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OBITUARIES : Gene Evans, 1937 - 2008

Fireworks wizard designed shows for the Hollywood Bowl

August 01, 2008|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Gene Evans, the pyrotechnic designer whose fireworks displays lighted up the night sky at the Hollywood Bowl for the last 39 years, has died. He was 70.

Evans, who had not been ill, died in his sleep July 8 at his home in Anaheim, said Ramona Shaw, his partner of 27 years.

During his nearly four-decade career, Evans was one of the pyrotechnic designers for the 1986 Statue of Liberty centennial celebration in New York Harbor.

He also designed pyrotechnic special effects for Las Vegas shows such as "Hallelujah Hollywood," "Hello Hollywood," "Jubilee" and "Moulin Rouge."

And his designs were used at concerts featuring the Rolling Stones, the Who, Cher, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Elton John and Bette Midler.

Evans and his crew put on fireworks and pyrotechnic displays all over the country.

But he was most widely known for his work at the Hollywood Bowl, where, as The Times reported in 1993, he was "one of the Bowl's most frequent yet least-known artists."

"The artistry and the theatricality of his shows are unmatched," said Eric Elias, the longtime pyrotechnic operator in charge at the Hollywood Bowl.

"Sometimes in Gene's shows, less was more, and he was painting with the darkness as well as the light of the fireworks," Elias said.

John Mauceri, the founding director of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra who worked with Evans for 16 years and is now chancellor of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, said: "He'll be terribly missed because he was so much a partner of the weekend concerts in creating the excitement and the visual element that went with the music."

Evans designed and oversaw more than a dozen fireworks shows each summer season at the Bowl, with the colorful displays precisely timed to the live music.

Over the years, he choreographed fireworks at the Bowl to a range of shows, including Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" and the music of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.

"My instructions to him are: You're an artist. Here's the music -- put this music to fireworks," Ernest Fleischmann, then Los Angeles Philharmonic general manager, said in a Bowl program in 1994, the 25th anniversary of fireworks at the Bowl.

Evans, who did not read music, said the key was listening to the music.

"Until I can get the mind pictures going, they're just fireworks in a box, with no personality," he said. "I ask for a recording that's as similar as possible to what will be played, listen to it for hundreds of hours until I have a breakthrough, then scribble down my mind pictures."

Ensconced in the soundproof lighting booth on show night, Evans would sit with a score reader and a close-up closed-circuit camera view of the conductor and wait for the first cue.

Then Evans would press a red button to initiate each pyrotechnic sequence, which could be as few as a single device or as many as 80.

Elias explained that the Hollywood Bowl fireworks shows were unique for a number of reasons.

"Because we are surrounded by the Hollywood Hills, the types of fireworks that we use are much closer to the ground and therefore closer to the audience.

"When the conductor's baton goes down and the orchestra hits the precise musical note, the firing button is pressed and the fireworks go off instantly."

And, as Mark Swed, The Times' music critic, wrote last summer: "Gene Evans' pyrotechnics can elevate the most pedestrian Bowl nights to glory."

Jeffrey Marsh, a special effects pyrotechnician who has worked with Evans, said Evans' "eye for detail and the little nuances put him a cut above the rest of the designers in the country.

"He was the one the rest of the designers would try to emulate."

Evans was born in Detroit on July 25, 1937, and his family moved to Altadena when he was 5.

After graduating from John Muir High School in Pasadena in 1955, he served in the Air Force.

Before launching his career in fireworks, Evans, among other things, owned a sports car repair and modification business, owned a company that manufactured parade floats and worked for Tommy Walker Productions as an assistant to the showman who produced extravaganzas for Worlds Fairs, Super Bowls and other events.

Evans, who consulted on special effects for Rose Parade floats for many years, always viewed the Fourth of July shows at the Hollywood Bowl as special.

"I'm a very patriotic person," he told The Times in 2005. "I'm just tickled to be part of this country."

As it turned out, Evans' final show at the Hollywood Bowl was on the Fourth of July of this year, which included fireworks timed to three John Philip Sousa marches.

Evans, who was divorced, is survived by his daughter, Shawn; his son, Curtis; two grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

A celebration of Evans' life is pending.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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