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Licensed to thrill

Man behind local fireworks tells of ‘painting the sky with chemicals and fire’

Peter Henry, who has been running the fireworks shows at the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival for the last 36 years, seen Feb. 22. (Enterprise photo — Jesse Adcock)

SARANAC LAKE — Over the last 36 years the Winter Carnival fireworks shows have changed, but the man behind them has not.

His name is Peter Henry, he lives in Rainbow Lake, and he’s been working with fireworks since he was a kid.

“Fireworks are something to be enjoyed by young and old alike. They’re dangerous; they’re thrilling; they’re exciting,” Henry said. “It’s been a release of creative energy when you’re putting the show together or making fireworks. It’s kind of like an artist and his palette of painting the sky with chemicals and fire.”

Origins

Fireworks erupt over the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Ice Palace on Feb. 2. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

Henry said he got his start in the sciences when his mother bought him a vintage Gilbert chemistry set at around 10 years old. He said it was old, from the 1940s or earlier, when these sets still came with real chemicals.

“It wasn’t like the chemistry sets today, where you watch water turn different colors and make crystals,” said Henry, who grew up in Port Henry. “This had formulas for gunpowder in it, how to make red fire, how to make green fire, snakes, etc., etc., and I’ve pretty much been hooked ever since.”

He said his start involved frequent trips to the pharmacist with a note from his mother, stating, “It is OK for Peter to buy saltpeter.” The next step was to buy some sulfur and charcoal briquettes. After grinding the charcoal up, Henry said he sifted the particulates. There, young Peter had it: gunpowder.

“That’s pretty much all I could make at that time,” Henry said. “I would file aluminum pots to get aluminum powder. Very, very rudimentary spark-making fountains. I would use Estes rocket engines to make things that shot up into the air. Nothing worked very well.”

Fireworks light up the sky over Tupper Lake in this 2008 display by Peter Henry. (Enterprise file photo — Lou Reuter)

Getting serious, getting licensed

Henry went to school to become a pharmacist at the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. He said he worked as a pharmacist for 42 years, moving to Saranac Lake to work at Adirondack Medical Center in 1975. He retired four years ago. He’s 67, and will be 68 in a month.

“Pharmacy is my profession,” Henry said. “Fireworks is just a hobby for me. You don’t make much money doing it.”

Henry said he got serious about his pyrotechnics after getting licensed by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in 1984 or ’83. He made friends with Louis Alonzo, owner of Alonzo’s Fireworks, and went to work putting on shows for him.

“I learned quite a bit from him, but unfortunately, you’re isolated up here. There’s no one else around here that makes fireworks that I’m aware of,” Henry said. “Once you’re learning, you’re learning on your own.”

Henry admitted that’s changed a little bit now, thanks to the internet, which has widely disseminated information about making fireworks.

“Once you’re licensed you have to follow numerous, numerous regulations from numerous agencies,” Henry said. “Since 9/11, all that has done is get incrementally more and more strict. From making fireworks, storing fireworks, using fireworks, transporting fireworks on the roads — there’s more regulations governing the use of explosives than there are narcotics in the hospital.”

Launching

While working at the hospital in Saranac Lake, Henry met his wife Nancy.

“We kind of hit it off,” Henry said. “She kept dropping pills on the floor and having to come down to the pharmacy to get a new pill, so I eventually built up the courage to ask her out. We dated for a few years and ended up getting married at the base of Giant Mountain at the waterfall.”

Nancy was good friends with Sally Schweizer, whose mother Barbara Chapin was the head of the Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce in the early 1980s.

“So I asked my wife to ask her friend to ask her mother if she would be interested in hiring me and the company I worked for at the time for Winter Carnival,” Henry said.

That led to Henry and Alonzo showing the chamber an Alonzo’s Fireworks promotional video, shot at a Playboy Club in New Jersey. “They loved it, so they hired us that year, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” Henry said.

Alonzo died in 2001, and his company was eventually bought by Santore’s World Famous Fireworks, for which Henry still works.

“I’m basically like their North Country representative,” Henry said. “They do the Albany area, downstate, and I take care of north of Lake George, pretty much to the Canadian border.”

Henry said he does 15 to 20 shows per year, from weddings to field days, to Memorial Day celebrations and five or six shows the week of the Fourth of July.

Winter Carnival shows

Tastes change, and so has the number and size of the fireworks Henry uses in the Winter Carnival shows. Individually, each firework tends to be smaller and less complicated than what Henry said he used to shoot.

“We started using more cakes and smaller shells that look more complementary to what was going on on the ground, rather than fewer big shells that do something fancy,” Henry said. “If people don’t appreciate the complexity of the work that goes into this bigger shells, then why shoot them?”

Today there are a lot more of the little fireworks, in conjunction with special effects — like the flamethrowers integrated into this year’s opening show.

“It’s almost continuous firing of effects so you don’t see dark sky,” Henry said. “There’s always something going on.”

The fuses for the fireworks used to be lit using a road flare, but nowadays Henry said he uses electronic ignition systems in big, complicated shows like the Winter Carnival. Every firework has an e-match attached to it, all hooked up into a shooting module.

“We had over 5,000 feet of wire out on that opening show,” Henry said. “On the end of it is like a little match. … When current goes through that … the match lights the fuse, which goes down into the shell, blows it up into the air.”

That, in turn, lights a timed fuse in the bottom of the firework as it hurtles up. At its apogee, that fuse blows up the firework proper.

“It explodes the shell, spreading its contents, which are usually colored pellets called stars — that’s what makes the flower in the sky,” Henry said. “Then you have whistles or serpents or whatever else you have in there that would do that at the same time.”

To grab the audience’s attention and increase the pace of the show, for the last two years Henry has synchronized the firing of the opening Winter Carnival show to music. He’s also been using more cakes — boxes full of 100 or 200 small tubes — that might shoot up smaller fireworks in a pattern.

“It’s beautiful,” Henry said. “With the palace that’s lit up and fireworks in the back, it really doesn’t get much better than that.”

The trick is to build toward the finale, Henry said, by firing the small shells and smaller cakes first — then as time goes on, bigger, nicer shells and larger cakes, coordinated with something going on on the ground.

“Let’s say we might have two cakes on the ground, separated by 100 feet, and they’re going to go off at the same time,” Henry said. “This would be toward the end of the show, you might want to fire some shells over that that are going to be similar colors to the cakes. … Then you build up to the finale where things really get cooking.”

A finale starts with smaller shells, growing larger until ending with salutes — the bright flash and the chest thumpers, Henry said.

“You’ll have like 60 or 100 of those things go off at the end. The finale ends with a real bang, then a couple big shells that break over the top of everything. It builds into a crescendo. … If you have a good finale in a fireworks show, then that’s what people are going to remember the most.”

Henry does his own show on the Fourth of July in St Regis Falls, where he mostly shoots fireworks of his own making. He uses Chinese-made fireworks for his other shows, like the Tupper Lake on July 3, Westport on Memorial Day, Port Henry’s Labor Day celebration, the Ausable Forks Tree Lighting, Winter Carnival, and private shows.

“China makes probably 99 percent of the fireworks shot in the United States,” Henry said. “There’s very few companies that make fireworks anymore in America. It’s too expensive. Labor is too expensive, liability insurance is too expensive, the regulations are too expensive. Just about everything comes from Asia.”

Passing the torch

“I would kind of like someone young coming up through the ranks to take over what I do around here,” Henry said, “somebody that owns a lot of land and is interested in fireworks and would be willing to build a magazine and learn.”

To pass the licensing tests, you’ve got to have a clean arrest record, and Henry said the government will test for drugs and alcohol randomly.

“You can’t be half-crazy — well maybe a little crazy — to do this,” Henry said. “It’s a lot of hard work and very little money.”

Plus, a candidate would be working nearly every holiday there is.

“You’re away from your wife, your husband, your kids, your loved ones on holidays,” Henry said. “There’s a lot of disadvantages to it.”

The advantages?

“You’re shooting fireworks, legally,” Henry said. “There’s nothing like seeing the smiles on people’s faces at a fireworks show. Whether it’s an old lady or a young kid, hearing people screaming while the finale is going on, it’s a great, great feeling. I get an awful lot of enjoyment out of it.”

Plus, you get to meet interesting folks. Henry has, for instance, worked with the world-famous boy band One Direction when they came to the area to make a video.

“My boys, I got to call them,” Henry said.

Working with fireworks, Henry said he most treasures bringing a personal joy to people’s lives. He said his favorite show he’s ever shot was for a woman’s centennial birthday.

“Her daughter hired me, and we set it up on a barge over on Lake Placid, and she was on a dock in a rocking chair with a blanket over her,” Henry said. “I had my remote to fire it, and I sat down next to her, and had her push one. And her face just lit up and her eyes were all sparkling. She was so happy.”

If you have an interest in becoming a trained pyrotechnician, own land and have a clean record, email Henry at pfworks@roadrunner.com.

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