Western Pa., Ohio fireworks companies play big role in nation’s Fourth celebrations
Thousands of boxes filled with consumer fireworks filtered one day this month through Phantom Fireworks’ main warehouse in Warren, Ohio, where hundreds of workers prepared for Fourth of July sales.
More than 20 miles east across the Pennsylvania border, Jason Farell, scripting coordinator and designer at Pyrotecnico in New Castle, synchronized fireworks to an American-themed song to display at Williamsburg, Va. The company focuses on commercial fireworks and special effects.
Zambelli Fireworks’ warehouse sits a few miles away in Edinburg. While each company has its own origin story, all three settled in — or close to — New Castle, the “Fireworks Capital of America,” said Janet Falotico, executive director of Visit Lawrence County.
“I love this community and I think the community’s very proud of what we do and what Zambelli does, and that’s important,” said Stephen Vitale, 52, president of Pyrotecnico. “We believe we can help make a difference here … employing people, doing shows that can make people proud, and our folks who work here are also leaders in the community.”
Vitale added that people employed at his company serve on school boards, coach and perform other duties in the community.
“We’ve been here for four generations and, in the end, we should give back to the community, and we try to not only give back to the community we serve but also the industries we serve,” he said.
Phantom CEO Bruce Zoldan, 70, said he is loyal to the community, giving back by donating free shows to Relay for Life events, local churches and other organizations. This year, his company is helping to donate more than $750,000 worth of product and personnel for a 35-minute fireworks show during the national Independence Day celebration in Washington, D.C.
“There’s people that said, ‘You can never make it here. You’ve got to go to a big city; you have to go to New York or California or Chicago,’ ” Zoldan said. “But there are things you can do in small towns, and depressed towns, and people appreciate jobs.”
Zoldan had one thought when his dad brought home fireworks one day while he was in high school — to sell them to his friends. The decision led him to earn a few hundred dollars, he said.
“(My dad) brought them home and we planned to use them on the Fourth of July, only I sold them to the kids in the neighborhood, my friends,” Zoldan said. “So I asked my dad if he’d go buy some more.”
The next year, Zoldan set out in his mom’s Chevy Impala to buy more fireworks. That time, he profited $3,000. And by the time he started school at Youngstown State University, Zoldan was using his fireworks sales to pay his tuition.
But it wasn’t until a few years later, in 1973, that Zoldan produced $500,000 in sales.
Today, Phantom Fireworks is the country’s largest fireworks retailer, with reportedly more than $100 million in revenues in 2017. The company has manufacturing facilities in California, employees in China, retail stores and showrooms in 16 states — including locally in Hempfield and Monroeville — and more than 1,500 temporary sale venues in 17 states.
The U.S. retail fireworks industry in 1998 generated $284 million in sales, according to figures from Bethesda, Md.-based American Pyrotechnics Association. Last year, consumer sales climbed to $945 million.
Combined consumer and display fireworks revenues in the U.S. have eclipsed $1 billion annually since 2014 and total $1.3 billion last year, the APA reports.
“There are times I have to pinch myself and say, ‘How is this happening?’ There certainly are people that aren’t with me anymore, like my dad and my uncle who were with me at the beginning who I wish could see this,” Zoldan said. “Because all they saw were trailers and maybe a building one-sixteenth the size of this.”
Working with three to four employees in Liuyang, China, in the province of Hunan, officials at Phantom are able to create, customize and tweak each firework. Setting up a table outside a factory, located on the outskirts of Liuyang, two to three times a year, a group of Phantom employees watch as workers set off fireworks.
Sitting with a notepad and small light, the group critiques the firework on height, noise and color, said William Weimer, 72, vice president of the company. From there, workers at the factory make necessary changes and then set off the firework again the next night.
Once fireworks are produced, they are tested by the American Fireworks Standards Laboratory, a consumer product safety commission. After, they are packed onto shipping containers that travel to ports in California. They are then sent by train to Cleveland and trucked to the Warren warehouse in eastern Ohio.
There, teams of workers unload the shipping containers, combining cases of the same product and designating which U.S. store they are headed to.
The warehouse — a former General Motors plant site — employees about 250 people, Zoldan said.
“It feels good to know that by working hard, having an American dream, living in the industrial part of the country in an area that’s always been considered depressed, the steel mills closed, that you’re able to start a business like this and grow it, and it becomes a national company and recognized all over,” Zoldan said.
Prior to July Fourth, the warehouse holds between $50 million and $60 million worth of product at cost, Zoldan said. Shortly after the holiday, sales from each store are analyzed, said Jessi Moore, purchasing and production development manger for the company.
From Italy to Lawrence County
To the north of downtown New Castle, Pyrotecnico boasts a long history that started in the village of Pita Malaria, Italy, as a village trade, “so a lot of people in that area knew fireworks,” Vitale said.
The company was founded in 1889 by Vitale’s great-grandfather, Constantino. He moved the business to New Castle in 1922, when the family was hired to work in tin mills. At the time, several Italian immigrants were in the area, Vitale said, accounting for the nine fireworks display companies that once operated in or outside the blue-collar city on the edge of Western Pennsylvania.
“Most of the people in the business would work in the mills during the day and do fireworks on nights and weekends,” Vitale said.
Handed down to several members of the family, Vitale started working in the business at 13 doing maintenance and making boxes. He eventually became company president in 1993.
By 2010, Vitale had grown the commercial fireworks company to include special effects, which were mainly produced for sporting events. But in 2011, special effects for the company exploded when they were asked to design pyrotechnics at Lights All Night, an annual electric dance music festival in Dallas.
“It’s a space we want to be in, and we’ll figure it out as we go,” Vitale said, recalling the decision to make the move into special effects. “And we did, and we did great work, and that gave us the opportunity to meet specific artists and specific production managers who were just up-and-comers into the business and that really cascaded.”
Today, Pyrotecnico has provided on-stage fireworks at music festivals such as Coachella in Indio, Calif., and Lollapalooza in Chicago along with working with electric dance music artists like Zedd, Skrillex and Basenectar. Vitale said the company is making a move into hip hop, working with Cardi B, Pittsburgh-native Wiz Khalifa and Mary J. Blige. The company also specializes in streamers and confetti, fire walls, lasers and more.
Building a show
But Pyrotecnico has not strayed far from its roots, with people like Farell, who works with organizations and governments to synchronize fireworks with music.
Sitting in his corner cubicle at Pyrotecnico, Farell plays a song, occasionally hitting the space bar, simulating when fireworks will be shot into the air during the show based on the beat of the music.
“It’s just kind of all in your mind and the words you see on the screen here and as you’re listening you have to figure out exactly what you want that to look like, or what beats you want to hit or how exactly you want to accentuate something,” Farell said.
From there, Farell designates what types of fireworks need to be packaged for the show, and the program he creates is uploaded to a pyrodigital system that controls timing for when fireworks are shot.
Pyrotecnico has designed fireworks shows for organizations and events across the country, including the 2017 Super Bowl, the Pittsburgh and Alabama bicentennials, and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s 2015 inductee ceremony.
Looking to the future, Vitale said, “We will be the recognized leader, there’s no doubt about it,” adding the company is just getting started with special effects.
New Castle roots
Zambelli has had a New Castle presence since 1893, when Antonio Zambelli emigrated from Italy to work in the mills, said George Zambelli Jr., chairman of the board.
“At that time, he worked in the steel mills at night and toyed with his pyrotechnic dream during the day,” George Zambelli said.
Once Antonio Zambelli’s children got involved, the company started to take off with the family choreographing eight shows during the week of July Fourth, George Zambelli said.
Today, the company puts on more than 800 shows the week of the Fourth. Over the years, Zambelli has produced more than 1,600 shows, including a celebration for President Dwight D. Eisenhower, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s White House State Dinner and several Fourth of July celebrations at the Mall in Washington, D.C., in Pittsburgh and across the nation.
George Zambelli started working at the company at age 12, helping to build framework and traveling across the country to help set up shows. His fondest memory is of visiting the White House while President John F. Kennedy held office.
“It’s been a very interesting pyrotechnic life,” he said, recalling the memory.
Zambelli has locations across the country where workers choreograph shows and package fireworks, but the company’s home will always be in New Castle, George Zambelli said. While a 2018 move took their corporate office to Cranberry, he said a 200-acre warehouse is still located in the New Castle area.
“We’re still very close and in touch with the city of New Castle,” he said. “We consider that our hometown. … It’s just a great community.”
Falotico of Visit Lawrence County added, “The history will never leave us, so that’s something that you can’t take even with a corporate office.”
Megan Tomasic is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 724-850-1203, [email protected] or via Twitter .