I arrived at Q-lot in a red Yukon and got out to meet the fire marshal who was doing a round of safety checks just after 3:30 pm on Saturday. The overcast morning clouds had burned off and the entire crew of Night Music, the company which puts on the annual E-days fireworks show, was ecstatic with the change in weather.
I ducked under the yellow caution tape behind the fire marshal to meet with Pete Turner who agreed to take me on a behind the scenes tour of the preparations for the show. Pete is a Mines Alumni and has been doing the E-days show for 30 years.
The Night Music cast and crew are made up of a diverse group of aerospace, petroleum, and electrical engineers from colleges including Mines, CU Boulder, and Purdue. Together they have over a century of pyrotechnical experience. They do shows throughout the year and across the state. By the time I arrived, the major setup for the event was finished and the crew was hanging out and talking or eating lunch.
I met Pete and we walked past metal racks set up for the gasoline fireball ground effects as he recounted originally doing the show on Brooks Field where they would light off mortars by hand with railroad flares. He pointed out orange boxes with receiver antenna set out next to each group of fireworks which are the electronic system they use to trigger each effect. They tested each receiver later by sending a low current signal from a laptop which would control the show timing.
Pete described the fireworks setup like a theater production as we made our way past groups of boxes of hundreds of fireworks, called cakes, wrapped in green plastic.
Each cake is designed to quickly release a barrage of small to medium mortars. Twenty to thirty cakes create a wall of multicolored fountains and comet effects for the audience.
Unlike a stage production, however, Pete also has a vertical dimension to work with. As we passed a row of a dozen aerial shells, called salutes, strung up between two of the parking lots light poles, Pete described the effect as a cannonade. These larger shells, which would usually be fired from a mortar, would be set off at ground level behind the cakes to give the show’s ground effects a sense of depth and the audience a solid bass in their chests.
The far end of the parking lot had one mortar big enough to drop a basketball into, a single large gasoline bomb, and two trailers packed with a couple hundred mortars for the high altitude shells of more typical firework shows. These mortars were mounted to metal racks to hold groups of fireworks for the finale together, while the rest of the charges were fired off during the rest of the show.
Night Music is known for having a slightly slower pace to their shows than most pyrotechnic companies because they like having the crowd see each effect instead of overwhelming them with a wall of light and noise. Pete in particular enjoys the psychology of color in the show; interludes of blue effects from the cakes to give the crowd a moment of relative peace in between bouts of exciting reds and oranges to ramp the excitement back up before setting off one of the gasoline bomb ground effects.
We walked back past the entire setup talking about our favorite effects. Pete likes multistage shells and color changing effects, and past shows on Brooks Field. With a couple hundred pounds of explosives setup across the parking lot, Pete and the rest of Night Music were ready to end PreHistorE-Days with a bang.