Click, click, BOOM!

Story by Cathy Graves

Photo by Liz Chrisman

All eyes look skyward and our hearts pound in anticipation as pulsing music starts the show. The big booms of fireworks, bursting into amazing colors and shapes, are performed creations of Terry Cunningham and Ken Lederman, two supermen of pyrotechnics. Terry and Ken work hard to make our celebrations memorable.

Both own their own separate pyrotechnical company, but frequently team up for events. Ken is also Deputy Fire Marshal with the Russellville Fire Department while Terry is a sales associate at Phil Wright Toyota.

Pyrotechnics, the word, comes from the Greek pyr (fire) and tekhnikos (art). It’s the science and highly skilled craft of using self-contained and self-sustained exothermic chemical reactions to make heat, light, gas, smoke, and/or sound. Fireworks are believed to have originated in China prior to 1000 AD when bamboo was heated until it exploded. From there, the pyrotechnic process evolved to include the ingredients charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate. In other words, gunpowder.

Different types of gunpowder combined with a slow-burning time fuse, that delays the explosions, release gases that send the fireworks skyward where viewers see bursts of color and patterns. Pea-sized cubes with flakes of aluminum zinc are added to create the star placement. Other natural elements from the periodic table are used to create the bright colors of green, red, blue and yellow and mixtures of two or more elements create silvery white, lavender, and gold sparks. Bright flashes and loud bangs come from aluminum powder.

Terry and Ken were both introduced to the thrill of fireworks at an early age. Terry traces his inspiration back to a big fireworks display he viewed at the age of four. Also, his father was a scientist which helped develop his keen interest in chemical reactions. Ken recalls enjoying relatively simple backyard fireworks with his parents. From those early exposures, each developed skills, earning Arkansas Certified Pyrotechnic Shooter status through classroom and field work in accordance with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

When a client books a show, many necessary steps are performed before the fun part of designing the show.

“The lead pyrotech is responsible for the entire production from start to finish,” Terry says. “He coordinates the event’s specifics with the sponsor — budget, date, time, sight management, rainout date, etc. It is also his responsibility to obtain permits, insurance, equipment, labor, safe and legal transportation and secured storage for the fireworks.”

Each event requires a state permit application be completed with signatures from all authorities having jurisdiction over the event and the lead pyrotechnician. Then the permit application, along with a detailed site-map and a valid event insurance certificate, must be sent to the state fire marshal’s office for approval. When all safety concerns have been verified by the state’s fire marshal’s office, a permit is approved and sent to the lead pyrotechnician. Finally, the local fire marshal having jurisdiction over the event area will issue a local permit for the show. Once the permits are obtained by the lead pyrotechnician, the design, hiring of licensed staff, site set-up and development can begin.

Music which is shortened to “recognizable sections, more artistic impressions, and different styles of music are where the magic of a pyromusical starts to come to life,” according to Terry. With classical music training in his youth, this is one of his favorite parts of each event.

A computer system is used for the device firing in time with the music. “If we want a specific effect at a specific point in the music, I simply select a pyrotechnic device from a dropdown menu and point and click with my mouse,” Terry says.

Music, timing, and now color and shapes are added. Specific color combinations of fireworks are often requested for events. Red, white, and blue are requested for Fourth of July celebrations. Green, red, silver, and gold are colors most requested for Christmas shows. You name it, and the color is available somewhere. A couple’s wedding colors may be brought to life via pyrotechnics, though, some colors are more difficult to get than others. “The color blue is manufactured using either cobalt or copper, which are very difficult and expensive to mine,” Terry states.

“Fireworks come in all colors and shapes, yes, I said shapes — hearts and smiley faces. With proper planning, custom items can be manufactured,” Ken adds.

Based on a script generated by the firing system inputs, “the amount and type of fireworks to be ordered are then paired with the music points. This is the longest process in the setup and requires artistry to make it perfect,” Terry says. “I’m a stickler for geometry in the sky.”

When they buy the pyrotechnics devices, Ken and Terry do not transport or store them. They are purchased and delivered to the site by professionals. “It is extremely important to make sure that all parties have the proper licenses and have the capability to store and transport the fireworks in a safe and legal manner.

The time to complete the setup for an event depends on the event size. “It can take as little as an hour with a few techs, or a week with 20-30 techs,” Terry says. “The bigger the show, the more advanced planning is required.”

Safety is the major concern before, during and after a show. Ken says to maintain safety they are in “constant communication with all parties involved, maintain a secured perimeter, provide proper personal protective equipment (PPE), and make sure to use quality products and equipment.”

“Large shows require more security,” Terry adds. “It starts when each licensed tech shows up on site.” And training of personnel is paramount. “It is serious business when working with an explosive that can very easily kill or seriously injure anyone at any given time,” Terry says. “One misstep can mean disaster.”

There is no doubt that fireworks are dangerous. Some of the concerns from the late 19th and early 20th century are concerns still held today – fires, injuries, and even death, Because of the associated danger, various laws including banning of displays or sales to individuals have been part of fireworks history in the United States. Stricter laws were put in place after 9/11 and in 2011. Even so, fireworks have become integral in our celebrations and will continue to be part of the American way.

Firing the devices is no longer done with a match or flare. “We always use our remote firing system. It’s safer than the old school hand-fire technics; it gives us much more control over firing of an individual device or a series of devices,” Terry says. “Based on the type of device and amount of lift needed to get the device to the break point, we can determine the timing it takes for a specific desired effect.”

Their Supermen capes flying, the duo manage dangerous scenarios that happen at events due to misfires or duds during a show, weather issues, or equipment failures. These issues can and will happen. “Usually the public doesn’t notice,” Ken says. “How you handle these things when they arise is the main issue.”

“One of the most dangerous situations can be created by stopping a show because of rain and lightning, and then having to remove the pyrotechnic shells from their tubes while connected to a shock and static sensitive electric firing match,” Terry says. “We will never do this. Best case, we’ll condense the show as much as safely possible and really fill the sky with an impressive amount of color and effects in a several minute finale.”

Putting on a big event requires extra help and Terry and Ken mention fellow superhero Interstate Fireworks owner, Shawn Partain, as someone they work with when setting up events. He is their supplier for 1.4G articles pyrotechnic professional fireworks. Other locally dedicated state licensed pyrotechnicians “make everything we do look easy,” Terry says. “They are passionate about this industry and make for one of the best teams around.”

Some shows you may have seen produced by these two include: Arkansas Tech University and Russellville High School home football games, weddings and special events at The Cabin Creek Lookout in Lamar, Memorial Day Weekend and Independence Day celebrations at Moore Outdoors Campground, Bayou’s BBQ Brew and Boom (Russellville Country Club area), Fireworks Over the Ponds (Highland Point Subdivision), the Pope County Fair, and the Russ Vegas Glow Run.

Their next event will hopefully be for Independence Day celebrations. But with the uncertainty due to the coronavirus, the pair aren’t sure. “We’re hopeful that things will turn around for the better shortly,” Terry says.

Do they do it just for fun? “Absolutely. It’s almost therapeutic for me,” Ken says. “I enjoy all aspects of a fireworks display. I’m fortunate that my wife, Marika, son and daughter are supportive of my hobby.”

“Absolutely.” Is Terry’s echo. “Every show is just like the very first one. There’s nothing better than hearing the excitement of a crowd at the end of a really good pyromusical production.”

To book a show or learn more about pyrotechnics from Terry and Ken you may contact them at: Pyrodesignco.com, Terry Cunningham, (479) 305-4976 or email terry@pyrodesignco.com or Ken Lederman, (479) 970-3601 or email megpryo@gmail.com