John Kalament remembers his first skyrocket.
“I was at a fireworks display in Amsterdam, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church,” he said. “There was a company that used to be in Schenectady, North American Fireworks. I went over to talk to the guy and he actually let me light off a couple. Once I smelled the smoke and that sulphur smell, I just liked it and eventually started my own company.”
Kalament has been working nights since 1970, as president of Empire State Fireworks in Delanson. He will be on site Friday when one of the first Fourth of July shows — the party sponsored by Jumpin’ Jack’s drive-in at Collins Park in Scotia — ignites at dusk. Empire has been lighting up Collins Park since 1976.
Kalament, 67, a 1965 graduate of Schenectady’s former Linton High School, can talk about the fireworks business, and why people always spend parts of their summer nights watching the skies.
Q: John, why do you think people like the Jumpin’ Jack’s show so much?
A: I think it’s the venue. We’re shooting fireworks off the island and you have the reflection off the river. The crowd down there is such a good crowd, they really appreciate a good fireworks show. The crowd reaction is something nice, for me anyway. We light the finale and people go crazy down there.
Q: You also have the July 3rd show at Saratoga Casino and Raceway. How big is that one?
A: I think that’s the largest one in the area. I’ve shot the Empire State Plaza before, and I don’t know what they shoot down there now, we used to shoot off a lot of fireworks. We shoot more at the harness track than we ever did down at the plaza. It’s the venue, shooting from the infield, just the scenery, the track. It’s just a great place to shoot. I’ve been doing that one since 1976.
Q: Is it hard finding business these days?
A: I think it’s easier now. More and more people are doing weddings and doing birthday parties, there are more private displays now, I think, than there ever were. I think it’s just the popularity of fireworks. I don’t think a lot of people really knew they could do it, if they had enough room in their backyards or their facilities. They used to be against the law for many years, but then they changed the law like three years ago. They can have a private display as long as they have the venue for it and the distance for the spectators and they can do it as long they hire a professional company.
I’ll tell you what’s changed drastically is getting a license to do fireworks or anything with explosives. It’s not only since 9/11, it’s next to impossible to get an explosives license today without a lot of training and you have to have a storage facility. It’s pretty tough today, there are a lot of hoops to jump through. I remember when I first got into business, all I had to do was go to City Hall. For my very first state license I went to City Hall in Schenectady and it was 50 cents to get a permit to buy dynamite, anything you wanted.
Q: If I’ve got the land for a private show, how much might it cost?
A: They range from $1,000 up because you have to have the insurance, and the insurance runs like $600 per event. People call me up and they’re looking for something like $300, I just can’t do it. Even a $1,000 show doesn’t get that much, but it’s a place to start. We supply the insurance, the operators, the permits from whatever town they’re in.
Q: Can you explain the continuing appeal of fireworks shows?
A: Fireworks have always been a good draw for people, especially the kids. Now you have all these different patterns and shells. You can have a smiley face in the sky, Mickey Mouse. There are so many different things you can shoot now than years ago. I think it’s the variety of fireworks that is presented now.
Q: Think people go for the color or the sound?
A: I think it’s for the color. That’s what I like the best. . . . I never really cared that much for the sound. But there are a lot of people who like the noise at the end, the finale. When I talk to people, it’s the colors and the effects they have today.
Q: Empire isn’t the only fireworks business in the area — Alonzo in Mechanicville is the bigger company and gets many shows. What is that like?
A: They shoot a lot more displays than we do. We’re friends with the Alonzos and we always have been. They’re more into the display aspect of it where I’m display and a lot of manufacturing here. We do a lot of manufacturing for other companies, too. They do a lot more shows and they import. We don’t import anything.
The less I’m on the highways traveling with that stuff, the better I like it. There are so many regulations with the D.O.T. (Department of Transportation), there are five different agencies you have to answer to. I’d rather be right here manufacturing and sending things out and have the weekends off.
Q: I understand you also do some work for the military. What do you make for the government?
A: We’re making timers for practice hand grenades for the military. We’ve been working on this contract for the last five years and they’re shipped all over the world. We’re doing the timer portion here, then we send them to Virginia and an ordnance plant down there where they’re assembled and then shipped out. It’s like a four-second timer. He pulls the igniter, like a pin, then a four-second time fuse starts and lights our timer. They have eight seconds to throw it and our timers are actually a whistle, so it’s a whistle that goes off. They know once that whistle starts, they only have four seconds to get rid of it.
Q: Rain must be the fireworks man’s worst enemy. What happens when rain is forecast and you have a show?
A: Some people have rain dates, some don’t. Our [rain] policy in our contract is if we get the whole show set up, they’re responsible for I think it’s like 50 percent. And if they decide to shoot it, we just shoot it. But if I don’t leave the factory with anything . . . I don’t charge anyone anything.
Q: What’s that sensation like, firing off rockets that explode into the sky?
A: Now it’s just a push of a button, a flip of a switch. We’re trying to get away from the hand-firing aspect with the flares and all that. It’s too dangerous to do that. If you can be 100 feet away, that’s the length of our cables, that’s a lot better for everyone. And then you get to watch the show, you’re not lighting something and running back and then running back to light another one. Every time you flip a switch, there’s a thrill in doing that. It’s probably 70 percent electrically fired now.
Q: What are people going to see Friday at Jumpin’ Jack’s?
A: They’re going to see a lot of new ground effects and we have new aerial effects. We have a new shell called an apple smiling face, it’s a red apple with a green stem coming out and it’s got a face on it. Then we have these shells that depict the planet Saturn and we have some strobe effects we’re going to use down there. It’s a ground effect, but they’re very, very bright intense red and white strobes that should look great over the water.
Q: How much longer are you going to keep working nights?
A: As long as I’m making money, I’m going to keep on doing it. I like doing it, I don’t know what I’d do if I retired, to be honest with you.