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Famed ‘first family of fireworks’ promises pyrotechnics spectacle

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The state of West Virginia has enlisted the help of the "first family of fireworks" to make sure its 150th birthday party goes off with a bang.

Actually, it will be tens of thousands of bangs.

"This show is going to be amazing," said George Zambelli Jr., chairman of New Castle, Pa.-based Zambelli Fireworks.

The show on the statehouse grounds will actually come in three parts spread over Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights following the 10 p.m. 3-D movie to be projected on the south face of the Capitol.

Each show has been carefully choreographed to a soundtrack of West Virginia music.

The Thursday and Saturday shows will last 12 to 15 minutes while the Friday show will be about 10 minutes.  

Fireworks will be launched from the east and west ends of the main section of the Capitol building - above the chambers of the House of Delegates and state Senate. Special pyrotechnic effects will light up the dome, and others will be set off between the columns directly underneath it.

This will be only the second time for fireworks to be shot from the roof of the Capitol, which was completed in 1932.

The company has a lot of experience with shows in Charleston, having wowed audiences for more than a decade with fireworks displays for the Sternwheel Regatta.

Zambelli, the third-generation leader of the family-owned business, said the company was "very proud and honored" to be selected for the sesquicentennial celebration and hopes the show will match the grandeur of the occasion.

"It's going to be a one-of-a-kind show," he said. "We've really put a lot of special effort into this show, and you're going to see that it's really going to show up that way."

If he's right, it will live up to the vision of the state Sesquicentennial Commission.

"We want to have a fireworks show that people will remember," said Chelsea Ruby, the commission's executive director.

"The 150th birthday only happens once . . . we wanted to make it special," she said.

Ruby said the Governor's Office has received several calls in recent months from people who remember how much they enjoyed the state's centennial celebration.

Officials hope to create new memories.  

"We wanted to create something that, 50 years from now, they'll be calling the current governor and saying I remember how special the last one was," Ruby said.

The commission solicited proposals from national fireworks firms earlier in the year. Two firms made presentations, and Ruby said the Zambelli pitch was a clear winner.

"Zambelli just presented us with something that was more than your basic fireworks show," she said. "They were more creative and went far above and beyond our expectations."

The Zambelli company has a long history of putting on fireworks shows in America.

The Discovery and National Geographic cable channels have aired features on the family, the their history was documented in Gianni DeVincent Hayes' 2003 book "Zambelli: The First Family of Fireworks; A Story of Global Success."

The company traces its roots to 1893, when Antonio Zambelli brought the family's love of fireworks along with him on the boat from their hometown of Naples, Italy.

For the first few decades, Antonio prepared and shot fireworks as a side business. He would provide displays on religious holidays or the Fourth of July.

His son, George Sr., expanded the business during the 1950s.

"My dad took it in the 1950s from eight shows the week of the Fourth of July to over 800 a year," George Jr. said.

Now 65, he started helping his dad assemble displays when he was 5 years old.

"You grew up in it," he said. "It's a labor of love - it's just in your blood."

At 11, he started helping out at the family factory by making the stationary wooden pieces used to launch fireworks. He was 14 when he started helping his father and uncles shoot the shows. Modern laws require those workers to be at least 18.

"My first fireworks display for a president was on the south lawn of the White House two weeks before John F. Kennedy was assassinated," Zambelli said.

He was 15 at the time and has shot displays for every president since.

The business is still a part-time affair for Zambelli, a graduate of the Saint Louis University School of Medicine and board-certified ophthalmologist.

By day he treats cataracts and glaucoma at his practice in Rochester, Pa. But on nights and weekends, he still likes to light up people's eyes with the family tradition.

"It brings the kid out in you," he said.

He has a staff of about 50 full-time employees plus thousands of seasonal workers who help pull off 2,200 shows each year.

Kim Ceyrolles, the project manager who helped put together the sesquicentennial shows, shares Zambelli's passion for the work.

"You really do have to love the creative part of this business," Ceyrolles said. "You're always making people happy - it's a fun, fun thing to do.

"There's just nothing like it; we're very lucky to be in this."

Ceyrolles and her crew have visited the Capitol two times to lay out logistics for the shows.

She and the show choreographer, Zach Taminosian, began working on the format, soundtrack and pyrotechnic effects in March.

They also had to work with the Charleston Fire Department, General Services Division and state Fire Marshal's Office to make sure the fireworks and pyrotechnics wouldn't leave any lasting effects on the Capitol building.

"We had to make sure that the effects we used on the dome not only created an element of surprise for the community, but were also safe and protected it," Ceyrolles said.

Zambelli didn't know the exact number of fireworks and pyrotechnic effects to be shot over the next three days but said the number was certainly in the "tens of thousands."

The shows will be set to a blend of West Virginia-inspired music.

"Overall what we asked for was a good mix of West Virginia and celebratory, upbeat music," said the commission's Ruby.

Ceyrolles didn't want to give away many secrets, but she let slip that Robert C. Byrd's fiddle playing and the music of West Virginia native Brad Paisley would play prominent roles.

The soundtrack will change each night, so visitors will be treated to something fresh for each show.

Ruby said the only repeat will be a special recording of "Happy Birthday" by the Mountain Stage band that will be used to transition from the 3-D film to the fireworks show each night.

"We wanted to have our own West Virginia 'Happy Birthday' in there, and Mountain Stage was happy to do that for us," she said.

Ruby said the exact cost of the fireworks shows hasn't been tallied but those figures will be released - along with a full accounting of sesquicentennial spending - once the events are finished.

She said the fireworks are being fully funded by private donations rather than state revenue.  

The displays are designed for an audience located along the south side of the Capitol.

Ceyrolles said the best places to view the show would be from Kanawha Boulevard or from across the river near the University of Charleston campus.

Contact writer Jared Hunt at or 304-348-4836.

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