Independence Day is celebrated in many different ways across Wisconsin. From cookouts and family gatherings to local festivals and baseball games, Wisconsinites love to go all out when celebrating their patriotism and independence.
One of the staples of any Fourth of July celebration is an elaborate, flashy fireworks display set to patriotic music complete with deafening bangs and plenty of “oohs” and “aahs” from onlookers.
Rarely do fireworks enthusiasts think about the time and effort that goes into planning quality entertainment. Months of planning and sky-high budgets come together to create memorable shows that keep people coming back year after year.
Here’s an exclusive look at the expertise behind local fireworks displays this year.
Cooperation and a lot of planning are essential for the events to go off without a hitch. Planning a fireworks display for the organizations hosting the event can begin as early as the week after the previous year’s display. Eileen McCoy, director of Parks and Recreation for the city of Neenah, reviews the past show with the fireworks company in mid-July. After popular elements are retained and changes are made, the company begins work on a new display. Everything can be set in stone as early as September or October of the same year.
The Appleton fireworks are put on by the Appleton Jaycees, a local nonprofit organization. Colleen Bies, chairperson of the Fireworks Committee, begins preparing for the fireworks in January of each year.
For the Jaycees, preparation includes finding sponsors and raising funds for the event. As a nonprofit, the Jaycees are the only fireworks display in the area to be completely funded by sponsors. The City of Neenah, for example, budgets $20,000 a year for the display and receives an additional $10,000 from their major sponsor, Festival Foods. Between the city budget and sponsors, Menasha spends about $19,000 on fireworks every year.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say that they like our show over here. We get a pretty good show for our money,” says Brian Tungate director of Parks and Recreation for the city of Menasha of the Jefferson Park fireworks.
“After permits and other costs, the city actually makes money when we do the fireworks every year,” says Bies of the Appleton display.
This year, the fireworks displays in Neenah, Menasha and Appleton are all designed and executed by the oldest fireworks company in Wisconsin, Spielbauer Fireworks, Co., Inc. Clint Spielbauer founded the company now run by his grandsons, Cory and Patrick, in 1948. The company continues to thrive as it enters its 66th season of fireworks.
According to Patrick Spielbauer, the firework shells used in the Neenah, Menasha and Appleton displays are anywhere from 3-6 inches long. A shell shoots 100 feet into the sky per inch of material.
Shells also need 70 feet of fallout space per inch of material. Different sites are limited to which lengths of shells they can support by proximity to buildings and the audience. Neenah’s location on the river allows for use of up to 6-inch shells. Other local venues are limited to 5-inch shells.
Eileen McCoy, director of Parks and Recreation for the city of Neenah, remembers a time when no limiting restrictions existed.
“Back in the old days, we used to shoot 12-inch shells. Now the biggest we shoot are 6-inch, but I think they look the same as the big ones. They’ve improved the quality of the shells,” she says.
Regulations for fallout areas and shell sizes are just part of the effort to keep the audience, technicians and surrounding buildings safe. All of this firepower requires a lot of support from local law enforcement and fire units. All three locations rope off dangerous areas and have police and a fully staffed fire squad on hand for the display. In Appleton, the fire marshall checks weather conditions periodically throughout the day before he gives the go-ahead.
“We try to keep it as safe as possible. Safety is our biggest concern,” says Spielbauer.
While working with the various parks departments and organizations can include months of planning and organizing, the display itself takes about two days to design and one day to pack the shells.
Far from just lighting off a series of rockets, Spielbauer has to make sure that the firework and music selection mesh to create a cohesive, exciting and aesthetically pleasing display. He does this by using several sizes and varieties of shells to “create points of interest and layer the sky.”
The points of interest require even more planning because they are rigged electronically instead of being hand-lit. This wiring allows the points of interest to be timed out and look more uniform. Each display Spielbauer creates is usually half electronic and half hand-lit.
Neenah’s display features 10 points of interest throughout the show. One new point of interest this year is a type of shell that shoots directly into the river. The shell explodes into 300 different flames making the surface of the river appear to be on fire.
On the day of the event, Spielbauer and his team of 15 people put in a full day of work. They arrive at noon to set up the racks of fireworks, place the shells into the mortars and hook up the wiring. They remain after the show until midnight to clear the firing area.
The fireworks are undoubtedly a large amount of work from every angle. But everyone agrees that the time and energy are worth it to entertain and inspire the audience.
“We do it for the love of the community,” says Bies.
Fireworks displays will take place:
July 3, 9:20 p.m. Memorial Park, Appleton
July 4, 9:30 p.m. Riverside Park, Neenah
July 4, 9:30 p.m. Jefferson Park, Menasha
— By Jennifer Clausing