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17 Secrets of Magicians

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Whether they're performing a big illusion that makes a tiger disappear or showing off card tricks on a table, magicians spend years perfecting their performances. We spoke to several from across the country (and beyond) to find out how they learn their trade, the type of resource they spend thousands of dollars on, what they hate most at shows, and the one question they really wish you'd stop asking.

1. THEY DON'T GO TO MAGIC SCHOOL.

Surprise: There’s no Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry out there. "There's no real training," says Dave Taylor (a.k.a. Magic Dave) from Southend-on-Sea in England. "It's all personal experience, lecture notes, DVDs, books, etc. You can go to workshops, but for most things you have to be self-taught." One big asset, he notes, is a local magic club, which can provide feedback on shows.

Randy Follis, a magician from southwest Missouri, agrees: "The training is mostly independent. Researching books, DVDs, and—if you're fortunate enough to find them—fellow magicians." After that, all that's left is a lot of hard work and practice, practice, practice.

2. THEY SPEND THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS ON BOOKS.

“Most magicians are serious scholars," says Las Vegas magician Xavier Mortimer. "I don't know any professional magicians who don't have their own extensive libraries about our craft." (One notable example, Harry Houdini, assembled close to 4000 books on magic and spiritualism, now held at the Library of Congress.)

The costs of those books can add up, though: "Most books are small print runs, for a small audience, which can lead to high prices," Mortimor says. As an example, Denny Haney, who owns the Denny and Lee Magic Shop in Baltimore, Maryland, says that one book he sells—Soirees Fantastique by the French illusionist Christian Fechner—goes for $3000.

3. THEY MIGHT SPEND A YEAR PERFECTING ONE TRICK.

Magicians are nothing if not obsessive. Danny Whitson, a comedian and magician from Knoxville, Tennessee, says he spent a year in front of the mirror mastering one particular move. "It sounds insane," he says, "but a great magician is always learning."

All that rehearsing can take a toll on loved ones. "You spend most of your time rehearsing a trick over and over again, to the point where it annoys everyone else around you," Taylor says. "My wife threatened (jokingly) to leave me if I kept playing with a Rubik's Cube after I spent a solid two weeks learning the ins and outs of a trick."

4. THEY CAN EARN THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS PER GIG.

Magicians can earn more than you might think, but it depends on the type of gig. "Corporate gigs pay the most at $800 to $2500, then your bars, clubs, festivals $300 to $1000, and a birthday party $200 to $500," Whitson says.

While that might seem substantial, as Taylor notes, "you are self-employed, so you could work lots in a week and then the next two weeks have nothing. Then, there's the task of advertising yourself, administration, rehearsals, prop maintenance, etc., which take up your time. You might only have two shows in a week for two hours and get paid £500 [about $675], but you still work a full week doing everything else.”

5. THEY AREN'T ALLOWED TO HAVE BAD DAYS.

A happy magician showing a trick with playing cards
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"Being a pro magician basically means you are selling a product—yourself," Taylor says. "You have to convince your audience you are the best even when you don't feel like it." That means pulling through a bad show, or a bad day, with a smile: "If you're in an office you can be in a bad mood. If you are in front of hundreds of people performing that's another matter."

6. CONNECTING WITH THE AUDIENCE CAN BE MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE TRICKS.

Doc Eason, a legendary magician who performs at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, California, and at the Stonebridge Inn in Snowmass, Colorado, is known for his incredible memory; he does one trick where he memorizes the names of 20 people in the audience as well as a card held by each person. Despite the impressive feat, Eason says, “The trick is not the thing ... what is the thing is connecting with the audience. Without connection, you just become a clever person who learned to do a few cool things." Establishing that connection is a matter of eye contact and remembering the names of the people in the audience, Eason says—which requires plenty of practice in front of friends, family, and then strangers before taking to the stage.

7. THEY HATE CELL PHONES MORE THAN HECKLERS.

A person in a suit working magic on a cell phone
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Magicians have probably dealt with hecklers (“I know how you did that!”) since they first stood on a stage. But today’s electronics are considerably more annoying, performers say, what with people constantly recording the show, checking messages, or texting during performances. “Holding audience attention is increasingly difficult," Eason says. However, he doesn't ban cell phones, since that can "start a show on a hostile note."

Randy Forster, a magician from Delaware, handles the annoyances of technology by turning them into an opportunity for humor. He'll open a show with a comment like, “If you have any devices with you with an on-off button, such as a snow-blower or generator, please turn them off now.” Should someone’s phone ring, he’ll say, “We’ll just hold the show until you get that,” or “Put the phone on speaker so we can all hear.”

8. THEY'RE NOT ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL.

Haney says there are several types of magicians: those who specialize in close-up magic (like card tricks on a table), illusionists (think Siegfried and Roy or David Copperfield), mentalists (those who pretend to perform mind-reading), the "bizarre" (think sword swallowers), and children’s entertainers (balloon animals), among others. While some may do one or more types of magic, they generally stick to one category, and develop routines that play to their own strengths.

That's worth keeping in mind when you're hiring a magician. Although many magicians are happy to accommodate special requests, keep their specialty in mind—"someone who does close-up [magic] might hate animal tricks and wouldn’t do them within the scope of a close-up act. Each has its place," Haney says.

9. THEY'RE TIRED OF THE DORKY STEREOTYPES.

"The media gives magicians a bad name sometimes," Taylor says. "Think Howard Wolowitz on Big Bang Theory with his cheesy, annoying manner and performing at inappropriate times." Then there's the memorable Gob Bluth from Arrested Development, whose ineptitude as a magician is matched only by the obnoxiousness of his personality. Magicians like Taylor aim to change those unpleasant associations: "Many magicians, like myself, try to make the magic cool. Not over-the-top cool, but entertaining enough that you’ll talk about it in the pub that night and be impressed and not use 'geeky' to describe it."

10. THEY'VE HEARD ALL YOUR JOKES BEFORE.

Rich Bloch, a magician, inventor of magic effects, and owner of Dickens Parlour Theater in Millville, Delaware, says that when you think you’re being clever by asking the magician, “Can you make my husband disappear?” or “Can you saw my wife in half?” or “Can you change this dollar into a $1000?”—you aren’t. Also, the magician has probably heard the joke “How’s tricks?” before, even if they laugh with wide-eyed amazement like you’re the first person to ever crack it.

11. DON'T ASK THEM TO WORK FOR FREE …

Two magicians playing a trick with a bag of money
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Taylor’s pet peeve is someone asking, "Can you work for free?" or saying "I don't have much of a budget, but it will be great exposure for you."

"Unfortunately, exposure won't feed my family or pay my phone bill," he explains. "And I hate to say it, but 99.99 percent of these ‘exposure’ gigs don't lead to anything else. You wouldn't ask your electrician to work for free so why ask entertainers to?”

12. … OR TO EXPLAIN THE TRICKS.

As tempted as you may be to learn how a trick is done, don’t ask unless you’re paying for a private lesson. Once you learn, you’ll probably be disappointed, our sources say. “It’s usually something very simple,” Haney says. “It’s always more fun to be amazed.”

13. THERE ISN'T NECESSARILY A PENALTY FOR REVEALING HOW TRICKS ARE DONE.

While revealing a trick can lead to some ostracism for magicians, doing so won't get them sent to magicians' jail. For one thing, magic tricks aren't copyrightable, so it can be hard to prove ownership, and there's usually plenty of resources out there explaining tricks already. They have occasionally even been revealed in court—as when David Copperfield was forced to reveal the method behind his Lucky #13 trick after a participant claimed he'd dislocated his shoulder during a Las Vegas performance.

But there are certain centerpiece tricks—ones the magician created or purchased for thousands of dollars—that can ruin a magician's act if their mechanics are revealed. For example, Bloch has a trick where he copies someone’s signature while he’s blindfolded; it's a key part of his act, so revealing how it's done could be devastating. If a trick like that is unmasked, a magician might sue, as when Teller of Penn & Teller filed a lawsuit against a Belgian entertainer who posted a YouTube video of an illusion similar to one of Teller's signature tricks, and promised to reveal the secret behind it for $3050. Even though magic tricks aren't specifically copyrightable, Teller won his lawsuit because he'd registered his trick as a "dramatic work," which is protected by copyright.

14. THEY AVOID USING TRICK DECKS.

A white-gloved magician holding playing cards on a red background
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Although there are numerous trick card decks out there, Haney and Bloch both say a good magician needs only a standard Bicycle deck. “If you have a funny back, if people don’t recognize it, they automatically suspect it’s a trick deck,” Haney says.

15. THEIR TRICKS DON'T ALWAYS GO AS PLANNED.

Magicians sometimes perform in unusual environments—outdoors, at birthday parties, etc. Taylor remembers the time he was performing in a church hall for a corporate event and fell victim to its old wooden floor, which was riddled with gaps between the boards. "I was doing an escape from a replica set of Victorian prisoner chains and it's supposed to take 20 seconds in total," he says. But just as he went to flee, he realized he couldn't move his legs. "Turns out the chain had got trapped in the floor, meaning I couldn't get my feet out of the set of chains. I was stuck to the floor and could hear the music ticking away. Panicking, I grabbed hold of the cloth [that was supposed to drop and reveal him] and covered my feet with it as I yanked at the floorboards. I spent about 30 seconds of hell trying to subtly escape from the chains while talking to the audience as cool as I could. With a large yank, I managed to get my feet free, injuring an ankle in the process, and hobbled off stage as soon as I could."

Occasionally, even the little "disasters" turn out OK. Follis says he was once working a restaurant when a couple's dollar bill, which was part of his trick, got "a little too close the flame and burned—only a little, but clearly visible." In a panic, he tried to replace the dollar, but the couple "insisted on keeping it as it was their first date and they thought it would make a great story." The next Halloween, the same couple came to his show, sat in the second row, and told him how much they enjoyed the performance—followed soon after by an invitation to perform for their first family Christmas as a couple.

16. MISDIRECTION IS KEY.

“The essence of a magic performance is misdirection," Bloch says. "Not as in causing someone to look here rather than there, but displacing their expectations." He compares magic to humor, which often seems funny because of the unexpected turns a joke or a skit takes. "The unexpected is what causes the laughter reaction," Bloch explains. "Magic is the same. People expect an assistant to remain stable on the table, yet she floats, so you are changing the direction of their expectations.”

17. MAGIC TRICKS CAN HELP PEOPLE WHO HAVE BEEN INJURED OR WHO HAVE DISABILITIES.

Over the years, magicians have realized that learning to do tricks can be a valuable form of physical therapy. Haney says a customer bought a trick for his wife who had suffered a stroke; her doctor had said she’d never use her right hand again, but the trick gave her a goal to focus on, and she ended up regaining the use of her hand.

Several magicians have created programs that combine magic with other forms of physical and psychological therapy: David Copperfield founded Project Magic in 1981 to teach people with disabilities how to do sleight of hand work as a means to improve their dexterity, problem-solving skills, and self-confidence. After being in a debilitating car accident in 1988, magician Kevin Spencer created a “Healing of Magic” program that uses simple magic tricks to boost physical skills and motivational levels. According to his website, the concepts of “magic therapy” are now being used in more than 2000 hospitals, schools, and rehabilitation facilities worldwide.

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11 Secrets of Romance Writers
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Some readers may snicker at book covers featuring aerobicized men and titles like The Firefighter’s Woman or The Bull Rider’s Christmas Baby. But if it weren’t for the steamy, escapist fantasy of romance novels, a healthy portion of the publishing industry would cease to exist: According to the Romance Writers of America (RWA), romantic fiction brings in $1.08 billion annually and accounts for 13 percent of all fiction sales in the marketplace.

What keeps readers coming back for more? We asked some of the genre’s top authors for insight into the “secret baby" trope, why pen names are necessary, and the one rule of romance that can never, ever be violated.

1. THEY WEAR PERIOD CLOTHING.

Novelist Shelley Adina (A Lady of Resources, A Lady of Integrity) writes historical, Amish, and steampunk-themed fiction, just a few of the many sub-categories that appeal to niche audiences. To better understand her characters, Adina dresses in period outfits to gather what she calls “tactile details.”

“I like to feel how a heroine would feel in the clothes,” she says. “I’ve been laced into a proper corset and you realize what kind of dance steps you can do, or why a lady’s back never touches a chair—a tight corset won't allow it."

2. THE REASON THEY USE PEN NAMES ISN'T WHAT YOU THINK.

Covers of two romance novels by Shelley Adina
Shelley Adina

The authors of romance novels don't use pen names out of embarrassment. Adina (a.k.a. Adina Senft) says that pseudonyms—many authors have more than one—help readers compartmentalize writers who generate multiple series. “People who read Amish fiction may not read steampunk,” she says. Another, bigger reason: Bookstore software can use “kill orders” on authors who don’t sell a certain number of titles. If they fall below parity, retailers will automatically stop ordering more copies from that author. “If that happens,” she says, “you have to reinvent yourself with a new name.”

3. THEY’LL DIGITALLY REVISE THEIR WORK AFTER PUBLISHING IT.

The analog publishing model has traditionally been one of permanence: Once a book is in print and in readers' hands, there's no going back. But romance novel readers are a very particular clientele with certain expectations about how they’d like their protagonists to behave—and the self-published digital distribution model that's popular within the genre allows for a little customization. Author Heather C. Leigh (the Famous series) found that out when her first books featured a heroine who was a little too acerbic. “My first three books sold well, but there were critiques that my female lead was too sarcastic,” she says. “I understood and took it out. I don’t mind making work better based on feedback.”

4. COVER MODELS OFTEN LOSE THEIR HEADS.

The covers of two romance novels by Heather C. Leigh
Heather C. Leigh

Despite seeing hundreds of new titles published every month, the romance genre still manages to find new ways to visualize their shirtless male protagonists. In many cases, though, the beefcake winds up getting decapitated. “A lot of times, the man will be turned away or cut off at the forehead,” says author Eliza Night (The Conquered Bride series). “Readers want to imagine his looks in their own mind.” Grooming is also a necessity. “I had a cover with chest hair once. My readers did not like it.”

5. THEY HAVE BONUS SCENES.

Self-published authors (who make up about two-thirds of the total romance e-book revenue on Amazon) spend much of their time marketing their work. To help maintain interest from their existing readership, some send out email newsletters with updates on new titles and include exclusive passages that can enhance the experience of a previous book. “My first book was about an actor who had to do a love scene with a woman he hated,” Leigh says. “It was never going to be in the book because that was from his girlfriend’s point of view, but I got a chance to write it as a bonus.”

6. THEY WANT READERS TO BECOME WRITERS.

While resources for aspiring writers of all genres are plentiful, the romance field makes an exceptional attempt to recruit new talent. Industry interest group RWA doubles as a conduit between established writers and novices, hosting conferences and panels on the best ways to break in. “We don’t live in a competitive hierarchy,” Adina says. “There are so many readers with so many diverse tastes. It’s a big community where we support one another.”

7. THEY GET HELP FROM THE AMISH.

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While the Amish sub-genre has received media attention for its peculiarity, Adina doesn't believe it's so unusual: She says readers are attracted to a pastoral environment “without having to leave their wired-up house.” For accuracy’s sake, the author has enlisted an Amish reader to vet her titles for details. The popularity of the books “mystifies them,” she says. “They don’t understand the interest. They just hope the books might be able to point people to God.”  

8. THE “SECRET BABY” TROPE IS A READER FAVORITE.

Readers like resourceful women and skilled, wealthy love interests—and they especially like it when the former keeps their baby a secret from the latter. “The trope is that the hero and heroine have an affair, she gets pregnant, never tells him, and he comes back around five, 10, or 20 years later and finds out,” Adina says. “Reunion stories are popular. It’s the appeal of a responsible man.”

9. THEY’RE HISTORY GEEKS.

The cover of a romance novel by Eliza Knight
Eliza Knight

Knight cringes at the idea romance authors do little more than transcribe their own lurid fantasies. A self-described “history geek,” she travels frequently for research into Scottish history. “Most of us who write history nerd out on it,” she says. While once writing about a zeppelin-riding heroine, Adina jumped into one that offered rides over Silicon Valley to see how it would feel. She also got her motorcycle license for the same reason. “We’re serious about it,” Adina says. “We’re not sitting around in housecoats with barking Pomeranians.”

10. THEY’D APPRECIATE NOT BEING ASKED ABOUT THEIR SEX LIFE.

Many romance authors have at least one story to tell about people in their private life finding out they write for the genre and subsequently losing any sense of boundaries. “Strangers have asked me, ‘Do you test out scenes before you write them?’” Leigh says. “It’s like they lose a filter. It’s not real life. J.K. Rowling isn’t a wizard.”

11. THERE’S ONE RULE THAT CAN NEVER BE BROKEN.

While writing instructors invariably have all kinds of techniques for nourishing a story, the romance genre spells it out in an unequivocal manner. According to the RWA, nothing can be considered a “romance novel” without a central love story (naturally) and what authors have come to refer to as the Happily Ever After ending, or HEA. “Romance is a courtship story,” Adina says. “Readers expect the bond will be created at the end of the book. If not, it’s Nicholas Sparks or Romeo and Juliet. It would be like having a mystery where the detective doesn’t solve the case.”

This story originally appeared in 2016.

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15 Secrets of Fireworks Designers
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The Fourth of July just wouldn't be the same without the colorful peonies, waterfalls, and comets that burst across the night sky above wowed crowds. But designing fireworks and their choreographed displays is a labor-intensive, dangerous job that requires the imagination of an artist and the precision of an engineer. Mental Floss talked to two experts in the field to learn how fireworks designers plan their shows, the history and the chemistry behind their displays, and why you don't necessarily want more bang for your buck.

1. THE ROOTS OF THEIR PROFESSION GO BACK OVER A THOUSAND YEARS.

Humans have been adding bright, noisy explosions to their celebrations by setting fire to chemicals since at least 9th-century China. The very first fireworks were little more than quick orange bursts emanating from bamboo rods packed with charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate and tossed into bonfires. Slowly, these contraptions progressed into flares cannon-fired into the sky by “firemasters” in medieval England. By 1830s Italy, the use of metal salts such as strontium, barium, copper, and sodium added vivid reds, greens, and blues to firework displays—a precursor of the brilliant hues we see today.

2. THEY CONSIDER THEMSELVES ARTISTS.

“Fireworks are our paint or our clay, and our canvas is the night sky—or a building, or a bridge, or a waterway,” says fifth-generation fireworks designer Phil Grucci, CEO and creative director of the Bellport, New York-based Fireworks by Grucci. The company has created fireworks displays for seven consecutive U.S. presidential inaugurations, Olympic games in Beijing and Los Angeles, and commemorations such as the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, among other events. “Working with space, understanding color and the dynamics within the fireworks, what moves very quickly, what sounds very loud, what sounds very soft, what is subtle and elegant”—all of it takes an artist's touch, Grucci says.

Pyrotechnic designers “can visualize exactly how various fireworks devices will burst in the sky,” says Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association. That means they know "how high [fireworks] will reach their apex and burst, how wide they will spread, and how long the effect will ‘hang,' or linger. They can then choose other fireworks to burst above, below, or on each side of an effect to create the image they wish to see across the sky."

Of course, "painting" with fireworks is a little trickier than using acrylics or oils, since the medium is explosive. "The difference [compared to painting] is that we’ve got something that’s dynamic, that moves, it’s constantly moving and it’s very temporary," Grucci explains.

3. THEY START WITH A PAPER SKETCH.

A red and green firework bursting in the night sky
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Old pros like Grucci may know from experience how certain fireworks will look together against a backdrop. But he still sketches out each segment of every show he designs with colored markers on paper. From there, he works with his team to set the show to music, then choreographs it using software called Visual Show Director. Next, his programmers create a script in SolidWorks and/or AutoCAD. “In the past,” Grucci explains, “we scripted it all on a piece of paper, and the pyrotechnicians installed the hardware from that same piece of paper." Now, he says, they can be "taking advantage of the computer age, to visualize [a show] to see whether the product works as you’ve designed it.” Finally, Grucci’s team generates the computer file that will electronically ignite the fireworks at showtime—much safer than the days when a human had to ignite the fuse.

But Heckman says that although the technology is useful, it's made fireworks performances a little more homogenous. "Before electrical firing, computer choreography and a reliance on imported product [mostly from China], I think fireworks companies' unique style was much more prevalent," she says. "Technology has somewhat leveled that out." A few companies do still have distinctive styles, she notes—even if those differences are usually only apparent to true fireworks aficionados.

4. SOME THINGS ARE STILL DONE BY HAND.

A fireworks cartridge contains a series of pellets called stars, which are cubes, spheres, or cylinders about an-inch-and-a-half long filled with explosive materials and color-producing chemicals and metals [PDF]. A star’s colors are formulated via computer, then pressed into a pellet shape by machine. But when it comes to arranging the stars in the casings that will be fired into the night sky, it's usually human hands doing the arranging. The pattern laid out inside the casing determines the pattern of the explosion—a heart-shaped firework blooms from stars arranged in a heart shape—and according to Grucci, automating the task to account for the enormous variety of available patterns would be too expensive. The task can be labor-intensive, since a single shell can contain hundreds of stars.

5. THE VENUE DETERMINES HOW THEIR SHOW WILL UNFOLD.

Fireworks over the Brooklyn Bridge in 2018
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It's as true in fireworks as it is in real estate: It's all about location. That’s partly for reasons of safety—Heckman says that every show has to follow industry standards for “tables of distance,” which “mandate the size of the largest shell that can be fired safely from a standpoint of fallout distance to spectators, and also public highways, occupied buildings, and public roads.” She says there's a complex regulatory scheme that dictates the type of products that can be used per type of venue, as well as when shows can begin and end.

But the site is also an integral part of the beauty and impact of the show itself. "We’re very aggressive in looking at structures, and trying to highlight their key features," Grucci says. “Whether it’s a tower, whether it’s a bridge, we will be [scouting from] the very highest point of that. If [a structure] is horizontal, I know that we are going to capitalize on the entire width of it. I could be easy and say, 'put some fireworks to the left and right side of a bridge.' But that’s not good enough. We have to take advantage of the undercarriage of a bridge, the steel cables that hold its towers together, and highlight the entire structure.” Grucci says he'll often calculate the entire surface area of a structure, so he can make sure he's taking advantage of every square inch.

6. THEY MATCH THE FIREWORKS TO THE MUSIC.

Not all fireworks displays have music, but when they do, the score and the effects should complement each other—not clash. A delicate classical piece may call for smaller, quieter fireworks, while a piece like the "1812 Overture" might fit bigger, louder bangs.

"So many of the [effects] we’re working with, they may have a baroque feel to them," Grucci says. "They’re very bold and strong and very in-your-face, but then you have that very elegant feel to some of the fireworks, that you would never put onto the canvas when there’s a rock-n-roll sequence on. When the product is so simple or so elegant, it would not match that tempo or that thematic."

7. THEY HAVE HIGH-TECH TESTING FACILITIES.

An assortment of colorful fireworks bursting in the sky
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Say you want to create a streaking green comet with a silver twinkling tail. “We’ll make that on a small scale, then we’ll test it at one of our two test sites, in upstate New York or in Virginia,” Grucci says. “Our pyrotechnicians are in protective bunkers and we have high-speed video cameras, wind meters, and dB [decibel] meters for noise. We record everything that we’re testing, so that we can look back on that and analyze it. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve failed. But we failed at the test site—never on the performance stage.”

8. THEY DON'T REPEAT THEMSELVES.

“My desire is to always make something that’s different,” Grucci says. He tries not to repeat a particular scene more than once in a performance, let alone repeat a whole show—although he notes that it helps that the "canvas" is always changing: “Even though we may use a particular beautiful color scheme with a metallic glitter, putting that on the Washington Monument as opposed to [over] an open baseball field—those are two completely different visuals.” One of his newest innovations turned up in the presidential inauguration in January 2017: a 600-foot by 700-foot display behind the Lincoln Memorial, made up of a series of 800 fireworks shells that burst in sequence into an American flag. “The color red [we used] is from a formula that is probably a few hundred years old," he says. "But delivering these little red dots on the sky at these [different] heights is what [allowed us to create the flag].”

9. LESS CAN BE MORE.

Fireworks at the opening of the New York, New York hotel in Las Vegas
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"Sometimes people get caught in the trap of thinking that more is better," Grucci says, but when it comes to the number of fireworks in a performance, it can be exactly the opposite: More shells equals more smoke, which can white-out the night sky. "When you put too much in the sky ... you’re not really allowing the medium to display the beauty of what the product is about," Grucci says. (Plus, the metallic particles in fireworks smoke can pose a health risk for people with asthma or other health problems, which means it's wise to limit smoke where possible.)

10. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN LINGO.

Fireworks designers love to borrow from nature for the names of their displays. In addition to peonies and chrysanthemums, which both burst into circles (chrysanthemums have longer tails), there are willows (bursts with trails of gold or silver stars), falling leaves (glowing embers that flicker as they tumble to earth), fish (which leave little squiggles of light), spiders (a hard burst with straight, flat legs), and palms (which bursts up and out in a shape like its namesake tree). But there are also fountains (showers of sparks, sometimes also called gerbs), comets (several long trails of sparks), crossettes (a comet that breaks into other comets, usually creating a cross shape), dragon eggs (a delayed crackle effect), salutes (a loud noise without a display), and strobes (which burst with a blinking effect).

While creating their show, fireworks designers may work with cake (a single fuse that lights several fireworks in a sequence), whistle mixes (a combination of potassium and sodium benzoate that burns noisily), and dark fire, which is used to allow a star to change from one color to another (it gives off no light as it burns, allowing the new color layer to ignite below it). They hope to avoid flowerpots (which burst prematurely) and stars that are blown blind—or fail to ignite at all.

11. DANGER IS (UNFORTUNATELY) THEIR MIDDLE NAME.

Fireworks manufacturing presents an enormous danger. In 2016, Slate reported on a preponderance of deadly fireworks-making accidents in China—with an average of 400 workers in fireworks production plants dying every year between 1986 and 2005. Elsewhere, fewer accidents seem to happen than one might expect from the mixing and storing of combustible chemicals. According to Heckman, in the U.S. at least, that’s because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) “stringently regulates the manufacturing process, including personal protective gear, and employers must train their personnel on the hazards and the [kind of gear that’s] required.”

“We’re mixing powders to create explosive compositions that have to be handled very delicately," Grucci says. The work has to be done in a non-sparking environment (one with special tools and materials that reduce the risk of sparks), and in a room that has plenty of exits. "[You don’t want to be in a] big, giant room filled with fireworks and there’s only one door to get out," Grucci says. Workers in their factory wear conductive shoes, which conduct static electricity through the footwear and into the ground, "because the environment is very dry and you wouldn’t want to walk across the floor and touch something and have an arc spark that goes to a box of open powder and explodes on you.”

Safety is paramount for Grucci, who lost his father, James, in a massive industrial accident in 1983 at the family fireworks plant on Long Island. He says that the secret to safety, from manufacturing through installation, is to “be consistent and never cut a corner.” He says his grandfather always told him, "As soon as you think you know it all, or you want to start cutting corners, [that's] when potentially you’re increasing your odds of getting injured or possibly killed."

12. SOMETIMES THEIR FAVORITE WAY TO WORK IS SMALL.

Yes, it’s a challenge to produce a 30-minute fireworks show off five barges in the middle of Manhattan’s East River—but intimate shows present their own set of hurdles. Grucci mentions a Dolce & Gabbana fashion event held around Lincoln Center’s fountain that he created pyrotechnics for this spring. The flaming bits were a mere 15 feet from the audience and the clothing that was showcased in Lucite boxes. In that kind of scenario, “You can’t afford to have the hard outer casing or the inner paper wrappings” you’d use at an aerial fireworks event over the river, Grucci says. “The last thing you want is debris falling on the audience.” The solution: stationary fireworks comprised of titanium and aluminum particles of a sub-micron size, which burn quickly and don’t sustain heat for more than a few milliseconds—sort of like a sparkler.

13. THEY BREAK RECORDS.

World fireworks records include the largest fireworks display: 810,904 of them, fired off on January 1, 2016 in Manila, Philippines. And the most shells launched per minute: 479,651 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2013. And the longest fireworks waterfall (a long, glittering shower of embers): 11,539 feet, 5 inches, at a fireworks festival in Fukuoka, Japan, in 2008. On New Year’s Eve 2018, the Gruccis broke the world record for the world’s largest single aerial shell at a show they produced on Al Marjan Island in UAE. Weighing 2397 pounds, it was the culmination of almost 40 years of Grucci family trial and effort. “My father attempted the world record for the largest firework back in 1979 [with] a 42-inch-diameter white magnesium cascading flower that we displayed down in Titusville, Florida," he says. "Guinness gave him the world record, but it didn’t launch to the height or break to the size that he wanted it to. He always wanted to retry that and I had the opportunity this past New Year’s Eve to give my family another crack.”

14. THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT (OR PASTEL).

Research is underway on fireworks that are quieter—which could cause less stress to animals, children, and those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder—as well as fireworks that are kinder to the environment by using cleaner, nitrogen-based fuel.

But those aren't the only innovations shaping the future of fireworks. Shapes are changing, too; look for letters and corporate logos. Designers now also have a host of softer and more diverse colors at their disposal. “In the early ‘80s we started developing colors in between ROYGBIV, the basic colors, so now we can produce lemon and tangerine and chartreuse and aqua and every color within the spectrum,” Grucci says. They do so by fiddling with the purity of the metals used and the size of their particles—which also change other parts of their overall effect. Large particles of metals like titanium, iron, and aluminum result in large “splinters” and a glittery effect, Grucci says, while smaller particles lead to fewer splinters and “a very bright light.” He notes that at this point, they can "get pretty much any Pantone color" in a fireworks composition.

15. THEY LOVE TO SEE AMAZEMENT ON THE FACES OF AUDIENCES.

People watch the Macy's Fourth of July Fireworks from outside Brooklyn Bridge Park in 2015
Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

“I think a crowd, in general, appreciates a lot of action—variations in colors and noise; and pattern shells such as smiley faces, hearts, and dice are always pleasers,” Heckman says. According to Grucci, “This is a very serious business. But it’s colorful and it’s beautiful and it has great, great energy. When we go to a performance, we can see an 80-year-old man and a 5-year-old granddaughter watching the show and their expressions are pretty much the same.” In that moment, “They both [become] children.”

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