Fireworks were invented in sixth-century China, and, for most of the past century, one company has been a leading supplier to people in the Kansas City area.
T. George Wald began selling fireworks from a downtown building in 1924.
His three sons joined him. This year the company, now led by his grandson, is celebrating 90 years in business.
Cases of fireworks with names like Boom Box, Totally Insane and Cosmic Tsunami are stacked up inside Wald & Co.’s Greenwood warehouse for distribution to roadside tent operators. The items are displayed individually in Wald’s retail store out front.
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In addition, putting on big pyrotechnic displays like the ones set for July 3 at Lee’s Summit’s Legacy Park and July 4 at Corporate Woods makes up a sizable portion of the Wald family’s business. In fact, the Star Spangled Spectacular in Overland Park’s Corporate Woods is the company’s largest event each year.
Charlie Wald, 57, is president of Wald & Co. and All-American Display Fireworks. His wife, Sonja Wald, serves as display manager and jack of all trades. Their teenage daughters, Lilly and Kayla, were packing up orders in the warehouse on a recent morning, while 21-year-old son Nathan has joined full time as warehouse manager, making them the fourth generation of the family business.
From its original building at 208 Broadway, Wald & Co. has grown to include warehouse locations in Lincoln, Neb.; San Antonio; Shawnee, Okla.; and Ellinwood, Kan. The warehouse and store in Greenwood in Jackson County opened in 1992 and was expanded a decade later. Every year, the All-American Display division fans out across four states — Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma — to put on more than 100 public shows.
The fireworks business seems to lend itself to family ownership, and Kansas City is one of the national hubs for the industry. Winco Fireworks International, owned and operated by members of the Collar family since the late 1960s, is the exclusive distributor of the renowned Black Cat brand in the United States. With its corporate office in Prairie Village and its Pyro City store and warehouse in Lone Jack in Jackson County, Winco is the region’s top distributor to retail tents that pop up every summer in the weeks preceding Independence Day. Winco also has locations in eight other states.
Other large area distributors include Fireworks Over America in Odessa, Mo., and Schneitter Fireworks Importing in St. Joseph.
Sure, Independence Day is far and away the fireworks industry’s busiest season. But Christmas and New Year’s Eve provide another burst of action. Winter-holiday sales are particularly strong among Latinos in the southern United States, local operators say. Together with displays for corporate events and even weddings, these family enterprises stay busy all year round.
Consumer fireworks make up about 60 percent of his business, Charlie Wald said.
The rest is display work.
The company does both large, outdoor shows — like the Star Spangled Spectacular and the Memorial Day weekend Celebration at the Station with the Kansas City Symphony — as well as indoor or low-level outdoor shows called proximate displays.
Indoor displays are often done at arenas in conjunction with sporting events, but they can be as small as a series of tabletop spark showers at a wedding.
Wald put on an outdoor proximate display June 5 outside the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts when a group from the Republican National Committee was in town scouting out Kansas City for its quadrennial convention. Another example is the Country Club Plaza Christmas lighting ceremony, which is set up on a series of rooftops.
“The display part has been very good for me,” Charlie Wald said. “It gives me cash flow year-round. It doesn’t stop on the Fourth (of July). There are Christmas lighting ceremonies and weddings and corporate events like the RNC meeting here the other day. We do the confetti burst at the Big 12 basketball tournament. … I turn down shows on the Fourth because I don’t have enough guys to shoot them.”
Wald has a full-time staff of seven year-round, and ramps up to 20 during the summer high season, plus hundreds of pyrotechnicians trained to set up and put on outdoor displays on call. All-American Display holds training classes for shooters twice a year.
Display managers Daryl Marmon and Steve Whitt use computers to choreograph each display. The shells have names like Crackling Spider, Glittering Coconut Tree and Gold Flitter with Blue Octopus Pistil inspired by the shape and sound they make in the sky. A typical July 4 show lasts 20 to 22 minutes and costs between $5,000 and $30,000.
Because the permits required for outdoor shows take as long as 30 days to obtain, All-American Displays likes to have a month or two lead time from its clients. Because they are set up differently, proximate shows often take longer to create than standard outdoor ones.
Although All-American’s computers store every show in their memory, Whitt said his clients’ requirements are so variable that each new show pretty much starts from scratch.
“My job is to put the fireworks to the music they choose,” Whitt said. “When the music trails off between songs, the fireworks do, too.”
Musical tastes change over time, Whitt noted. Although Lee Greenwood’s 1984 song “God Bless the U.S.A.” remains a mainstay, military marches are losing favor among his customers, he said. Katy Perry’s 2010 song “Firework” has been popular ever since, and this year, Whitt said, he will use the hit song “Let It Go” from the 2013 Disney animated film “Frozen” in one show.
Wald has a warehouse near Osceola, Mo., where it stores the shells (most 3 to 8 inches in diameter) used in big displays. Marmon and Whitt train and supervise the part-time pyrotechnicians who take their choreography and translate it, first physically and then electronically, into each show.
Whitt himself helps to set up and supervises the firing of Overland Park’s July 4 show at Corporate Woods, the company’s biggest annual event.
Setup starts by installing a series of black plastic firing tubes encased in wooden racks. Their bases are then surrounded by sand. This can be done either on the ground or on one of the flatbed trailers the company owns.
The round shells are then loaded into each tube. The firing mechanisms in the tubes are then connected by wire, either to a controlling laptop computer or to an electronic “pinboard.” Each circuit is tested before show time to ensure it will detonate its charge.
The on-site computers control the actual detonation of the shells according to the plan. Most often, they are timed to coincide with music played over speakers or coordinated with a radio broadcast. If a pinboard is used, the computer cues the operator when to push each button to detonate the correct shell in sequence.
It can take two days to set up a big show. If the racks are left out overnight, tarps cover them, and security guards are hired to watch them.
Safety is a prime concern for obvious reasons. Sonja Wald said the company has not suffered a serious injury among workers or spectators, “Knock on wood.”
The computer setup for each show includes a “deadman switch,” Whitt said.
“I have to have my thumb on the button the entire time the show is firing,” he said. “If I let go, it stops immediately.”
After every show, a pyrotechnician checks each tube to ensure that no shell is left inside unfired.
Emma Kail, general manager of the Kansas City Symphony, said Wald/All-American has “done a great job for us” during Celebration at the Station.
“We love working with them,” Kail said. “They have a great team, and they understand it’s an event for the community. They do a great job working within our budget, which is tight. We make no money. All of us and our vendors understand that. It’s a community event, for the community.”
During her nearly decade-long stint at the Symphony, Kail said, there has been no thought of seeking out another pyrotechnics company.
“If it’s not broken, why fix it?” she said.
Regulations governing the use of fireworks stem from governments at every level — local, state and federal — and successful distributors have learned to roll with the punches. Their warehouses are inspected annually for safety by both local fire departments and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Executives of both Winco and Wald are involved with the leading industry group, the American Pyrotechnics Association, which promulgates best practices. There is also the American Fireworks Standards Laboratory, modeled after the safety organization Underwriters Laboratories. The fireworks laboratory tests samples of fireworks before they leave the manufacturers, which are almost exclusively based in China.
Charlie Wald remembers when most Chinese fireworks were distributed through the then-Portuguese colony of Macau, near Hong Kong.
“They called it the hole in the fence around Red China,” he recalled.
Today, Wald deals with U.S. representatives for companies based on the Chinese mainland, including Winco for the Black Cats it sells to local stands.
Other major brands Wald carries include Shogun, Hop Kee, Winda and Brothers.
Shogun offers a crackling, fountain-style firework called Tailgate Party, which features a photo of a costumed Kansas City Chiefs fan, among others, on the label.
Colorful labels and memorable brand names have long been a staple of the industry. Many people now collect vintage fireworks labels, including those from the Missouri-inspired Mule brand firecrackers (tagline: Has a kick!) that Wald imported and marketed during the latter half of the 20th century.
Mike Collar, president and chief operating officer of Winco Fireworks, lists the fellow family members who work in the business founded by his brothers David and John.
“John works with the stores; he’s vice president. David is chairman of the board. John’s daughter, Amy, is in marketing. John’s son, Tim, is in HR. David’s daughter, Lauren, is over the Denver and Salt Lake City stores. David’s daughter, Natalie, runs the Houston retail store. My wife, Theresa, has been with the company 27 years, over all our import divisions. … My sister, Ann, is the inventory manager in Lone Jack,” he said. “We work it year-round. We bring in containers from overseas. We also assemble family packs year round. Our operations in the South do a great business at Christmas time and New Year.”
In addition to its locations in Missouri and Kansas, Winco has retail stores and/or warehouses in Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. The company has 250 employees year round, rising to 2,800 seasonally.
Mike Collar has twice been president of the American Pyrotechnics Association and is serving his second term as president of the American Fireworks Standards Laboratory.
The Chinese parent company of Black Cat brand fireworks, Li & Fung, took an ownership stake in Winco 20 years ago. Winco has been its exclusive U.S. distributor for the past eight years. Although it doesn’t physically handle every Black Cat item that enters the country, Winco handles the arrangements and gets a cut of every sale.
“It’s been a great partnership for us and good for our company and our family,” Mike Collar said.
Although Winco carries products from several other makers, Black Cat accounts for more than half of its annual sales.
“We feel like they are great quality products,” Mike Collar said.
He said firecracker and bottle rocket sales have been declining in recent years, while sales of multiple-stage shell-firing packages known as cakes have been rising.
“People just aren’t into firecrackers as much,” Mike Collar said. “They want to spend their money on pretty stuff going up into the air.”
Here are some of the Fourth of July events taking place in the metro area:
What: American Dreams. Four-day celebration; highlights on July 4 will be parade, Parkville Symphonic Band, skydiving team and fireworks.
When: 6 p.m. July 2-3, events start at 7 a.m. July 4, 6 p.m. July 5
Where: Most events downtown
What: Liberty4thFest will cover two days; performance of “Letters to Liberty,” beer garden, music by the Stolen Winnebagos and more, July 3; parade and fireworks, July 4.
When: 5-9:30 p.m., July 3, 9:30 a.m July 4, fireworks at 9:45 p.m.
Where: Liberty Performing Arts Theatre, Liberty Square and William Jewell College
What: Booms and Blooms Festival. Highlights will include daylilies, an edible landscape, music by Lee’s Summit School of Rock and the Lee’s Summit Symphony and fireworks. $5-$12. Free for kids under 5.
When: 9 a.m. til after dark, July 3. Fireworks around 9:30 p.m.
Where: 1609 N.W. U.S. 50, Kingsville.
What: Legacy Blast Fireworks Extravaganza, with vendors, inflatables and fireworks. Free.
When: 6 p.m. July 3. Rain date, July 5.
Where: Legacy Park, 1201-1501 N.E. Legacy Park Drive.
Info: cityofls.net, 816-969-1500
What: Fireworks display by Turner Recreation Commission and Wyandotte County Parks and Recreation
When: 9:45 p.m. July 3
Where: 1800 S. 55th, Kansas City, Kan.
What: Star Spangled Spectacular. Day will include live music with vendors and children’s activities, capped by fireworks and more live music.
When: 4 p.m. July 4
Where: 8717 W. 110th St., Overland Park
Berkley Riverfront Park
What: KC RiverFest. Huge fireworks show will follow evening of music on two stages, children’s activities and vendors. $5 admission.
When: 4 to 11 p.m. July 4.
Where: Grand Boulevard and Riverfront Road.
Leawood City Park
What: Fourth of July Celebration, with children’s activities, vendors, music and fireworks
When: 5:30 p.m. July 4
Where: 10601 Lee, Leawood
Info: leawood.org/parks, 913-339-6700 ext. 201
What: Morning kids’ parade, evening music and fireworks. Free.
When: 9:30 a.m. parade; George Dyer Band at 7:30 p.m.; Spirit of Independence band at 8:30; fireworks around 9:30 p.m. July 4
Where: Parade goes from 23rd and Main to Independence Square. Dyer band at Community of Christ Auditorium, 1001 W. Walnut, and the rest at Mormon Visitors Center, 937 W. Walnut.
What: Red, White & Blue Springs. City’s annual fireworks display, preceded by music from 6 Degrees West and Nashville recording artist Austin Webb. Free.
When: 6 p.m. July 4, fireworks about 9:30 p.m. Rain date July 5.
Where: Peve Stadium at Blue Springs High School, 2000 N.W. Ashton Drive.
Longview Lake Shelter No. 13
What: The Big Bang, Jackson County’s free Fourth of July celebration, will feature a children’s carnival and free concert by Backroad Anthem, capped by fireworks.
When: 6:30 p.m. July 4, fireworks about 9:30 p.m.
Where: Raytown Road, about two miles south of I-470
Info: jacksongov.org/parks, 816-503-4800
Old Town Lenexa
What: 36th Annual Freedom Run 5K and 10K. $25-$30 and Lenexa Community Days Parade
When: Run: 7 a.m. July 4. Parade: 10 a.m. July 4
Where: Santa Fe Trail Drive and Pflumm Road
Info: lenexa.com, 913-477-7100
What: VillageFest. Pancake breakfast, children’s activities, crafters, bike rodeo, pie-baking contest.
When: 7:30 a.m.- 1 p.m. July 4
Where: 7700 Mission Road
Info: pvkansas.com, 913-381-6464
What: Independence Day Celebration, with music and fireworks
When: 7-11 p.m. July 4
Where: Oak Grove Park, 76th and North Troost
Info: gladstone.mo.us, 816-423-4091
Deanna Rose Children’s Farmstead
What: Independence Day, including games, contests and a parade. $2, children under 2 are free
When: 9 a.m.-noon July 4
Where: 13800 Switzer, Overland Park
Missouri Town 1855
What: Independence Day, 1850s-style, highlighted by parade. $3-$5. Free for kids under 5.
When: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. July 4.
Where: 8010 E. Park Road, Fleming Park, Lee’s Summit.
Info: jacksongov.org/parks, 816-503-4860
What: Independence Day, early 19th-century style. $3-$7.
When: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. July 4.
Where: 107 Osage St., Sibley.
Info: jacksongov.org/parks, 816-503-4860
Summit Fair Shopping Center
What: Stars and Stripes 5K run/walk. $35-$40; $12-15 for kids’ fun run.
When: 7:30 a.m. July 4.
Where: 840 N.W. Blue Parkway, Lee’s Summit.
Ward Parkway Center
What: Four on the Fourth 4-mile run/walk. $30-$35; $10 to $15 for kids’ fun run.
When: 7:30 a.m. July 4.
Where: 85th and Ward Parkway, Kansas City.
What: Spirit of America Celebration, with classic car show, music and fireworks.
When: 4 p.m. July 4, fireworks about 9:30 (July 5 raindate).
Where: Recreation Park, 1011 S. Madison St.
What: Flags 4 Freedom. Flag display; also farmers market and concerts.
When: Concert to Celebrate the Flags, 12:30 p.m. July 4; flag display takedown, 9 a.m. July 5
Where: 5701 Merriam Drive, Merriam
What: Fireworks display after racing. $6-$12
When: 7:30 p.m. July 4
Where: 5615 Wolcott, Kansas City, Kan.
Info: lakesidespeedway.net, 913-299-9206
What: Hometown Celebration with all-ages bike parade, swimming, games, entertainment and fireworks.
When: 11 a.m until late evening July 4, fireworks at dusk
Where: City Park, 706 Ash St.
Independence Events Center
What: Freedom Ride. Bicycling options range up to 86 miles; benefits Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer.
When: 7 a.m. July 5.
Where: 19100 E. Valley View Parkway.
Lanesfield Historic Site
What: Old-fashioned Independence Day. Free.
When: 1-5 p.m. July 5
Where: 18745 S. Dillie, Edgerton
Info: jocomuseum.org, 913-893-6645