Fireworks to Create Art in the Skies Above Robbins
By Katherine Smith
Special to The Pilot
To the observer, fireworks overload the senses. The shell pierces upward in the sky with a bomb call. It explodes into a star of color. It fizzes downward like the tendrils of a jellyfish. And repeats.
But, for the lighter, all attention is focused on the smoldering on the ground.
"All of my guys actually appreciate -getting to go watch a fireworks show once in a while," says Jeff Hale, of Hale Artificier. "Everyone is busy watching everyone else's back."
Hale Artificier will conduct the Robbins Farmers Day fireworks show on Friday, Aug. 3, at 10:15 p.m.
Hale bypassed the typical "what-I want-to-be-when-I-grow-up" stage because pyrotechnician seemed to choose him as its front.
"I almost burnt my daddy's house down when I was 9 years old," he laughs.
Hale received an unpleasant trip to the woodshed and, soon after, a manufacturers license to do what his fingers itched for - build fireworks.
"I've loved fireworks all my life," says Hale, who has been in the business for 28 years. He conducted fireworks shows while a general manager at an outdoor campground, did professional fireworks displays as an independent contractor and worked with worldwide companies, before 1997, when he incorporated his own -company, Hale Artificier. It is based in Lexington and trucks to venues in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.
With only 334 fireworks manufacturers, competition is tight in the U.S. However, with many of China's workers demanding a 20 percent increase in wages, the U.S. is expecting to see more local manufacturing.
"We're going to see a definite increase (in fireworks manufacturing) in the next 10 years," Hale says. He is not planning to expand his 30-acre facility; however, he did hire more employees to his now 99 -person staff.
History of Fireworks
Green bamboo thrown into a fire is -likely the predecessor of firecrackers. Because bamboo grows so fast, pockets of air get trapped in the hollow reeds, an ideal compartment for combustion. The Chinese, patrons of firework shows, called this pao chuk, and practiced it during the lunar New Year to scare away the evil spirit Nian.
An alchemical mix, called "fire drug," began to be rammed into bamboo shoots to produce a much more powerful explosion, performed for good luck during births, weddings, coronations and, inevitably, in war.
The Italians were star struck by the -firecrackers that Marco Polo brought back from his expeditions. They began using the fireworks as an art form in the Renaissance era.
It was about this time that the word "artificier," meaning "fireworks maker," came into common vocabulary.
"It's 'ahr-tif-iss-ee-air,'" Hale says. An old word, but "even still, on some of the -fireworks I bring in, there is an ART -number, short for artificier."
The abbreviation is appropriate.
'True Art Form'
"It is a true art form that encompasses all your senses," he says. "You can see it and you can hear it and you can feel it and you can smell it. I pick the palette of -colors myself, so to speak. The operators use their own creativity to control the presentation and the order.
"It's pretty exciting to have the freedom in this great country to exercise our own art form."
Although the Robbins Farmers Day weekend is a smaller event, Hale has been working since the winter months to piece together the permits, license and shells for the celebrated show.
"Since the beginning, I felt like North Carolina needed a local representation of the fireworks industry," Hale says. "It makes a lot of people happy. When there's a crowd of 20,000 to 30,000 people saying 'Wow!' at the same time, that's really neat."
The party is rumored to reach that number, as last year, more than 30,000 people attended the three days of festivities. Hale says that the size of the show will be the same as last year, but this year they will incorporate pastel colors like "grass green, sea blue, lemon, pink and orange."
Regardless of Robbins' modest size and the state's considerations of budget cuts and taxes, Hale Artificier hopes to -commission another fiery show worth remembering.
"We try to make use of all the unique effects, from the smallest displays to the largest choreographed pyro musicals," Hale says. "We try to create as large of a variety of fireworks as we can.
"Fireworks are relatively expensive. We work with many small town displays that big companies wouldn't touch because they're not as profitable. Small town -displays are so important though."
He continues to explain a noticeable -pattern in communities' inclusion of the discretionary fireworks expense in their budgets, and a heightening attendance.
"There's not only the loyalty I have had with Robbins for many years, but people aren't making that extra trip to the beach or the mountains because they can't afford it," Hale says. "Small fairs, festivals and concerts are still happening for the local folks. I try to have each field tech do shows in their own town. They all love fireworks and are proud to put on a great show for their community."
Safety First, Then Brilliant Show
Hale's involvement will begin in the early afternoon on Friday when -precautions are taken to ensure the safety of visitors, along with the tradition.
"We are a highly regulated industry because we're dealing with energetic materials," Hale says.
An approved road flare, safety cap and time device are used to ensure a -systematic production, while protective equipment and a secured area is mandated for the safety of the operators and the public, which Hale affirms is of -paramount importance.
"There is just as much training required for a small-town show as a show for the Washington Monument," he says.
The second ambition, of course, is to -produce a brilliant show to close or kick off the night. Attending the wide-eyed -children and love-heady couples beneath handpicked splashes of light is the soaring relief of the daily grind. The "oohs and ahs" are a reflection of the release from a work week's stress into the night sky.
"We need to give back to our people because everybody is hurting right now," Hale says.
His contribution is an nontraditional but merry art form - where "the sky is -canvas and fire is paint."
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