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How Do the Zambellis Light Up the Skies So Brightly on the Fourth of July? Very Carefully

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‘You can’t even get me to hold a Roman candle,’ George admits

The truck convoys carrying 52 million pounds of high explosives are rolling out of New Castle, Pa. A small army of licensed pyrotechnicians is being deployed from Portland, Maine to San Diego, from Seattle to Marathon, Fla.—and 1,100 places in between. When explosives and experts are combined, the Zambelli Internationale Fireworks Manufacturing Co. will once again light up the night skies over America on the Fourth of July. And that’s when the “oohs” and “aahs” begin.

The three Zambelli brothers, who are the largest makers and exhibitors of fireworks in the U.S., will personally supervise farflung Independence Day shows. George, 55, the company president, expects to be at the St. Louis exhibition, choreographing his spectacular to music. For the 22nd year Joseph, 72, will direct a half-hour display on the grounds of the Washington Monument. And for the 24th year, Louis, 54, will oversee the Philadelphia show, which is technically difficult, being fired from atop a building in the historic downtown area.

The Zambellis make full use of technological improvements such as electric control boards and laser beams to illuminate colored smoke. But, the business has changed surprisingly little in the 87 years since their father founded the firm near Naples before emigrating to western Pennsylvania in 1921. Each stage of a multiburst rocket—called a “break”—is still hand-packed with “stars,” or chemical packets, for color and noise. “We’re using the same old paper, paste, chemicals and twine,” says George Zambelli. “The artistry is getting them to combine for the spectacular effect we want. New ideas are difficult and dangerous. We’re very careful.”

Despite stringent safety measures, the Zambelli plant was twice damaged by explosions. In 1950 one killed sister Rita Zambelli’s husband, Sam Caimano, and in 1976 two workmen were injured in a blowup. The company now spends more than $350,000 on insurance premiums.

As children, the Zambelli brothers worked in the factory, mixing powders, rolling tubes and tying fuses. George, who has been president since 1951, never wanted to be anything else, although he graduated with a degree in accounting from Duquesne University. He worries whether another generation of Zambellis will want to stay in fireworks. Two of his four daughters, including Marci, a former Miss Pennsylvania, work for the company; another, Donnalou, 28, is a dentist; and his only son, George Jr., is an ophthalmologist. The senior Zambelli also frets about the dwindling number of skilled artisans his manufacturing operation needs. “It’s tedious, hazardous work. There aren’t more than a dozen experienced hand-rollers left in the country,” he laments.

July 4th is the Zambellis’ busiest time, but they have supplied fireworks for every sort of occasion from Jimmy Carter’s inauguration to a Liberty Bowl tribute in memory of Elvis Presley. The brothers remember with great fondness the late Antonio Nerti, a West Pittsburgh steelworker who wanted his funeral in 1977 to be a masterpiece of sight and sound. In his will, Nerti asked for a marching band and a five-minute Zambelli special and left $750 for the purpose. Tony would surely have been pleased with the grand finale: 300 rocket-launched flags fluttering down on tiny parachutes.