Grucci, Felix James, Sr. (“Pops”)

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Grucci, Felix James, Sr. (“Pops”)

(b. 28 May 1905 in Bellport, New York; d. 9 January 1993 in Patchogue, New York), fireworks creator and businessman whose company, Fireworks by Grucci, created spectacular pyrotechnics displays in the United States and abroad.

Grucci was one of nine children of James Grucci, a grocer, and Maria Lanzetta. As a youth he worked in his father’s grocery on Long Island, New York, but he soon joined his maternal uncle, Anthony Lanzetta, in the fireworks business. In so doing he became the third generation of the family to enter the Suffolk Novelty Fireworks Company, which his maternal grandfather, Angelo Lanzetta, had pioneered. In the 1920s the family relocated the company to Florida, where Grucci and Anthony Lanzetta produced impressive displays in the Miami area. Al Capone, who had witnessed their handiwork, commissioned a huge Saint Valentine’s eve display in 1929. The show never took place, however, because the local authorities refused to issue the necessary permits.

By 1931 Grucci and his uncle returned to suburban Bell-port, where Grucci established the New York Pyrotechnics Company. The firm got off to a slow start because of the Great Depression, but Grucci persevered. By day he devoted his energies to fireworks, and at night he played the drums in a band to generate an income. In 1938 he married Concetta Di Dio, with whom he had three children. When the United States entered World War II, the struggling company rebounded thanks to government contracts. The expertise that had created dazzling fireworks displays in peacetime was harnessed to produce flares, simulated grenades, and aerial bombs in wartime. The most unusual devices that emerged from the Grucci factory during the war were simulated atomic bombs commissioned by the War Department. Detonated on Long Island and in upstate New York, the bombs were used to gauge the dispersal of radiation and the impact of a simulated mushroom cloud on observers. According to his wife, this constituted Felix Grucci’s “single most important achievement.” After the war Grucci was credited with a number of firsts in the pyrotechnics industry. His stringless shells, perfected in 1954, constituted a major advance in safety because they eliminated the burning fragments that cascaded to the earth after twine-wrapped shells exploded. In 1960 Grucci synchronized a fireworks display with the music of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and his fireworks illuminated the skies as the Boston Pops Orchestra saluted the U.S. bicentennial in 1976. In 1978 the Guinness Book of World Records included Grucci for creating a 720-pound Fat Man II explosive that was detonated in Florida.

By the 1970s Grucci’s entire immediate family was involved in the company. The Grucci family skyrocketed to success when its firm became only the second American company to enter the International Fireworks Competition in Monte Carlo in 1979. Armed with well over 1,000 pyrotechnical devices, Grucci, accompanied by several family members, headed to Monaco, where new challenges awaited. Chief among them was a lack of a sufficient number of firing tubes, which ruled out firing the shells electrically. Rising to the occasion, the Gruccis trained volunteers to assist them in hand-firing the shells. As breathtaking images of Niagara Falls and the American flag filled the sky, it seemed that everyone in Monte Carlo was looking up.

As the last shells exploded, Monte Carlo erupted in pandemonium. People cheered, and automobile and boat horns bellowed in the most impressive salute ever rendered in the fourteen-year history of the competition. Tears welled up in the eyes of the usually stoical Grucci. Assessing the magnitude of the Gruccis’ triumph in Monte Carlo, Newsday declared: “In 1979, the Gruccis were indelibly etched in fireworks history. The Gruccis became the first American family to win the Gold Medal for the United States at … Monte Carlo… . This is the Super Bowl, the Olympics of all fireworks competitions. The Gruccis consider this one of their greatest accomplishments, and the New York press dubbed them as America’s First Family of Fireworks” (28 June 1998).

After fifty years in the business, the company, which had once survived by putting on displays for Fourth of July celebrations and Italian feasts on Long Island, was now a world-class firm with a new name, Fireworks by Grucci, Inc. Still headquartered in Bellport, the company thrilled audiences around the country with its handiwork. In the 1980s Fireworks by Grucci produced displays for the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, New York (1980), the inaugurations of President Ronald Reagan (1981 and 1985), and the centennial of the Brooklyn Bridge (1983).

Six months after the Gruccis’ artistry illuminated the skies over the historic Brooklyn Bridge, tragedy struck in the form of a series of explosions at the Bellport plant. In November 1983 the unexplained explosion of fireworks valued at $700,000 leveled the plant, killing Grucci’s son James, chief executive officer of the company, and a nineteen-year-old niece. Two dozen people were injured, and 100 homes in the vicinity were badly damaged and were subsequently ordered to be evacuated. Within four minutes the work of a lifetime vanished in what eyewitnesses described as a mushroom cloud. Felix Grucci, who was on the fringe of the company’s thirteen-acre compound, received minor injuries. The indomitable Grucci, who was only two years away from his eightieth birthday, vowed to rebuild.

Using fireworks scrounged from various sources, the family fulfilled a contract for a 1983 New Year’s Eve display in New York City’s Central Park. Preparing a display for the closing ceremonies of the Los Angeles Olympics, the Gruccis resumed their operation in the spring of 1984 at a more isolated location in East Moriches, Long Island. When neighbors, including residents of a nearby nursing home, objected, the Gruccis purchased a 131-acre site in the Long Island Pine Barrens. Environmental concerns relating to the potential impact of fireworks manufacturing and testing upon the underground water supply caused Suffolk County to offer the Gruccis a smaller parcel in Yaphank in exchange for the Pine Barrens property. In 1985 Grucci presided over the opening of a state-of-the-art facility in Yaphank, where the closest homes were nearly a mile away and ten-foot-high sand barriers protected the plant’s storage facilities. Shells produced there were used in the July 1986 extravaganza in New York Harbor celebrating the centennial of the Statue of Liberty. On this occasion the family worked with two other companies to produce an elaborate show with synchronized patriotic music, but the Gruccis provided the computer program that choreographed the fireworks.

In 1989 the Gruccis produced the display marking the inauguration of President George Bush, and four years later they produced a similarly impressive show for President William Jefferson Clinton’s inauguration. This extravaganza took place less than a week after Grucci died of Alzheimer’s disease in a Patchogue, Long Island, hospital. He is buried in Woodland Cemetery in Bellport.

Commenting on his passing, Time magazine called him the “patriarch of pyrotechnics,” adding, “During his reign, the clan’s productions rose to world class, with visual choreography worthy of Broadway.” The New York Times observed: “There are fireworks and there are Grucci fireworks. Felix Grucci … was America’s master of ooh’s and ah’s.” Although Fireworks by Grucci was not the largest company of its type in the United States, the New York Times noted, “As its name suggests, it has a certain stature.” Grucci was responsible for many innovations in pyrotechnics, which he had made safer and more spectacular. This was the real legacy of the man who received worldwide recognition yet remained a down-to-earth Long Islander. He dwelled in a modest house and to his dying day retained his memberships in the Bellport Fire Department, the Knights of Columbus, and the Italian-American Service Club of Brookhaven.

A substantial biographical article is in Contemporary Newsmakers 1987 (1987). Additional information about Grucci’s life and career is in George Plimpton, Fireworks: History and Celebration (1984), and Plimpton’s “First Family of Fireworks,” New York Times Magazine (29 June 1980). Grucci’s business career is discussed in Newsday (1 July 1988; 28 June 1998); the Wallstreet Journal (5 Sept. 1990); and the New York Times (13 July 1975; 29 July 1979; 30 Dec. 1979; 11 Jan. 1981; 28 Nov. 1983; 30 Dec. 1983; 17 Sept. 1985; 4 June 1986). He is commemorated in the New York Times (13 Jan. 1993). Obituaries are in the New York Times (12 Jan. 1993), Newsday (12 Jan. 1993), and Time (25 Jan. 1993). The present article is partly based on the author’s interview with Concetta Di Dio Grucci (June 2000).

Marilyn E. Weigold