Our fireworks: a loud and proud history

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By Ned Steele

It started with a war.

Each July 4, thousands gather on Siesta Beach to gasp in delight as 7,500 shells light up the night sky in glorious bursts of color. And well they should: the annual fireworks display is one of the year’s top feel-good moments on the island.

Watching from the beach, it’s too exciting to stop and think about the hard work, the meaning and the history behind it all.

So, let’s do it here and now.

Siesta Key’s fireworks date back 33 years, to 1991. At the time, the closest Fourth of July pyrotechnics were on the Sarasota bayfront. Operation Desert Storm, the first Gulf War, had ended earlier in the year. Veterans were still streaming home as summer approached.

“Patriotism was at an all-time high,” recalled Cheryl Duley, who then operated a family hardware store in the Village and joined the committee that would stage Siesta Key’s show. “We had the veterans coming back and we wanted to do something to honor them and the country.”

Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce board members thought: What does that better than July 4 fireworks?

They passed the hat, held garage sales and scraped enough dollars together to try it. Conveniently, the pyrotechnics expert who ran special effects for Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, Carlo Giordano, lived on Siesta Key. He agreed to stage the event.

It was too late to secure the permits needed to launch the show from the beach. Giordano, who still lives in the area but no longer runs the event, recalled, “We got a rickety barge from St Petersburg and set up 1,000 feet offshore. I put a crew together and we spent a day setting it up. It was an amazing display.”

Duley recalled, “You could see it all the way from the Village to Crescent Beach.”

The show became an annual event. Duley took it over in 1993.

Permits to launch from the beach were obtained, and the group started a beach cookout to raise funds. “For $100 you got a parking space and tickets to the barbecue,” she said.

Restaurant stalwarts like Mattison’s, Ophelia’s on the Bay, Siesta Village Café, and Daquiri Deck provided food and support. Condo associations made financial contributions.

In the early years the fireworks were manually launched; today it’s all automated. The logistics were endless: setup, the barbecue, standby ambulances, the fire marshal who would shut it down if winds exceeded 15 mph (it never happened), and 40 off-duty deputy sheriffs for traffic control, Duley persuaded the Coast Guard to lock the bridges down for an hour after the finale so cars could depart the key more easily. Her day would start at 9 a.m. and finish at 2 a.m. July 5.

But it produced indelible moments. Duley still remembers a little Hispanic girl, about 3, waving the flag emphatically after the grand finale and shouting, “I love the USA!”

Duley led the event for a decade. “I had a good run,” she recalled. “We never got rained on. It brings out the joy in being American.”

Tom and Kay Kouvatsos, proprietors of the Siesta Village Café, were among those who helped take over the event after Duley. They weren’t as lucky.

“It was always hot and it always rained,” Kay Kouvatsos said. The couple still donates coolers full of wraps, chips and juice to the event.

Giordano ran the fireworks for about a dozen years. He still does private shows for weddings and parties. The Siesta Key event is now run by Zambelli Fireworks, a major Boca Raton-based pyrotechnics company. It is one of the company’s largest July 4 events in Florida, according to lead pyrotechnician tech Craig Merrill.

This year’s show was to include 7,500 shells ranging in size from 1 to 5 inches, he said, with plenty of the crowd-pleasing “rapid fire” shells.

“It’s a pretty big deal,” he said. “With fireworks at the beach you’re looking up instead of looking out.”

But, noted Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ann Frescura, “It is done on a bare bones budget” – about $50,000 – and still reliant on community support for every dollar. There is no government funding.

“It is a well-loved community event and as long as it is supported it will continue.”

Added Duley, “It’s a great gift to the community. What would the Fourth of July be without fireworks?”

Let’s hope Siesta Key never has to find out.

Ned Steele
Author: Ned Steele

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