Behind the scenes: Riverdays fireworks
By Ben Tierney
As the community foundation staff and volunteers wrapped up the 31st annual Riverdays Festival on the evening of July 18th, we heard many of the same comments we hear every year.
"That was incredible!"
"Best fireworks I've ever seen!"
There's a wide gap between the Riverdays Esther Gerstacker Fireworks and the typical 4th of July show seen in most communities. As we watched this year's show and the reactions of our visitors, we decided to go to the source and find out what makes them so unique.
Jim Malek is a Dow Corning retiree who is passionate about education and has a great appreciation for making things go boom. After pedaling to our office in his trademark ergonomic bike, we sat down with Malek to get the inside scoop on the Riverdays Fireworks show. Jim has volunteered his time as a Riverdays committee member for over a dozen years. He works with a team at Wolverine Fireworks to give them input on the festival layout, theme and entertainment. With those details, they can put together a show that lights up the night sky and perfectly wraps up the weekend.
"For a 25 minute show, the Esther Gerstacker Fireworks display requires a huge amount of preparation and physical effort," said Malek. "The office staff at Wolverine Fireworks puts about 200 man-hours into it, and that's before anyone sets foot in the park."
Beyond getting the permits, insurance and other paperwork in order, there's the music choreography, plotting the layout, and ordering and labeling shells properly.
"The choreography is done using computer software and a database, where each second of music requires an input of some sort - more than 1,500 total. Once that's complete, the layout of all the effects are plotted to ensure the best view for the audience."
According to Malek, the majority of July 4th shows you see in towns across America are done without the use of music choreography or electronic firing. The main reason? Cost, and the fact that there are simply too many shows to complete and not enough fireworks professionals to fire them. Because Riverdays takes place later in the month, the crew can spare more staff for the planning and execution.
"A crew of ten people arrives at 8:30 a.m. the morning of the show to begin setup, including around 100 mortars for the larger shells which must be properly positioned. The ground effects fireworks require custom support structures."
As each shot is fired from a computer, every single effect must be fitted with an electronic match. At Riverdays, 50 modules are needed, each with 32 contacts, for a total of over 1,500 firing commands. The wiring required for a show of this caliber? Over 3 miles. The crew stays well past midnight to clean the site, resulting an another nearly 200 man-hours of labor.
Impressive stats to be sure, but why, considering the budget isn't any higher, are the Esther Gerstacker Fireworks more impressive than your average 4th of July show?
"In short, it's because we don't have to shoot as high," explained Malek. "Most city and township shows want the shells to fly very high for maximum visibility. There's an added cost to do that. Riverdays is a much more intimate setting with everyone in the park, so we can combine ground effects and get some incredible visuals."
One of the increasingly-popular ground effects are the giant fireballs created by igniting 2 gallons of gasoline from specially designed containers.. The subsequent flames shoot several stories into the air and are almost always following by several oohs & aahs... and maybe some concern over whether or not they were intentional.
"We love to surprise people - to show them something they've never seen before," said Malek. "The Riverdays Esther Gerstacker Fireworks display is unique in the Great Lakes Bay Region, designed specifically for the Chippewassee Park audience, employing effects designed especially for this show. Despite the additional effort needed, the crew loves to work Riverdays. The venue truly appreciates their work."
Funding for the Esther Gerstacker Fireworks comes from The Rollin M. Gerstacker Foundation. The Midland-based family foundation has supported Riverdays with an annual fireworks donation for over 30 years.
So the next time you're staring up in awe at blasts in the night sky at Riverdays, consider the incredible effort and technology that goes into creating it. We certainly have a new appreciation for fireworks!
The Midland Area Community Foundation would like to extend our sincere thanks to Jim Malek and the entire Wolverine Fireworks crew, the Rollin M. Gerstacker Foundation, the volunteer Riverdays committee and everyone who made the trip to Chippewassee Park in Midland to enjoy the festival.