The Hollywood Bowl's spectacular fireworks

The star-spangled light shows are an awesome summer tradition that provides a dramatic backdrop for music of all stripes. Thank Eric S. Elias for the subtle yet spectacular displays.

July 05, 2010|By Chris Lee, Los Angeles Times

By way of star-spangled patriotism and unabashed Americana, you'd have been hard-pressed over the weekend to find a more rousing celebration than the "July 4th Fireworks Spectacular" at the Hollywood Bowl. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, backed by the U.S. Air Force Band of the Golden West, ran through a program of music designed to swell national pride — "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," "God Bless America" — with a guest set by country superstar Vince Gill.

Then came the finale: More than 10 minutes of eye-popping pyrotechnics perfectly synchronized to a brassy medley of military marches by John Philip Sousa.

The sky above Hollywood bloomed with colorful explosions, with rockets leaving trails of brilliant illumination as they shot upward. It culminated each evening with the words "Liberty" and "Freedom" spelled out in golden sparklers above the band shell.

Bowl fireworks have become a reliable tradition of summer's warmest months over the last four decades: a ceremonial practice that helps define the season for outdoor music lovers of all stripes, providing a dramatic visual counterpoint to the classical, and sometimes rock, country or world music.

"You bring a picnic and open some wine. You hear all this music and then the amazing fireworks," concertgoer Ted Herschel of Topanga Canyon said Friday night. "Is there a better way to spend a summer night in L.A.?"

The Bowl's fireworks programs require precision and even a little restraint not always associated with such explosive displays. The pyrotechnics are synchronized to "visually accent" the music — rather than distract from or overwhelm it — and extensive safety precautions are needed to head off any threat of fire in the arid landscape surrounding the amphitheater.

Heading the team is pyrotechnic operator in charge Eric S. Elias, a practicing entertainment attorney who this year marks his 32nd season working for the venue. He has come to rank among the top technicians in his field, instructing local fire departments and helping write the syllabus for state fire marshals on how to deal with theatrical pyrotechnics — in addition to overseeing a staff of around 30 people and personally designing and triggering the Bowl's fireworks displays.

"The crew that's here takes great pride in putting on these shows," Elias said, standing atop the Bowl's band shell recently. "We take it very seriously."

Although he works as a lawyer part of the time, Elias strenuously avoids the courtroom to concentrate on his main gig, overseeing pyrotechnics for venues throughout Southern California, including Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, San Diego's Hotel del Coronado and the Santa Barbara Bowl. His preparations for the Bowl's June to September fireworks season begin months before any performances take place. Receiving digital recordings close to what will be played for a particular concert — performed by the same orchestra and led by the conductor on the bill whenever possible — he listens to every piece of music repeatedly until he pinpoints the precise moments that seem ripe for a fireworks launch. From there, Elias designs a "script," using a computer to plot out the size, volume and frequency of light volleys; selecting their various colors and deciding where to deploy the pyrotechnic devices around the Bowl's band shell and two adjoining rooftops.

The Bowl's pyrotechnics are custom-designed to detonate quietly (so as to not overwhelm the orchestra), traveling no more than 200 feet in the air. And every aerial burst is dictated by the pace and intensity of each musical selection.

"For the closing segment of 'Carmina Burana,' we put up a series of 84 flame balls in 12 seconds," Elias recalled. "We'll be doing Handel's 'Messiah' on July 6; there'll be a lot of silver and gold, wave patterns, a lot of large flourish devices. [Last year's performance by rock band] Death Cab for Cutie had a refrain that repeats throughout the song but builds in acoustical volume. We stayed in time with the music and increased in quantity to visually re-create increasing volume."

When the 74-year-old band shell was rebuilt in 2004, a vast infrastructure of scaffolds and walkways as well as a stairwell superstructure that traverses its distinctive concentric arches wereinstalled with fireworks deployment specifically in mind.

"Essentially, the new facility was designed so every horizontal surface could be used as a launching platform," Elias said.

It was a sound investment considering that the L.A. Phil puts on around 12 concerts involving fireworks each year, not including events sub-leased to outside performers. This summer, they include Tuesday's "Glorious Celebration" (the fireworks come in for Handel's "Hallelujah"), the "Tchaikovsky Spectacular With Fireworks" on Aug. 20 and 21, "Earth, Wind & Fire (Works)" on Sept. 3 and 4, and the "Fireworks Finale" on Sept. 10 through 12.

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