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Last week was the 14th year Steve Hall has produced the Fourth of July fireworks show at Riverfront Park in Louisiana, a heartfelt hobby spawned from a youthful taboo.
When the Louisiana resident was growing up in the St. Louis area, his father was a firefighter who considered fireworks one of life’s great dangers.
“He tried to hold me back but when I was six or seven. I ran away from home and walked to a fireworks stand,” Hall said. “Anything you’re passionate about that’s taken away makes you want it more.”
Hall tinkered with fireworks for years, modifying the ones he bought for his own enjoyment. In 1995, he went to the Pyrotechnic Guild International Convention in Wisconsin, where he learned to shoot large fireworks and became certified by the group to do professional shows.
“I have no profit motive, it’s a hobby,” Hall said. “I would love to make a living at it but you would jeopardize the family well-being,” because of lawsuits and the tough nature of the business. “I do it as a community service.”
The retired Hercules Inc. chemist only asks for expenses for what he calls his passion. “It’s just fun,” Hall said. “It takes all day to set up and it’s gone in 20 minutes but it’s so rewarding.
“It makes the hair on your neck stand up and I enjoy the thrill of entertaining people. It’s like being on stage.”
Hall starts planning the Louisiana show in February to get the best price he can for the fireworks made in China and Missouri. If he waits longer, prices go up and he can’t deliver as much for the crowd from the $5,000 budget the Louisiana Chamber of Commerce raises for him every year. A lot of people assume Hall makes his own shells but he does not.
He also said the annual Louisiana show would be impossible without the help of the city. City employees dig the trenches for his firing mortars and clean up afterwards.
Being safe is the most important thing in Hall’s pyrotechnic mind.
He lives by the axiom “distance is your friend” and has never had a seriously dangerous scare while performing.
“My biggest concern is duds,” Hall said. “It’s like a bowling ball coming down.”
Because of that, Hall sets up a “fallout zone” for the fireworks that is not over the crowd. At Louisiana, he shoots over the river for the beauty and the wet safety it provides.
“Every site has to be analyzed,” Hall said. “You have to have a perimeter 550 feet in diameter around you,” before even thinking about firing a single firework.
“Every site also has to have a different philosophy for what you want to shoot. Here in Louisiana, the crowd is spread out all over town, so we get really big shells,” that go high enough for all to see.
Hall shoots his fireworks mortars out of trenches to guide them upward and to keep any possible explosions from going sideways toward the crowd and his crew.
Hall and the crew stand behind a metal trailer at the Louisiana show and all the shells are fired by electrical or radio hookups. They wear hard hats as well.
“I wear a fireproof suit, just in case I have to go out there,” to the shooting area.
Hall’s crew consists of his uncle, Neal Libhard, of Florissant, Jack Lindsey, of Troy and his daughter, Jennifer Hall, of Louisiana.
“I grew up with my dad having this as a hobby, going to conventions and (fireworks) shows with him,” Jennifer Hall said. “I love it. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else when we’re working. It’s having the black powder in your blood.”
The black powder remains in her father’s blood and Hall doesn’t see it ending anytime soon. He also teaches a pyrotechnics course at his alma mater, Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla.
Beyond the sheer enjoyment, Hall keeps shooting fireworks with a constant goal for each show.
“I always want to hear someone say, ‘I’ve never seen that before,’ ” he said.