The most explosive business in America

This Independence Day, Zambelli Fireworks will produce 1,600 fireworks displays, thanks to a spark that started more than 100 years ago.

By Jessica Dickler, staff writer

NEW YORK ( -- It may sound dangerous, but pyrotechnics is a part of everyday family life for Zambelli Fireworks Internationale, which is one of the oldest, family-run fireworks companies in the U.S. - and also one of the largest.

The self-titled "first family of fireworks," based in New Castle, Pennsylvania, has been in business since the turn of the century, when Antonio Zambelli brought his pyrotechnic ability to the U.S. from Naples, Italy.

"Light up Night" in Pittsburgh.
July 4 fireworks in Pittsburgh.

The company was then passed on to Antonio's son George "Boom-Boom" Zambelli in the 1950s, and is currently run by George's children.

"My dad took the business to another level," said George Zambelli Jr. "He created a designer brand of fireworks, and choreographed the displays to musical scores or live music."

"That's when the business exploded, you could say," Zambelli added.

Now Zambelli, who started working with fireworks at the tender age of 12, serves as chairman of the company. He works alongside his four sisters and his own children, including Jared and George Zambelli III, who will likely take over the business one day.

Today the company, which manufactures and stocks one of the largest inventories of fireworks in the world, produces about 3,500 shows a year, including "Thunder Over Louisville," which is held each spring at the Kentucky Derby. That display is launched using 10 computers, eight barges and a 3,200 foot bridge and draws 800,000 people.

The company also does shows for weddings and even funerals - including Hunter Thompson's memorial service in 2005.

For this Fourth of July, the Zambellis will host 1,600 fireworks productions, starting with a light show at Mount Rushmore on July 3. With only 80 full-time employees, the family has to hire an additional 2,500 employees to handle the increased demand during the week.

Even still, all employees are considered extended members of the family, Zambelli says.

Building up to the boom

Lighting up the night is no small task. The biggest shows can require up to 45,000 fireworks and 770,000 pounds of mortars.

Such events take months of preparation, Zambelli said. First the shells must be manufactured at one of the company-owned plants, then the display is set to music, which generally requires an hour of work per minute of melody.

And after the fireworks are packed up and shipped out, setting up the special effects on location takes up to a week.

It's no wonder the price tag packs a punch. While the average fireworks display costs about $10,000 and runs for about 15 minutes, large Independence Day extravaganzas can run up to $450,000 - not including liability insurance.

But smaller displays, like something that might accompany a wedding ceremony, run $3,500 to $4,000 and can be set up in a day, Zambelli said.

And those are the ones that really sparkle, he says.

"When my daughter was married in Pittsburgh, she walked out of Heinz Chapel and we fired tons of pinks - her wedding color," Zambelli said.

"It was awesome." Top of page