sagaria, but also as a subcontractor for Grucci’s, one of the best-known fireworks companies in the world, and Zambelli Fireworks, another professional firework display company.
He serves on the board of directors of the National Fireworks Association and is a member of the Pennsylvania Pyrotechnic Artists and the Western Pyrotechnic Association.
To call what he does a “hobby” is a bit of an understatement, but his real job is working as an electrical contractor, mostly on commercial and industrial buildings.
“[Putting on fireworks is] a tough and dangerous job, but most of us guys do it because we love it,” he said. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be doing this. It’s really not worth the money,” he said. Joking, he said he was paid in “crumbs” for the Newburgh show.
Because he has the highest level of “shooters” license, which allows him to do a wide variety of shows, his skills are in high demand, especially around the Fourth of July.
He used to hold his show in Otisville on Independence Day, but this year Sagaria asked for his help at a show in Ridgewood N.J. on the fourth and another in Newburgh on the Fifth, so he pushed his own show back to the 11th.
Working with fireworks is a job that requires many precautions, certification, and insurance.
Romano has been fortunate in this area: the worst firework accident since he started was a shell that exploded inside a gun, and no one was hurt.
Another incident where a faultily manufactured shell did not have enough “lifting powder” and exploded about 50 feet up in the air, showered the staff with debris, but again, no one was injured.
Because there haven’t been any claims over the years, the insurance premiums he gets through the Pennsylvania Pyrotechnic Artists have gone down twice since 1990.
“For something like this, people that don’t know what they’re doing shouldn’t be playing with this. This is dangerous. If you know what you’re doing, it’s safe,” he said.
Giving a mock demonstration of some of the precautions they take, he illustrated how the shooter lights the gun, a long PVC-like tube mounted vertically on a wooden frame.
The shell is inserted into the gun with the fuse sticking out, and the shooter comes in at an angle, facing away from the barrel, and backing away quickly once it is lit.
He says the weather can be another danger, the worst being dry weather when the fuses are lit electrically. That is because there is a higher risk that a spark from the wires could set the fireworks off prematurely.
When igniting by hand, he says the rain makes it difficult but not impossible because the shells are wrapped in plastic.
A few years ago, Romano was putting on a fireworks’ display at Uma Thurman’s wedding and recalled how it was “raining dumpsters”.
“The guns got full of water. We had to put towels in there to sop the water out of the tubes and then load the shells just before the show,” he recalled. “Rain aint a pretty picture.”
John Sagaria says the worst for the visual effect is high wind, or no wind at all because the smoke does not clear after the firework goes off.
Flare of Creativity
With the current fireworks technology, the sky is the canvas and the limit for what can be done with fireworks.
Romano described one of his most intricate creations: a fire truck putting out a house fire that boasted a horn, flashing headlights, moving wheels, and showers of white sparks to represent water.
“Fireworks have changed over the years, from just the days of shooting one thing up in the air at a time, now things are done simultaneously and there’s all kinds of effects,” he said.
Sagaria, who has made a name for himself in the industry using computers to put fireworks to music, says he can spend a month or two just designing one medium-sized show, with the longest he has spent being a year. He says that firework shows are about telling a story, and he can listen to a song hundreds of times to get the story right.
The planning process is detailed—his computers have to take into account how long a firework takes to light, to get up in the air, what kind of display it makes, how loud its noise is and how long it takes the smoke to clear.
One of the big challenges with the medium when doing more intricate displays like patterns or pictures is getting the angle right for the audience.
“You can build different fireworks to get different patterns, however, the technology isn’t quite there to get the pattern the right way facing the audience,” he said. “So for example, if I’m standing here and the smiley face [pattern] is good here, if I was 90 degrees looking at it, you wouldn’t know it was a smiley face.”
Sagaria said some people have tried to use tails to correct this, but the only reliable way to do it is to shoot more than one.
Up until a few years ago, Romano’s dream was be part of the team that puts on the fireworks show in Las Vegas on New Years Eve, a show that costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. He was able to cross that off his bucket list when he was sent there by Grucci in 2008 and 2009.
Now he’s focusing on the Otisville fireworks show and making it better this year than it was last.
“Last year the show was okay, but you see one of these main wires got burnt with the falling debris and all my big shells didn’t go off,” he said.
He plans to put aluminum foil around them this year so the crowds that come to watch his display every year will get to enjoy the 12-inch fireworks he has.
He estimates several thousand people come to watch his show every year, both local and from out of town. “I guess I’m doing something right,” he said, describing how full the parking lot usually is during the event.
The show will start at dusk on July 11th in Mount Hope Town Park, 340 Finchville Turnpike, Otisville. Pizza and ice cream will be available starting at 6:00 p.m. Parking is $5.
To contact this reporter, email [email protected]
On July 9 at 1:30 p.m. this article was revised to indicate: Mike Romano previously gave fireworks shows in Las Vegas in 2008 and 2009; two firemen from the Otisville Fire Department approached Romano about staging a fireworks show around the Fourth of July; Romano lives in Mt. Hope. Epoch Times regrets the errors.