To spectators, the stunning TCI Presents the Fort Vancouver Fourth of July Fireworks Spectacular appears like magic: enormous, sparkling explosions fill the sky, rising and falling in perfect synchronicity with a patriotic soundtrack.
The spellbinding show is a result of months of behind-the-scenes work by people with decades of experience.
“My involvement with the show started when I turned 21,” said Jim Larson, chairman of the Fort Vancouver Fourth of July Committee.
For his birthday that year, Larson’s father bought him a membership in the Elks club. “I was installed in the first part of June, and the Elks asked for volunteers to work the Fourth of July fireworks show down at the (Pearson) airpark,” he said.
Larson signed up and has been helping out ever since.
“It started off with digging trenches … then all the sudden I was really involved,” Larson said of his growing role. This marks Larson’s 35th year of working on the show, which has enjoyed a 37-year run.
The Fort Vancouver Fourth of July Committee counts on Western International Fireworks to deliver an astounding display each year.
“We have a long-time relationship with them,” said Larson. “They’re good people.
Western International Fireworks is co-owned by husband and wife Bob and Judi Gobet. They are the third generation to run the business. “My grandparents started the company in 1948 (and) my parents continued the business,” said Judi. In 1984, she and Bob took over.
“I’m real familiar with all the displays on the West Coast, and what’s unique about Fort Vancouver is it’s a very large display,” Bob said. “There’s a lot of hype about some other shows put on … (but) Vancouver is out-and-out, based on the sheer amount of shells and the quality of the shells, second to none. … It’s a world-class display, and it’s free. … It’s good clean entertainment.”
Beauty by design
“A lot goes on before you can get them up in the air,” says Judi of their fireworks shows.
So how does one go about designing the largest Fourth of July fireworks display west of the Mississippi? In late May, Judi begins by “writing” the show.
“First, you have to know what the shells do,” she said. “I have to plug in the timing and listen to the music. Then you use other products to accent and affect the mood of the music. … It is choreography.”
Though each show is unique, Western International’s Web site (www.western display.com) lists a formula for making a memorable display.
Start the show with a bang and create immediate excitement via eye-catching or unusual effects. Next comes what’s called “thrilling mid-show flights,” with shells repeatedly filling the sky. Each volley is selected to heighten the crowd’s anticipation.
Of course, a spectacular ending is a must, and can include flash curtains, long-duration shells and multiple break shells.
“You have to leave them with a finale that just knocks ’em over,” said Judi.
The fireworks used in the show come from far and wide. “Some of the shells are made right here in the U.S.,” said Judi, adding that others come from Australia and China.
While the visual display is the primary focus, the audio portion is important, too.
The Fourth of July Committee supplies the soundtrack and Western International makes the fireworks fit the music. Whitney Houston’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” is one of Judi’s personal favorites, so she was happy to hear it on the tape for this year’s Fort Vancouver show. “It’s a wonderful selection, so powerful,” she said.
One of Bob Gobet’s favorite songs is “God Bless the U.S.A.” by Lee Greenwood.
“You can’t do Fort Vancouver without that,” Judi said.
Larson said the soundtrack always contains a good mix of contemporary music and classic hits. Portland’s Z-100 (FM) radio station produces the soundtrack.
Larson said he tries to videotape the fireworks show each year. The televised display is great “for people who can’t get out people in nursing homes or hospitals,” he said.
But no matter how good the TV coverage is, he said, “It’s still not like the real thing the noise, the smell.”
Unfortunately, Judi is typically too busy troubleshooting or overseeing other shows to make it to Fort Vancouver to see her company’s handiwork on the Fourth. So she always views a videotape of the show.
“It looks totally different than being there in person,” she said. Some colors, like turquoise and magenta, just aren’t captured well by the camera.
Bob credits Fourth of July Committee members for the superior quality of the Fort Vancouver show. “They know a good one from a bad one,” he said. “They do an excellent job. I just think the general public needs to appreciate all their crew does.”
Larson and the Gobets have endured constant change in the fireworks field.
In less high-tech times, Larson said after the show he and the crew would make a bonfire from the leftover cardboard mortars and roast marshmallows while the post-show traffic died down.
Back when her parents ran the business, Judi said, electric firing of fireworks was just coming onto the scene. And with the advent of today’s computer-fired displays, there is a lot more control.
“As far as the appearance of the display to the general public, (computers) have made it a lot better,” said Bob. “The show is done the way it’s designed to be done.”
However, from a show producer’s standpoint, he said, “it’s more work, more difficult and more technical. Some little glitch in the computer can make it so complicated.”
Still, the sheer magnitude of the Fort Vancouver show makes the extra technical work well worth it, he said.
“It’s a lot of hard work to do it right,” said Bob, who has to deal with a myriad of agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard, the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration.
While all the regulations make it more difficult to stage the show, Larson and the Gobets say they appreciate the enhanced safety and the spectacular end result.
KRISTINE WHITE, for The Columbian
Copyright 1999 The Columbian Publishing Co.