Nothing is probably more synonymous with the celebration of the American holiday of Independence Day – or the Fourth of July – then a colorful display of aerial fireworks. In 1990 the city of New Castle, Pennsylvania, completely embraced that concept and declared themselves the “Fireworks Capital of America.” Just how did this come about?
Noise-making firecrackers were invented by the Chinese as early as 200 B.C. Eventually, around 700 A.D., the Chinese invented crude visual pyrotechnics that became known as “fireworks,” and began shooting these ground-based pyrotechnics off for festive occasions such as holidays. During the 13th Century these fireworks made their way to Europe. Over the next few centuries English, German, and Italian experts made great strides in developing new and more impressive pyrotechnics. It was the Italians who turned fireworks into a true art form. They learned to use mortars to launch them high into the air, and added metallic powders to the fireworks to reveal splendid colors.
Early fireworks demonstrations in Europe were reserved for the monarchy, but during the 18th Century it became commonplace to hold large displays of fireworks for the general public. These fireworks also made their way to the American Colonies. The first large scale Independence Day fireworks celebration in the United States was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 4, 1777.
Flash forward a century or more when during the 1890’s the city of New Castle experienced incredible growth mainly due to being the center of the tin plate industry. Many Italian immigrants, most hailing from the area near Naples in the Province of Caserta, began to flood into the area to work in the various tin plate mills, steel plants, and limestone mines.
Among these Italian newcomers were several fireworks manufacturers who had learned their craft back in the old country. Leopoldo “Paul” Fazzoni (1868-1940), who arrived in New Castle in 1886, was the first man to set up a fireworks operation in New Castle. Fazzoni (or Fazzone) initially worked in a local mill, saved his money, and honed his fireworks assembly techniques.
It is believed sometime in about 1892, when he was twenty-four years old, Fazzoni started manufacturing his own fireworks and putting on public demonstrations. He opened a small fireworks assembly shed at his residence along South Jefferson/Moravia Street of New Castle. At least one brother, believed to be Pasquale “Paulo” Fazzoni (but possibly also Guiseppe “Joseph” Fazzoni), assisted him. The small enterprise became known as the Fazzoni Brothers Fireworks Manufacturing Company. In the coming years Fazzoni employed some of the area’s best Italian-born pyrotechnic experts to include Paul Rozzi (Rossi), Jake Conti (Cunti), and youngster Antonio Zambelli.
Some of the most popular early sites to launch fireworks included the large picnic grounds along Division Street on the South Side, Boyles Field along Highland Avenue in the North Hill section, and on the Diamond in the downtown area.
One of the first references I can find to fireworks being manufactured locally appeared in the New Castle News of Wednesday, August 17, 1892. Two days prior St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, headed by Reverend Joseph Eger, played host to the Reverend Guiseppe Molinari of the St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Pittsburgh. The article detailed the event with, “The Italian picnic that was held Monday was a big success. Countrymen were present from Youngstown, Sharon, Beaver Falls and all the surrounding towns. This day is celebrated by the Italians in Italy and in this country as the feast of the assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, being a festival in memory of the ascent of the Virgin Mary into heaven… The greater part of the day was taken up with religious exercises, vespers being held |during the afternoon. The meetings were attended almost exclusively by Italians. The evening had been set apart for a grand display of fireworks and other exercises, and by 8:30 p.m. fully 2,000 people of almost every nationality had assembled at the picnic ground near Witherow’s Works.”
The article went on to provide further details with, “St. Mary’s Band was stationed near the stage and discoursed music between acts. A few seats had been erected and five cents was all that was charged for this luxury. After the show followed the fireworks and it can be safely stated that nothing so grand in this line has ever been witnessed in this city. The fireworks were manufactured here by Leopoldo Fazzone and Giuseppe DiCerbo who were formerly employed in their manufacture in Italy. They were different from the American and were arranged in different ways on high poles. They were so constructed that rockets would shoot, wheels of fire revolve and cannons explode all with one lighting. The display on each pole would last about 4 or 5 minutes and was very beautiful. One very laughable feature of the fireworks was the Fire Horse. This was ridden about the grounds by a boy and emitted brilliant hued sparks in all directions.”
Cascade Park, which first opened on Saturday May 29, 1897, quickly became the favored location for fireworks demonstrations. The New Castle News of Wednesday, June 2, 1897, carried a lengthy article on the opening that mentioned, “On Saturday night a grand display of fireworks attracted an immense throng. The fireworks were undoubtedly the grandest ever and embraced many features in the line of pyrotechnics never before witnessed.”
Fazzoni is known to have set up several displays of fireworks at the park during the summer of 1897. The New Castle News of Thursday, July 8, 1897, reported on the Fourth of July display (delayed three days due to rain) with, “Big crowds have become common at Cascade park, but that which assembled on Wednesday evening to witness the gorgeous display of fireworks was simply tremendous. It is estimated that fully 9,000 people saw the display, and of this number it would be impossible to find one who did not feel that the sight was well worth the trip. The display began at 9:30 and as the first rocket shot skyward and exploded, the falling sparks illuminated a sea of upturned faces which in itself was a sight well worth seeing.”
Later that year the New Castle News of Tuesday, September 7, 1897, announced, “The management of Cascade park presented Theopoldo Fazzone, the well known fireworks manufacturer, with a handsome gold medal yesterday. They took that means of showing their appreciation of his work. The presentation speech was made by Frank C. McGonigle, the popular manager of the park, and the response was made by Wm. Bowater on behalf of Mr. Fazzone.”
It appears as soon as Fazzoni got established in New Castle a rumor was started about him relocating to Brier Hill, the “Little Italy” section of Youngstown, Ohio. The New Castle News of Monday, June 28, 1897, reported, “The Fazzone Brothers, manufacturers of fireworks, say that there is no truth in the statement published in the Youngstown Telegram to the effect that they are about to locate a plant for the manufacture of fireworks in Brier Hill. A News reporter called on these famous manufacturers of pyrotechnics at their home just north of the New Castle engineering works on Tuesday afternoon. He found them busily engaged filling an order for Girard, Ohio. Their workshop is a small building not more than ten feet square… At this Paulo Fazzone was busily at work… Leopold Fazzone, who talks good English, did the talking, and when asked if he and his brother were going to locate a plant at Brier Hill, he laughed and said, “No we are not. We have been in New Castle eleven years and we do not propose to leave.” In answer to a question he said that they had learned the art of making fireworks in one of the largest factories in Italy. They had served an apprenticeship and very thoroughly conversant with every branch of the business.”
Before long several other companies, led by former employees of the Fazzoni Fireworks Company, began to set up operations in New Castle. Two of the most prominent were Italian immigrants Paul Rozzi (1869-1943) and Jake Conti (1874-1942), who often worked together in the early days. Rozzi, born in Pietramelara, Italy, had come to New Castle in 1895, while Conti, born in the neighboring village of Statigliano, had been in New Castle since 1888.
I believe one of their earliest collaborations was the New Castle Fireworks Manufacturing Company, which I believe Rozzi established in about 1898. In later years it often referred to as the Rozzi Fireworks Company. Conti soon went his own way and established the Conti Fireworks Manufacturing Company in about 1902. All these companies specialized in aerial fireworks, but also made firecrackers and smaller pyrotechnics for sale in retail stores.
The manufacturing of fireworks was a small enterprise at this time with no dedicated facilities. The men worked at their residences, often assembling pyrotechnics in the kitchen or in small sheds or garages. Fazzoni initially set up shop in the shed at his home at #20 Nutt Street. Rozzi utilized a garage at his home near the intersection of Center Way and South Jefferson Street, while Conti worked out of a shack where Pearson Street meets East Division Street. Aerial fireworks were assembled or packed into shells, which were later loaded by hand into steel mortars (tubes) for firing. Once a “shooter” hand lit a fuse he would run for safety.
It seems the small companies were always in competition with each other, either to win fireworks “shoot-offs” or to be awarded contracts for aerial fireworks displays. It often got personal as the New Castle News of Wednesday, March 30, 1898, reported, “The New Castle Fireworks Company would like to know why the Lawrence County Fireworks Company do not accept their challenge. They claim to do the best work and at the lowest price. (They think they are selling potatoes). We are going to show these people who is going to show the newest style of fireworks this summer. We still have the $100 to forfeit if they can beat us. PAUL ROZZI, N. JAKE CONTI. New Castle Fireworks, Co.” (NOTE: I have no idea who the Lawrence County Fireworks Company was, but I’m wondering if it could refer to the Fazzoni Brothers.)
The ongoing rivalry between the local companies even escalated into physical confrontation. The New Castle News of Wednesday, June 19, 1901, had this to report, “Rival Italian fireworks makers have taken up arms against each other. For several years the rivalry between makers of the pyrotechnics has been marked. Finally the competition became bitter and last week there was a display in which the various manufacturers competed for honors. There was a dispute as to the merits of the display and two of the principals engaged in a fist fight over the matter. As a result of the trouble Jacob (Jake) Conti appeared this morning before Alderman John Potter and filed an information against Carman Rosso, whom he charged with surety of the peace. Conti states that Rosso threatened him bodily harm, and that he is afraid that he will injure him. The offender named has been arrested and the hearing has been fixed for next Monday night.”
Fireworks recipes from the old country were highly sought after as this article in the New Castle News of Wednesday, February 8, 1905, reveals, “After a hearing held before Alderman Williams Tuesday evening, Paul Fezzone, who is charged by Jake Conti with receiving stolen property, was held to the March term of court. The case was a holly contested one, the Commonwealth being represented by W. J. Moffatt and the defendant by Chas. E. Mehard… The defense claimed that there had been no crime committed by the defendant relating to the property, which consists of a book relating to the manufacture of fireworks and some other articles of small value. Fezzone alleged that he had bought them from a man named Capainea, who is now in the old country. The claim of the Commonwealth was that Capainea had taken the articles from Conti and that Fezzone knew of this fact when he received them from the former.”
In 1900 the St. Vitus Catholic Church, catering to those of Italian ethnicity, was established and soon began holding services in an old Methodist church on South Jefferson Street. The church quickly became the center of the Italian community in the Fifth Ward (South Side), and especially after the Reverend Nicholas DeMita arrived in the fall of 1905. Two things that almost all the local fireworks men – in the early 1900’s and in the future – had in common: Italian heritage and they were members of St. Vitus Church. Among the parishioners you would eventually find the surnames of Fazzoni, Rozzi, Conti, Peluso, Vitale, Perrone, and Zambelli. When the new St. Vitus Church was dedicated in August 1907, a display of fireworks was part of the lavish festivities. The local fireworks industry grew in the shadow of the church, and together they both experienced tremendous growth in the coming years.
In the early 1900’s fireworks became mainly associated with celebrations within the Italian community, including those of the Fifth Ward of New Castle and in Hillsville. The New Castle News of Wednesday, August 13, 1902, elaborated on one such celebration with “The Italian colony of Hillsville, held an elaborate celebration Thursday in honor of St. Donato. The religious services were conducted by Rev. Father Alessandro of St. Vitus Roman Catholic church of this city, and a large number of Italians were in attendance. In the evening there was a fireworks display given by G. Pelaso and Fazzone Brothers of this city.”
New Castle News of Wednesday, December 26, 1906, disclosed that, “Christmas was fittingly ushered in by the Italians of the Fifth ward colony, who gave a display of fireworks similar to those given on the Fourth of July. The Italian district west of Mill Street in the vicinity of St. Vitus church, alive with dusky foreigners, entered into the celebration for all it was worth. Giant firecrackers, sky rockets, bombs, and scores of other noise producing pieces without number. The greater part of the celebration took part in the streets…”
The various fireworks displays were exciting, but with few regulations – and just plain bad luck – came a litany of accidents. The New Castle News of Wednesday, July 10, 1901, reported on a particular Fourth of July accident with, “An explosion occurred at the crossing of Pearson street and Division street at 9 o’clock Thursday night that shook the buildings for two squares around, and greatly alarmed many people. Jacob Conti had a little shack off the street, in which his material for making fireworks were stowed. In the shack were nearly two kegs of powder and other chemicals of an explosive nature. Some parties down the street were shooting sky rockets, when one of them fell into the shack and caused the explosion. It is needless to add that all that remained of that shack could be put into a quart cup.”
The New Castle News of Wednesday, May 28, 1902, divulged, “Joseph White, who is one of employees of the Paul Rozzi fireworks factory on Center street, met with a terrible accident while at his work Wednesday morning. He was engaged in tamping the powder in a fire cracker when the powder suddenly and without warning exploded with the result that his left hand was terribly torn and lacerated. Dr. E. P. Norris was called to attend the injury and his wounds were soon dressed. Though of a very painful nature it is not expected that the injuries will result seriously.”
The New Castle News of Wednesday, September 2, 1903, reported, “Vincent Coloti, an Italian maker of fireworks, who lives on Sheep Hill, met with a terrible accident at his home Tuesday afternoon while making a “pompa,” as a certain kind of explosive bomb is called. The “pompa” contains dynamite and antimony in proportions that compose a highly powerful explosive. Coloti was boring a hole through the mass, which he held in his left hand, while he forced the tool through it with his right. Suddenly the “pompa” burst. Flesh and muscles were torn asunder and the bones of the palm shattered. The thumb was left hanging by a few shreds of torn flesh, and the injured man lost much blood, which streamed from the lacerated arteries. A physician was summoned, who dressed the injured hand, as best he could, by sewing together the remnants of flesh and muscles left. Some of his fingers were amputated, and it is extremely doubtful the entire hand will not also have to be taken off.”
The New Castle News of Wednesday, July 6, 1904, revealed, “Theodore Robbins, a boy whose home is on Connor avenue, Tuesday morning, while playing on Ray street, found a quantity of fireworks which he proceeded to touch off. The explosion which followed badly burned the boy’s face, bands and arms. Medical aid was rendered by Dr. Sankey.”
The New Castle News of Wednesday, August 1, 1906, provided this story, “While witnessing the display of fireworks at the Italian celebration at Cascade park Tuesday evening, Harry West of East Long avenue, was struck in the face by a ball of fire and was painfully, but not seriously burned. The burning powder struck above his right eye and inflicted a burn of considerable extent.”
Buoyed by stories of such accidents the manufacturing, storing, selling, and shooting of fireworks became a major political issue in New Castle. The Fifth Ward, home to thousands of Italian immigrants, seemed to come into conflict with the rest of the city. Additionally, some people weren’t all that happy with the expenditure of municipal funds on annual fireworks displays. The New Castle News of Wednesday, July 8, 1903, carried this short editorial, “What a complete waste the burning of fireworks is to be sure. Enough money is expended each Fourth of July to cloth and feed every indigent person in the land.”
Mayor John C. Jackson, while supporting official displays such as those as Cascade Park, sought to curtail the public use of fireworks along city streets beginning in the summer of 1903. The New Castle News of Wednesday, June 24, 1903, reported on this clampdown with, “Mayor Jackson will issue an order this week to regulate the local celebration of the Fourth. Mayor Jackson, when spoken to Wednesday by a Newsman as to what latitude is to be allowed in this this city this year to the small boys and children of a larger growth who wish to celebrate, stated that the discharge of firecrackers and other fireworks will not be permitted on the streets at all previous to the Fourth. There will be little or no public celebration here on the national holiday and Mayor Jackson does not expect to permit the promiscuous shooting of fireworks along the main streets at any time, as has been done frequently before, which serious accidents resulted… Mayor Jackson stated he did not wish to be harsh with patriots who wish to give a noisy vent to their pride in the national holiday, but he expects to protect the general public from danger of accidents.”
The regulations did little to stop people from firing off fireworks in the coming years. A poorly worded and nasty anti-Italian editorial – signed by “An American” – in the New Castle News of Wednesday, August 16, 1905, started with, “I seen in your paper letters from the people, so I am going to write you a few lines about them dagos shooting off them fireworks and knocking the plaster off the houses and spoiling the machinery in the tin mills and scaring the children and setting fire to ladies’ silk dresses and etcetera.”
The New Castle News of Wednesday, August 30, 1905, reported, “One more celebration and then it can be said that the Italian festivities for the year are at an end. September 20 is another feast day and things will move lively in Italian circles. This day to the Italians, takes the place of the American Fourth of July. The celebration marks the anniversary of the unification of Italy… Arrangements for the proper observance of the day are being made and a program of the usual events prepared… A part of the program that has not been decided upon is the fireworks display. Recent criticism and opposition to such demonstrations makes this part of the day’s events doubtful. Should the committee in charge of the celebration decide to have fireworks, doubtless their efforts along this line would meet with stronger opopsition (sic) than was displayed at the time of the last Italian celebration. To the Italians, the celebration of the day commemorates one of the most important events in the history of their country, without a display of fireworks would stamp the attempt as a failure.” Of course the Italians launched fireworks on September 20, but it seemed to pass without too much trouble.
Fireworks manufacturer Jake Conti, with family in Hillsville, soon came into conflict with the Italian crime syndicate headed by Rocco Racco and known as the Black Hand. In June 1907 his brother Tony Conti (Cunti) died after having his throat cut by a local man during a quarrel in Hillsville. The drunken assailant, Italian immigrant Rosario Serge, was later convicted of the crime and executed by hanging in July 1908. Oddly enough, on the evening Sunday, June 7, 1908, about a month before the execution, the Conti Fireworks plant at Division and Pearson Streets was mysteriously destroyed by a massive explosion. Foul play by the Black Hand Society was suspected by many people. Numerous homes and businesses in the neighborhood were damaged by the blast and bitter lawsuits followed.
The New Castle News of Monday, June 8, 1908, proclaimed, “In the explosion of the Conti fireworks factory last night the people probably have a demonstration of the fierceness of an Italian vendetta. Lying in the Shenango Valley hospital last night, Jake Conti declared to a News representative that he believed the factory was intentionally and maliciously blown up by his enemies. “It has not been a year since my brother, Tony, was murdered at Hillsville,” he said. “We have offended friends of the man who is being prosecuted for that murder. Rocco Racco’s friends are also angry with my father and I… “Both my father and myself have been threatened by these people. I believe that they endeavored last night to blow me and my entire family to eternity…”
It was this incident that led the city to start an initiative to force the fireworks manufacturing companies to relocate out of the city limits. In late August 1908 the City Council passed a resolution, at the urging of Mayor Harry J. Lusk, banning the manufacture and storage of fireworks near residential areas. This regulation was revised and updated many times in coming years.
Conti soon moved his fireworks operation to West Washington Street extension. Rozzi opened up a location near the City Poor Farm in Shenango Township and later relocated again to the West Washington Street extension. Fazzoni eventually established a large facility on English Avenue (and Rebecca Street) in Union Township.
The New Castle News of Friday, December 18, 1908, carried an article entitled “FIREWORKS TRUST IS LATEST SCHEME” with a subtitle of “Italian Manufacturers of Pyrotechnics Have Formed Combine, and Will Build Factory.” It elaborated on how Paul Rozzi and Jake Conti formed another ambitious partnership and formulated plans to erect a plant in either Shenango or Union Township. They apparently were going to make a pitch to get Fazzoni to join them. The article concluded with, “The industry will be made greater than ever before. Even if Fazzoni refuses to join the combination Rossi and Conti have formed a partnership and will go ahead.” It appears this initiative never came to fruition and Conti and Rozzi continued on with their own companies.
Various municipalities began limiting or forbidding the use of fireworks. The New Castle News of Saturday, July 03, 1909, reported, “Notices forbidding the shooting of fireworks on the streets or alleys of Wampum, on the Fourth of July, have been posted through the place. The fine for such an act is from $5 to $25. In 1904 an ordinance forbidding any shooting inside the borough limits was enforced but this is modified this year allowing the children the privilege of having fireworks in their own yards.” The New Castle News of Friday, July 1, 1910, reported, “Burgess Bell has warned the people of New Wilmington to celebrate on the Fourth and not before. The use of explosives or firecrackers is not allowed before that date and any who violate the law are liable to severe punishment.” A few days later the New Castle News of Tuesday, July 5, 1910, divulged, “Ellwood City spent one of the most quiet Fourth of July’s in its history yesterday. With no special attractions and no fireworks allowed, the populace shut up shop and left town. The people went to New Castle, Butler and to Rock Point, where the day was spent.”
An article in the New Castle News of Monday, June 21, 1909, details how the companies competed for work. It reads in part, “The contract for the big fireworks display, which will be one of the greatest features of the celebration in Sharon on the Fourth of July, was let today by the members of the executive committee, says the Sharon Telegraph. Fazzoni Brothers of New Castle, manufacturers of pyrotechnics, were the successful bidders, and the exceedingly low price secured assures that the fireworks display will be better than has been seen is this section of the state for many years. The contract price is $1,000.”
There was plenty of work to go around as the New Castle-based companies shot fireworks all over western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. The New Castle News of Saturday, July 24, 1909, reported on a fireworks show in Girard, Pennsylvania, with, “Hundreds of citizens witnessed a big fireworks display in the Flats last evening, which brought to a conclusion the Italians’ celebration, held in observance of the fete of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, says a Girard correspondent. The Italians contracted with two separate parties for fireworks and Paul Rozzi of New Castle, was given the prize for the most magnificent display of pyrotechnics.”
During the “teens” the competition got fierce as the Fazzoni, Rozzi, and Conti firms continued to compete for contracts. The Fourth of July celebrations were the bread and butter of the industry, but state fairs, western-themed shows, Italian holidays, and New Year’s Eve bashes also supplied business. It was during the 1910’s that the local companies also started to expand and seek contracts far outside the region.
The City of New Castle, prior to hiring a company for its upcoming Fourth of July celebration in 1910, held a competition on the Diamond. The Saturday, March 12, 1910, edition of the New Castle News reported, “The fireworks committee for the gigantic Fourth of July celebration, headed by Chairman Colonel J. L. Myland, were present to view the demonstration given by local manufacturers, anxiously competing to land the contract of the fireworks necessary for the four days festival. The companies headed by Frank (sic) Rossi, Paul Fazzoni and Jake Conti were represented by elaborate sets of noise making pyrotechnics, which would have put the time honored Chinese fireworks to the bad in a hurry.”
The article elaborated with, “Conti had a long set of kite tails which finally ended in one big loud explosion, Fazzoni had sets of spider webs which when tethered on telephone gave forth various colors and then finally closed with one big combination of noise and shooting stars of various colors. Rozzi, however, seemed to have a little on his competitors as his demonstration was on a more elaborate scale. Shooting stars, various colored rockets and several loud explosions caused by the use of flash powder and other novel features marked his display.” A month later Fazzoni was awarded the contract and 20,000 people witnessed his fireworks display at Boyles Field on the evening of Monday, July 4, 1910.
The following year an accident at the Conti Fireworks plant resulted in a fatality. The New Castle News of Saturday, July 29, 1911, sadly announced, “Joseph Crawford, aged 17 years, died at the Shenango Valley hospital Friday evening at 4:30 o’clock from burns received in an explosion at the Conti fireworks plant Friday morning. The accident which resulted in his death occurred while the proprietor Louis Conti was absent. Young Crawford was loading powder through a funnel… He was burned over the entire surface of his body and head and face, the flesh practically falling from his body. Immediately after the accident he was rushed to the Shenango Valley Hospital where every effort was made to alleviate his sufferings which were intense.”
It seems the shooting off of fireworks in Mahoningtown, which became more and more prevalent, became an increasingly troublesome issue during the 1910’s. New Castle News of Monday, September 18, 1914, reported, “Police and Italians in charge of the fireworks display in the Seventh ward clashed Saturday night the police refusing to allow the orders of the mayor and chief of police that loud explosives should not be used, to be disobeyed. The Italians made an effort to have the order rescinded but the mayor and chief could not be moved. The set pieces and explosives which had caused the trouble were finally removed to the old race track property which is outside the city and set off there.”
In early 1916, with the Great War (World War I) waging in Europe, citizens in the United States – a country still officially neutral – were urged to begin conserving various materials such as gunpowder and other explosives. As a result fireworks displays were cancelled or at least limited in many locales. The United States’ official entry into the war beginning in April 1917 brought about further unofficial restrictions.
It was during this time that Rozzi reorganized his company with his wife and son. The New Castle News of Wednesday, November 21, 1917, carried this notice, “Articles of incorporation were filed at the office of Register and Recorder John T. Brinton this morning by the New Castle Fire Works company. The incorporators are Paul Rossi, Angeline Rossi, and Arthur Rossi. The company is incorporated at $5,000 and Paul Rossi, who has been in the fireworks business for many years puts in his stock and business at a valuation of $4,600. All three of the incorporators are directors.”
On Thursday, November 7, 1918, several newspapers made a premature – and false – announcement that Germany had officially surrendered to end the war. This sent people into the streets to celebrate, although the official surrender to end hostilities was still four days away. In New Castle excited folks gathered downtown, and that evening Paul Rozzi decided to hold an impromptu fireworks display on the Diamond. He brought about a dozen aerial fireworks to shoot off. One of the shells, lit by veteran fireworks man Constantino Vitale, malfunctioned and burst prematurely. It resulted in pieces of the mortar, made out of metal pipe, being shot laterally into the crowd. Michael Chirozzi, age 15, was killed instantly when a piece of metal pierced his heart. Three other teenagers were seriously injured and died in the Shenango Valley Hospital on Saturday, November 9. They were Lenora Hall (age 15), Elton Brandon (13), and Joe Germich (16).
An inquiry was held and ruled that the cause of their deaths was due to an accident and not negligence on the part of the Rozzi Fireworks Company. The New Castle News of Thursday, November 21, 1918, explained, “The steel tube used in exploding the bomb which caused the accident was four inches in diameter, and looked not unlike a piece of metal sewer pipe. The lower end of the tube fined tight with the same material as the sides. The tube, Mr. Rossi explained, is used merely to start the bomb in the right direction. The top being open there is little strain on the side of the tube. Mr. Rossi stated that he had put off similar bombs in pasteboard tubes without breaking the sides. Two bombs had been fired from the tube when he placed a third in. The fuse was ignited by Constantino Vitale. Instead of going up as expected the bomb exploded in the tube and shattered it, the pieces flying in all directions. Mr. Rossi said that he had not the slightest idea why the bomb had acted in that manner. Constantino Vitale, who has also had many years’ experience in putting off fireworks also testified that he had never known of a similar accident.”
An article in the New Castle News of Tuesday, December 16, 1919, reveals the extent the local companies were expanding their reach. It read, “J. E. Lawton, president, and Jake Conti, vice president of the Conti Fireworks company, have returned from a business trip in Chicago and Kansas City to arrange for the next year’s business in the west and southwest. The company has arranged to establish a large warehouse in Kansas City, under the management of Ralph Rhodes. The company has practically completed contracts for 81 shows in the south and west to date. The western fairs are pioneers in the use of fireworks, but the use of night fireworks displays is gradually growing in popularity. State fairs are also using fireworks as a feature attraction.”
Patriotism abounded in the post-war period and fireworks became a hot commodity. As a result several new fireworks firms sprung up in New Castle. In addition to the established firms headed by Fazzoni, Conti, and Rozzi, several other outfits went into business during the 1920’s or early 1930’s. Among them were the Universal Fireworks Company, Continental Fireworks Company, Pennsylvania Fireworks Company, Vitale Fireworks Company, and the Ohio Display Fireworks Company. Unlike their elder statesman – Fazzoni was fifty-two years old in 1920 – many of the new “shooters” were literally teenagers or in their early twenties.
The Universal Fireworks Company, headed primarily by Charles C. DeCerbo/DeCarbo (1904-1967), operated for a short time and folded in late 1925. DeCerbo, born in New Castle but of Italian descent, then took over the helm of the new Pennsylvania Fireworks Company, which was incorporated in early 1926. The New Castle News of Friday, January 8, 1926, reported, “Charles De Cerbo has been elected president of the Pennsylvania Fireworks Company, a new organization that will have its factory in Rigby street this city. Germanio Pancracio has been named treasurer and Jiacomo Angliolini, vice president. De Cerbo formerly connected with the Universal Fireworks company. All of the men are well versed in the Fireworks manufacture, Pancracio and Angliolini having been engaged in that business in Italy.”
DeCarbo was fortunate to survive a serious accident of his own near Erie, Pennsylvania. The New Castle News of Monday, August 16, 1926, reported, “Charles DeCerbo, aged 23 years, president of the Pennsylvania Fireworks Co., of New Castle, is in Hamot hospital here today seriously injured as the result of premature explosion of a salute bomb which he was lighting at Waldamere park on Sunday night. Charles DeCerbo, who has been in of the pyrotechnical displays at the Erie resort for the past week, was directing a night display at Waldamere about 500 feet from a large crowd, when the salute bomb, near which he was standing, exploded in the ground instead of shooting into the air. The New Castle man was knocked unconscious by the detonation and was severely burned and cut by the blast, and the flying stone and earth. Spectators ruahed to the aid of the injured man and carried him to an auto in which he was rushed to Hamot hospital.”
I believe DeCarbo left the company in about 1928 and helped establish the DeCarbo Express Company, which became a successful regional trucking line. Peter J. Iodice (1899-1973), also born in New Castle to Italian immigrant parents, took over the Pennsylvania Fireworks Company. The company folded in about 1932 and Iodice relocated to Detroit, Michigan, where he became a popular theatrical booking agent.
The following costly accident, detailed in the New Castle News of Tuesday May 27, 1930, probably didn’t help matters, “Fire, which is believed to have been caused by the ignition of powder in a large barn on the property of the Pennsylvania Fireworks Co. in Union township, a short distance from the Union high school, completely destroyed the structure Monday afternoon with a loss of approximately $2,500. An employee of the company stated that he scraped his foot on the floor of the barn and in an instant the floor about him was burning. It spread so quickly that efforts to extinguish the blaze were futile and within a few minutes, the entire structure was a roaring furnace… The barn stood on a hill and the blaze was plainly visible for many miles, attracting a considerable crowd to the scene.”
The Continental Fireworks Company, headed by tin mill worker James E. “Sonny” Lawton (1888-1963), was established in about 1923. Lawton, who oddly enough was of English descent, had formerly served as president of the Conti Fireworks Company. He operated the Continental company until it went into receivership in January 1926. The company was far from accident-free as reported in the New Castle News in the early summer of 1924. A newspaper article of Monday, May 19, 1924, details how the New Castle Fire Department was prohibited from traveling outside the city limits.
It reads, “Spontaneous combustion on Sunday afternoon about 5 o’clock caused the destruction of one of the buildings of the Continental Fire Works company on West Washington street extension. The building destroyed is but one of the 62 buildings of the plant according to J. E. Lawton one of the officials of the company and contained raw materials which caused considerable smoke. Loss sustained had not been determined this morning but was probably small as a result of the manner in which the buildings of the company are constructed which prevented the spread of the fire to other buildings. Owing to the fact that he plant was not operating yesterday it being Sunday no one was injured. The plant lies considerable distance outside the city and when a call was received at the Central fire station asking assistance. Chief Lynn owing to a ruling of the city council and head of the department was compelled to decline assistance. About 50 minutes after the first call a second call for assistance was received with assurance that all expense or damage would be paid by the company but the chief was compelled to decline to help.”
During its brief existence the Continental Fireworks Company seemed to be well accomplished as evidenced by this New Castle News article of Wednesday July 1, 1925, “Due to the fact that the Centennial Celebration is on during the week prior to the Fourth of July New Castle enthusiasts this year are shooting the greatest number of explosives ever used here on any previous similar occasion. This is vouched for by J. E. Lawton, president of the Continental Fireworks Company of this city, which is one of the biggest concerns of its kind in the country. The Continental Company which maintains its plant on the western edge of the city manufactures both display and small type fireworks. They wholesale much of the fireworks which are disposed of to the retail trade here and Mr. Lawton is in a position to have firsthand information on the matter.”
The article went on to mention how the company played a part assisting Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who attempted to reach the North Pole in May 1925, and fielded inquiries from the German government. It read, “The Continental company made five hundred special flare lights for Amundsen on his recent dash to the pole. They are of a special type which are attached to small balloons. They proved invaluable in making observations. Mr. Lawton showed The News representative a sheaf of correspondence which his company has been carrying on with the German government. The Germans wished to purchase a type of pyrotechnic which is a United States government secret entrusted to the Continental people and the many letters were received and sent while explaining this fact.”
Of all the new companies springing up one stood out above them all… and that was the Vitale Fireworks Company. Constantino Vitale (1876-1949), who hailed from Pietramalera near Naples, Italy, had been involved in the fireworks industry for many years. He came to the United States by himself in about 1906 and initially settled in the Chicago Heights area of Illinois. He later brought his wife and growing family (he eventually had ten children) over from Italy. In 1911 he relocated to New Castle and found work with Paul Rozzi, who I believe he was somehow related to by marriage. In 1922 Vitale established his own fireworks company, which he formalized a few years later. He was joined in the management of the business by his four sons, Joseph, Tony, Rocco, and Peter, and a son-in-law named Rocco Cassella. I’m not sure of the exact location where Vitale initially set-up, but a facility was soon occupied along Wilson Road in Union Township.
The New Castle News of Wednesday, December 31, 1924, carried this announcement, “Notice is hereby given that application will be made to the Governor of the State of Pennsylvania, on 30th day of January, A. D. 1925, by Constandino Vitale, Joseph Vitale, Tony Vitale and Rocco Cassella, of New Castle, Pennsylvania, under the Act of Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, entitled “An act to provide for the corporation and regulation of certain corporations” approved April 29th, 1874, and supplements thereto, for the charter of an intended corporation to be called “Vitale Fireworks Manufacturing Company” the character and object of which is for the purpose of buying, selling, manufacturing, assemblying, and displaying fireworks and pyrotechnics of all kinds and descriptions…”
The Vitale firm quickly gained a favorable reputation as this article in the New Castle News of Thursday, April 16, 1925, attests, “The Vitale Fireworks Company of this city won a measure of fame for so young a concern Wednesday evening at Youngstown. O., where in competition with the New Castle Fireworks Company and the Hudson Fireworks Company of Hudson, O., it won first prize at Briar Hill, according to representatives of the company. The contest was put on by the “Madonna of Jesus” Committee and the winning company was awarded a prize of $100. The Vitale Company was formed but recently and its personnel is made up of local young men who hope to bring more progressive ideas into the fireworks business. A T. Vitale is president of the company and Peter Joseph is sales manager.”
It seems the company officers changed over time and I found a December 1930 article which reads in part, “The officers of this company are as follows: President, Peter Vitale; vice president, Rocco Cassella; secretary, R. J. Vitale: treasurer, A. T. Vitale: general manager, Constantino Vitale; sales, manager, D. A. Ross.”
A horrible tragedy struck this company on the evening of Wednesday, June 16, 1926. A team of employees, apparently led by Rocco Cassella, went to put on a fireworks display in Youngstown. The next day the Piqua (OH) Daily Call had this to report, “Two men were killed and a third man and a girl were seriously injured in a fireworks explosion, during a religious celebration at Shock’s Field, Brier Hill, last night, it became known today. The celebration was under the St. Rocco’s Catholic Church and three of those killed or injured had come here to supervise the display. Frank Peluso, 18, and Joseph Vital (Vitale), 24, both of New Castle, Pa., were killed and Peter J. Iodice, 24, Youngstown, and Miss Beatrice Forbes, 20, New Castle, were injured. More than 1,000 persons including hundreds of woman and children had assembled on the hill for the demonstration. A near panic ensued when, the bomb let go. Police who were stationed in the crowd quickly restored order, however and the crowd was dispersed. One of Vital’s legs was blown off. Peluso died from a fractured skull. Both Miss Forbes and Iodice will recover.”
The New Castle News of that same day elaborated with, “Joseph Vitalli (Vitale), 24 years, and Frank Peluso, aged 18 years, of East Home street, were killed almost instantly killed when a bomb exploded in the mortar while they were putting off fireworks at St. Anthony’s celebration last evening at Brier Hill, Youngstown, O. Both men were struck on the head, inflicting fractures of the skull. Mr. Peluso also had his left foot blown off. He died while being taken to the hospital. Joseph Vitalli lived until 6:30 this morning and died in St. Elizabeth’s hospital at Youngstown, O.”
Joseph Vitale was the oldest son of Constantino Vitale, while Frank Peluso was his nephew. Both were laid to rest in St. Vitus Cemetery in Shenango Township. Peter Iodice was an employee who later had his own company, and Beatrice Forbes was the daughter of well-known businessman Harry S. Forbes, the manager of the New Castle Dry Goods Company. Lawsuits were filed by Rose Vitale, the widow of Joseph Vitale, and Peter Iodice in connection with the blast, but both basically ended in defeat.
Two years later the Rozzi Fireworks Company suffered its own devastating loss, when Paul Rozzi’s son-in-law was killed in an accident. The New Castle News of Saturday, May 5, 1928, reported, “When explosives which he was mixing at the chemical house of the New Castle Fireworks Company, east of the city limits, exploded late Friday afternoon, Ralph Perrone, 33, residing at 226 South Jefferson street, was fatally burned. He passed away last night at the New Castle hospital where he was taken immediately after the accident. According to the attaches of the New Castle Fireworks Company, Perrone was the chemist and was mixing what is known as “aluminum.” Suddenly, an explosion occurred, flames burst forth and Perrone ran from the building, which was rapidly enveloped in flames. Paul Rozzi, manufacturer, had Perrone rushed to the New Castle hospital while a force of employes (sic) fought the fire.” Perrone was laid to rest in St. Vitus Cemetery.
In July 1928 the City of New Castle began a serious effort, led by councilman Clayton S. Reeves and Mayor William H. Gillespie, to completely ban consumer fireworks. An ordinance was passed on August 31, 1928, which read in part, “It ordained and enacted by the Council of the City of New Castle that it shall be unlawful for any person to sell, possess or discharge any fireworks of any character whatsoever within the corporate limits of the City of New Castle at any time hereafter.” The strict police called for first-time offenders to receive stiff fines and even jail time.
On the morning of Thursday, April 3, 1930, a series of explosions rocked the Pennsylvania Fireworks Display Company located in Devon near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Ten people were killed and dozens were injured. Numerous homes and businesses in the surrounding area were heavily damaged. It was obviously a major news story and did not go unnoticed by state officials. On June 14, 1930, the State of Pennsylvania abruptly adopted strict new guidelines regarding the manufacture and storage of aerial fireworks. The regulations called for sturdier assembly and storage buildings, limited the amount of fireworks could be stored in any one building, called for a greater minimum distance between storage buildings, placed restrictions on visitors to fireworks plants, prohibited outdoor “drying” of fireworks, forbid women to be employed in the plants, and called for tighter rules on the transportation of fireworks.
As a result of the law the five fireworks companies in New Castle were immediately forced to cease operations for the time being. The companies felt this was unfair given how close it was to the lucrative Fourth of July holiday. The New Castle News of Saturday, June 21, 1930, carried a front page story entitled, “PREPARE TO CARRY BATTLE FOR FIREWORKS TO STATE CAPITAL.”
Executives of the fireworks companies in New Castle held a meeting on Monday, June 23, 1930, to discuss the matter. The New Castle News of that day reported, “At the meeting today figures were compiled showing that approximately 75 people are engaged in the manufacture of fireworks, that the minimum of that output is valued at about $200,000, and that here in Lawrence county are five of the 14 fireworks manufacturing companies in Pennsylvania. The companies here feel that the department’s idea of safety in the fireworks industry is a laudable one, but that it is unfair to expect the companies to make the changes necessary in a few days, and bar them from manufacture until they do. They are willing to comply with the rules, but feel that they should be permitted to operate while they are making the changes.”
Various officials of the Chamber of Commerce, executives of the local fireworks companies, and local attorney Charles A. Patterson traveled to Harrisburg to work out a compromise. As a result of the meetings the fireworks companies were given a 60-day extension to come into compliance with the new regulations.
The Fourth of July celebrations went off as planned but on August 24, 1930, the companies were forced to shut down until they completed the necessary modifications. On Tuesday, October 28, 1930, the New Castle News reported, “Fazzoni Brothers Fireworks company, English avenue, pioneer fireworks manufacturing company in this district and the entire state, today received from the state department of labor and industry at Harrisburg, certificate No. 1, permitting the concern to go ahead with the manufacture, storage and handling of fireworks in the state of Pennsylvania. The fact that the certificate numbered “one” indicates that the Fazzoni Brothers Fireworks company is the first in the entire state to meet the new requirements of the state relative to the manufacture of fireworks.”
The Vitale Fireworks Company completed its upgrades a month or so later. The New Castle News of Wednesday, December 10, 1930, had this to pass along, “After being idle for some months, due to construction and improvements, the Vitale Fireworks company began operations this morning with 18 men at work. A permit to operate has been issued by the state department of labor and industry, being permit number three… The entire plant of this company was remodeled and rebuilt at an expenditure of over $12,000. All work shops are now steam heated. The plant covers over 30 acres of ground and has over 20 magazines.”
Anthony “Tony” Vitale (1904-1969), another of Constantino Vitale’s sons, founded his own company in about 1931 that became known as the Ohio Display Fireworks Company. The company got off to a rough start as this Friday, February 19, 1932, article attests to, “A $3,500 verdict against a New Castle concern as damages in the death of Virginia Schell, 11, during a Fourth of July fireworks celebration in Detroit, was returned today by a federal county jury here (Pittsburgh). The sum was awarded to Arthur B. Schell, father of the dead girl, who had sued Tony Totale (Vitale), operator of the Ohio display fireworks company at New Castle. Vitale’s concern, according to the testimony, was in charge of the fireworks display at Rouge Park in Detroit last Fourth of July, a fireworks bomb exploded in a crowd of spectators. The Schell girl suffered burns from which she died 17 days after in a Detroit hospital.”
The New Castle Fireworks Company was apparently seized and sold at a sheriff’s sale sometime in early 1931. Paul Rozzi attempted to recoup money from the seized business. The New Castle News of Friday, June 3, 1931, mentioned, “In the case of Paul Rozzi against the New Castle Fireworks Company, Judge Hildebrand handed down an opinion at county court this morning in which exceptions to auditor’s report are overturned and dismissed, the report is approved and distribution was ordered. The dispute arose over a fund in the hands of the sheriff as a result of a sheriff sale.”
Paul Rozzi generally retired after this, but may have assisted in the establishment of a new business near Cincinnati, Ohio. His son Arthur Rozzi (1895-1980) had previously relocated to Loveland just outside of Cincinnati, and established the successful Rozzi’s Famous Fireworks Company in 1931. Paul Rozzi’s great grandson Art Rozzi spun off from that firm in 2009 and established the rival Arthur Rozzi Pyrotechnics. Both firms are still in business today.
The decade of the 1930’s, despite the tough times of the Great Depression, was generally a good time for the local fireworks companies. While other businesses suffered they seemed to thrive and expand their outreach into new states. An article that appeared in the New Castle News of Thursday, May 28, 1931, reveals the extent at which the companies began to travel for work. It reads, “Fireworks that are manufactured in New Castle will be displayed in several distant cities on Decoration day and during the coming summer events at parks and playgrounds. This city continues to stand out as a center for the manufacture of pyrotechnics. Pyrotechnic demonstrations will be shown on Decoration Day by representatives of the Vitale Fireworks Manufacturing Company of this city in Huntingdon, W. Va., and Bucyrus, Ohio. Peter Vitale, president of the company said his firm has contracts for demonstrations during the coming weeks and during the Fourth of July in the following places: Winston-Salem N.C., Shelby, N.C., Rockville, Md., Marion, Va., Mountain City, Tenn., Pearisburg, Va., Marietta, O.”
Another New Castle News article from Tuesday, June 30, 1936, mentioned, “The Rozzi company will climax Fourth of July for Warren, O., Farrell, Grove City, Altoona, Eastwood Park, Detroit, Mich., White City Park, Chicago, Greenville and a number of other cities. The Vitale company will present displays in Kenmore, New York, Berick, Pa., Pittsburgh, Chicago, Ill., Buffalo, N. Y., Washington. D. C., Harrisburg and in other parks.”
In December 1934 the City Council met to consider relaxing the ban on the sale and possession of consumer fireworks. After a tense debate the ban continued in place, although firecrackers and other small fireworks remained accessible. This short mention appeared in the New Castle News of Wednesday, July 3, 1935, and read, “It appears to Pa News that more fireworks are being sold in the country areas of Lawrence County this year than for many years. Little stands for sale of fireworks surround the city on all sides.”
Meanwhile, at the state level, various legislators were waging a fight to ban the sale of all consumer fireworks in Pennsylvania. After a lengthy battle Governor Arthur H. James signed in law the Fireworks Law of 1939. The New Castle News of Monday, May 15, 1939, reported, “The signature of Gov. Arthur H. James on the Tahl-Hamilton bill banning Fireworks alone was required today to rout the potential threat of death and injury on the Fourth of July. The bill, virtually outlawing the sale and use of fireworks, was sent to the governor’s desk late yesterday following the action of the house in concurring with senate amendments permitting the use of cap pistols. The proposed statute prohibits the sale of fireworks throughout Pennsylvania, excepting for public display at official celebrations or under auspices of communities, fairs or amusement parks. Cities, boroughs and townships are authorized to grant permits for displays, and handling of the fireworks must be supervised by a competent operator.” This strict law, although mended over the years, is still in effect today and only allows for the sale of consumer fireworks to out-of-state residents.
The 1940’s was a time of transition and featured the passing of all the “old guard” fireworks men, altered production due to the events of World War II, and the slow rise of the Zambelli family.
The decade started off with the loss of the man who started it all. The New Castle News of Saturday, April 20, 1940, reported, “Leopold Fazzoni, aged 72, died suddenly this morning at 10:30 at his home, R.D. 2, English avenue as a result of a heart attack. Mr. Fazzoni had been downtown this morning, apparently in good health, and upon returning home dropped dead. Mr. Fazzoni was born in March 1868 in Italy, the son of Michael and Concetta Fazzoni. For the past 50 years he resided in New Castle where he owned a fireworks manufacturing company. He was a member of St. Vitus church and of the Moose club. Surviving are his wife, Madeline, and one sister, Mrs. Mary Mooney, the latter, in Italy.” He was followed in death by Jake Conti in 1942, Paul Rozzi in 1943, and Constantino Vitale in 1949. All four of these pioneers were laid to rest in St. Vitus Cemetery in Shenango Township.
After the death of Fazzoni one of his longtime and trusted employees, Antonio Zambelli (1877-1957), teamed with his oldest son Joseph Zambelli and acquired the Fazzoni Brothers Fireworks Company. Zambelli (or Zambella), born in the village of Teano near Naples, Italy, had come to the United States as early as 1893. He had worked in a local steel mill and also with Fazzoni, manufacturing fireworks and shooting them off at public displays. When Zambelli acquired the company his oldest son Joseph Zambelli oversaw daily operations, while his younger boys George, Carmen, and Lou all assisted as well. Antonio Zambelli was sixty-three years old at that time and took a smaller role. The company progressed at a fairly slow pace during the next fifteen years or so.
Another of the pioneering fireworks men, Jake Conti, passed away in August 1942 at the age of sixty-seven. An obituary in the New Castle News on Monday, August, 10, 1942, read, “Mr. Conti was born on November 10, 1874, at Stategilano, Italy, the son of Frank and Maria Carma Conti. Fifty-four years ago he came to America, and since that time has been in the fireworks business. He was one of the first Italians to settle here with his family. The deceased was a faithful member of St. Vitus Church…” His company continued to be run by son Anthony J. Conti (1911-1974).
Paul Rozzi passed away in New Castle in November 1943 at the age of seventy-three. An obituary in the New Castle News on Friday, November 26, 1943, read in part, “About 44 years ago, Mr. Rozzi founded the Rozzi Fireworks company, retiring 10 years ago. He was widely known in fireworks business and displayed fireworks at the Buffalo Exposition, attended by President William McKinley. He also displayed fireworks at the Perry centennial, Erie. Pa., and at the Marion centennial, Marion, O., attended by President Warren G. Harding, and later they became personal friends. Mr. Rozzi was the originator of aerial shells in fireworks displayed in the U. S.”
In late 1941 the United States officially entered into the worldwide conflict of World War II. The local fireworks companies began altering their production to make flares and explosives ignitors for the U. S. military. The New Castle News of Tuesday, June 16, 1942, reported, “New Castle, long a center for the manufacture of display fireworks, will this year ship out about 50 percent less of the expensive and explosive displays to patriotic communities than last year. At that there will be between 45 and 50 of the large firework extravaganzas shipped in the near future. The reason for the decrease is simple. “The war,” said the representative of one of the New Castle companies “the war is the whole thing. We are concentrating on what war products we can make to help this country win as soon as possible.”
The Vitale Fireworks Company distinguished itself during the war and quickly regained its form afterwards. The New Castle News of Friday, July 12, 1946, disclosed, “Reconversion has taken place at the Vitale Fireworks company in Union township. During the war the Vitale company made flares and rocket boosters and loaded shells. For this work they were awarded the Army and Navy E with four stars. Vitale Fireworks are now making displays for fairs and celebrations all over the United States. The company is divided into two units. One is the Vitale Fireworks under Rocco J. Vitale which makes miniature commercial displays. The other unit is the Atlantic Fireworks company run by Peter Vitale. The Atlantic company made and “shot” the gigantic fireworks display at Philadelphia on July 4 which one million people viewed… The combined Vitale company employed about 130 persons during the war.”
Tony and Peter Vitale were bought out by their brother Rocco Vitale Sr. (1909-1977) in January 1947 and both withdrew from the Vitale Fireworks Company. When family patriarch Constantino Vitale passed away in September 1949 at the age of seventy-three, the industry lost another of its trailblazers. His New Castle News obituary of Tuesday, September 17, 1949, read in part, “Mr. Vitale was born January 30, 1876, in Pietramalara, Italy, son of Joseph and Maria Vitale. He lived in America for 55 years, first settling in Chicago Heights Illinois. There he started to manufacture fireworks, which became his life’s work. In 1911 Mr. Vitale moved to New Castle, and he continued to manufacture fireworks in this city.”
At that time Rocco Vitale Sr. assumed full control of the Vitale Fireworks Company. His brother Tony concentrated with his own business (Ohio Display Fireworks Company), which was soon renamed in 1948 as the Fireworks Corporation of America and again in 1960 as Tony Vitale Fireworks. Peter continued to operate the spin-off Atlantic Fireworks Company, until he retired and closed that business in about 1958.
At some point, possibly in the mid-1950’s, members of the Rozzi family established another local fireworks firm – the Rozzi Fireworks Company – along Route 551 (south of Route 422) in Mahoning Township. The exact origin and establishment of this company is cloudy. I know it was owned by Patsy Rozzi (1925-1967), a law enforcement officer with the New Castle Police Department. His father Vincenzo Rozzi, who retired from Rozzi’s Famous Fireworks in Ohio in 1961, helped oversee operations at the plant in the 1960’s.
Antonio Zambelli, at the age of seventy-nine, passed away in March 1957. His obituary in the New Castle News of Tuesday, March 5, 1957, mentioned that he was, “Born Sept. 16, 1877 in San Guillano, Italy, he was a son of Joseph and Annabelle Larco Zambelli. He had resided in this county for 55 years and was employed by Carnegie Illinois Steel for 29 years, retiring in 1929.” The obituary failed to mention anything about his longtime involvement in the fireworks industry. He was laid to rest in St. Vitus Cemetery in Shenango Township.
Soon after his father’s death George Zambelli Sr. (1924-2003), a 1946 graduate of Duquesne University and a true fireworks visionary, took over management of the Fazzoni Brothers Fireworks Company.
The Zambelli’s suffered another blow when on the early afternoon of Wednesday, April 30, 1958, an explosion rocked the fireworks plant on English Avenue. Part-time employee Sam Caimano, the thirty-one-year-old husband of Rose Zambelli (daughter of Antonio Zambelli), was critically burned. He lingered near death for almost two weeks, until he finally succumbed to his injuries on May 13. Caimano’s death was a reminder of the real dangers associated with the industry.
George Zambelli Sr. initiated efforts to greatly expand the family business, which was officially rebranded as the Zambelli Fireworks Manufacturing Company in the fall of 1960. It was about this time that the company opened an additional facility in rural Mahoning Township known as the Nashua Harbor plant.
While the Zambelli and Vitale firms, modernizing their operations, began a steady ascension, several of the old companies were closed down. Zambelli Fireworks gained esteem when it provided fireworks for the inauguration ceremony of popular U.S. President John F. “Jack” Kennedy in January 1961. The firm also provided fireworks for the inauguration festivities of U.S. Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson in January 1965 and Richard M. Nixon in January 1969.
A decline in enthusiasm and demand for community-based fireworks displays during the 1960’s made the competition for business even fiercer. The Conti Fireworks Company, operated by Anthony J. Conti for over two decades, was closed down after he retired in 1964. The Tony Vitale Fireworks Company was also closed after the death of owner Tony Vitale in June 1969 at the age of sixty-five.
The Rozzi Fireworks Company ended operations on a tragic note. The New Castle News of Thursday, March 17, 1966, reported, “A city man was killed and two persons injured about 11:15 a.m. today in a series of explosions which rocked the Rozzi Fireworks Co. plant on the Edinburg-Pulaski Rd. Dead is Vincenzo James Rozzi, 71, father of the owner of the plant which is about seven miles west of New Castle… Patsy Rozzi, the owner and also a city policeman, was in New Castle at the time of the explosions… The company, located in a secluded strip mine area, was virtually destroyed by a series of five blasts, the first occurring about 11:15 a.m. in a small frame building used for mixing powder… Debris from the buildings and fireworks were scattered for hundreds of yards around the scene. Firemen from New Castle and Union and Mahoning townships still were struggling at 1 p.m.”
The Rozzi plant was shuttered and never reopened. Any thought of restarting it was ended for good when owner Patsy Rozzi passed away in May 1967 at the young age of forty-two. The plant was abandoned and today is nothing but a vacant site.
The Zambelli and Vitale firms moved forward as the main local rivals. Zambelli had grown at a phenomenal rate and by 1970 was considered one of the largest, if not the largest, aerial fireworks company in the country. The old method of loading mortars, lighting the fuse, and running for safety was pretty much disappearing, as fireworks shows – now choreographed to music – began to be pre-programmed and “lit” with electronic firing systems.
The fireworks industry was greatly altered by two events that took place in the 1970’s. In late 1971 the U.S. government began normalizing relations with Communist China and ended a trade ban that had been in effect for over two decades. Things accelerated quickly after U.S. President Richard M. Nixon visited China in February 1972. This signaled the end of most of the fireworks manufacturing plants (aerial and consumer grade) in the United States. The Chinese were renowned for their quality pyrotechnics, and slowly but surely American companies began importing these cost-efficient fireworks. Zambelli and Vitale both began importing most of their fireworks, while continuing to manufacture a smaller percentage of specialty shells. Eventually an estimated 75% of all aerial fireworks used in the United States would be imported from China.
The various Bicentennial celebrations of July 4, 1976, in which the aerial fireworks companies went all out, completely reinvigorated public interest in the industry. Aerial displays became highly sought out and sales of consumer pyrotechnics grew at a tremendous rate. The New Castle firms benefited greatly from the “Spirit of 76.”
Rocco Vitale Sr., who guided the Vitale Fireworks Company for almost three decades, retired in about 1976. He was passed away in May 1977 at the age of sixty-seven and was laid to rest in St. Vitus Cemetery. Vitale Sr. helped the firm evolve from the old days and into the modern age. His son Rocco Vitale Jr. (1934-2000) took over the company as the third generation of the family to manage it.
Two other small companies were established in the wake of the Bicentennial. The Pennsylvania Fireworks Company, primarily owned by members of the Perrotta family and Benny Siciliano, was founded in Washington Township in 1981. Local residents waged a bitter fight to keep them from building a plant. The company remained in business for about a decade and was closed in about 1992. Another company, known as the Perrone Fireworks Company, was soon established in Bessemer by Carmen Perrone – the maternal grandson of Paul Rozzi. Perrone Fireworks, which primarily sells wholesale consumer pyrotechnics, is still in business today.
ZAMBELLI 1980 – present
George “Boom Boom” Zambelli Sr., who took over his family business back in 1957, had turned what became known as Zambelli Internationale Fireworks into one of the largest and most well-known fireworks companies in the world. His brother Carmen, who helped in the office, and brothers Joseph and Lou, both master fireworks manufacturers, had played an integral part as well. George revolutionized the family business by expanding its reach across the country, choreographing the displays to music, adding additional pyrotechnic services, and providing packages for smaller events like weddings.
In July 1986 the Zambelli firm was honored to take part in Liberty Weekend, a four-day event celebrating the restoration and 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty in New York. The 30-minute fireworks demonstration of July 4, 1986, was at that time the largest fireworks display ever presented in the United States.
The New Castle News of Thursday, July 3, 1986, reported, “New Castle is contributing in a big way to the colossal July 4 celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. The festivities will be capped by 40,000 fireworks, and New Castle businessman George Zambelli heads one of the three companies providing the display… The Zambelli family is calling the Statue of Liberty display “the greatest outdoor entertainment event of the 20th century in the world.” They say it will be an “awesome” combination of specially made shells, choreographed to a specially written musical score. The spectacle will be launched from a “necklace” of 30 barges surrounding the tip of lower Manhattan. The finale will surround Liberty Island itself.”
Over the years Zambelli Fireworks Internationale has provided aerial fireworks, close proximity fireworks, and special effects to clients all over the world including in Moscow, Russia, Kuwait City, Kuwait, and Anderson Air Force Base, Guam. In the United States the company has put on spectacular shows at the National Mall in Washington D.C., Philadelphia Art Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, the downtown area of Detroit, Michigan, Times Square in New York City, Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, Mount Rushmore in Keystone, South Dakota, “the strip” in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
Zambelli has also provided fireworks for many special events, including the return of the U.S. hostages from Iran in 1981, the pre-nuptial celebration to honor Princess Diana and Prince Charles in 1981, the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Canada in 1984, the opening of the Ellis Island museum in New York in 1990, the visit of Pope John Paul II to Baltimore in 1995, the 300th anniversary of Yale University in 2001, the 250th anniversary of Pittsburgh in 2008, the 150th birthday of West Virginia in 2013, and the visit of Pope Francis to Philadelphia in 2015.
Zambelli developed a close relationship with the Walt Disney Company, while providing fireworks for occasional events at Walt Disney World or movie premieres around the county. In August 2005, per an unusual request, the company fired the cremated ashes of the late author Hunter S. Thompson into the air at his private funeral in Colorado. The company has also been featured on numerous television shows, to include a 2008 episode of the popular Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel.
The Zambelli’s put on major fireworks displays for nine U.S. Presidents from John. F. Kennedy to George W. Bush and became known as the “First Family of Fireworks.” The Zambelli’s also became close personal friends and political supporters of the Bush family. The company’s signature event is the “Thunder Over Louisville,” an extravaganza that serves as the opening of the Kentucky Derby Festival. This Louisville-based event is considered the largest annual fireworks show in the United States. The company also provides regular fireworks for several professional sports teams, including the Pittsburgh Pirates, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Colorado Rockies.
On the late night of Thursday, September 18, 1997, a massive explosion rocked the Zambelli plant along English Avenue. The plant was devastated and firefighters fought the blaze throughout the night. Six nearby residents were injured, several homes were demolished, and many other homes and several businesses were damaged. The People’s Alliance Church was damaged and forced to close for three months. Several businesses at the nearby Westgate Plaza also suffered damage. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) conducted an investigation and a month later concluded that it was a malicious act of arson. A criminal investigation continued but the perpetrator(s) was never apprehended. In the wake of the explosion the company closed the site and relocated all its operations to the Nashua Harbor site.
It was a sad day when George Zambelli Sr., at the age of seventy-nine, passed away on Christmas Day in 2003. The Youngstown Vindicator of Monday, December 29, 2003, had this to say, “Mr. Z was fireworks. He was an icon to the industry and the most recognizable fireworks name in the country, if not the world. Above all, George Zambelli lived life as a true gentleman,” said Bruce J. Zoldan, president and CEO of B.J. Alan Co. of Youngstown. The company operates the Phantom Fireworks chain of retail showrooms. John Steinberg, president of Pyrotechnics Guild International, said the industry will miss Zambelli. “George was someone who labored tremendously to promote fireworks as an art form – to promote fireworks as a legitimate part of any entertainment venue or public activity,” Steinberg said.”
Zambelli was laid to rest in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Union Township and a large fireworks demonstration in downtown New Castle was held in his honor on New Year’s Eve. A few years later, on September 30, 2006, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell was on hand to dedicate Zambelli Plaza, a small downtown park built to honor George Zambelli Sr. George’s brothers Carmen Zambelli (1921-1984) and Joe Zambelli (1908-1988) had since passed on as well. His youngest brother Lou Zambelli continued his involvement in the industry, and even worked with the rival Vitale (Pyrotecnico) firm for a short stretch.
George Zambelli’s daughters Marcy and Danabeth, who had been running the Florida office, took over the day-to-day operations of the company. In May 2007 the business was drastically reorganized and George’s son George Zambelli Jr., a skilled ophthalmologist by trade, assumed control with a 50% stake in ownership. Three of his friends acquired the other 50% interest. Doug Taylor took over as CEO and President, the first non-family member to ever run the business. It was a true changing of the guard. It was also a tough time as imports from China became problematic and the economic recession saw many municipalities cut back on public fireworks displays. Taylor stepped down in October 2013 and George Zambelli Jr. assumed the reigns of upper management.
The New Castle News of Tuesday, July 4, 1995, mentions my late uncle Jimmy Bales (1922-2009) and his long tenure with Zambelli: “Jim Bales has been at it for almost 40 years. Now, at 73, he said the love of fireworks is in his blood. Knocking on the wooden desk beside him, Bales said he has never had a major accident. However, while shooting with his wife and daughter, Bales has been burned slightly and hit with flying debris, a large piece of cardboard being the most painful. “It hit me in the stomach,” Bales said. “I thought George Foreman was there.” Bales noted his accident-free years are due to the high level of concentration, which he said is critical to shooting fireworks. “Fireworks are not dangerous to me, but once you lose your concentration, they can be a dangerous item.”
Louis Zambelli, the last surviving son of Antonio Zambelli, passed away in February 2014 at the age of eighty-eight. His obituary read in part, “Mr. Zambelli proudly spent his entire working career with the family business, Zambelli Fireworks. He was a master pyrotechnician who was also involved in the manufacturing and making of the fireworks. His profession started in May 1946 until his retirement in December 2013. At the end of his career he worked as a consultant for the company. His line of business took him all over the country and around the world twice which included some very special exhibits. Mr. Zambelli had the pleasure of putting on displays for seven of our U.S. Presidents as well as for Pope John Paul II.” The death of “Uncle Lou,” an old school master of fireworks manufacturing, truly marked the end of an era.
Zambelli maintains its national headquarters office in the Z Penn Center in downtown New Castle, while housing operations at the Nashua Harbor plant out in Mahoning Township. In the late 1970’s the company opened regional offices in Boca Raton, Florida, and Rialto, California (later moved to Shafter, California) and has opened other smaller offices from time to time. The company employs about fifty fulltime employees, but that number swells when several thousand seasonal workers are employed across the country in June and July. For the Fourth of July holiday in 2015 the company put on over 750 fireworks displays in forty states. Overall, Zambelli averages over 2,000 total shows a year and the “First Family of Fireworks” continues to thrive.
VITALE 1980 – present
Rocco Vitale Jr., who took over the firm back in about 1976, retired in 1993 and sold the company to his son Steve Vitale and two of his friends – Michael Fox and Bruce Volensky. The company was reorganized as S. Vitale Pyrotecnico Industries, eventually doing business as Pyrotecnico FX. Steve Vitale, a visionary who makes New Castle proud, greatly diversified the company’s services to get away from relying too heavily on the Fourth of July business. Pyrotecnico FX now provides aerial fireworks, close proximity fireworks, indoor pyrotechnics, and laser light effects, but also smaller services such as flames, fog, and confetti. Its laser shows on truly on the cutting edge of technology.
Corporate headquarters and a fireworks plant are maintained on Wilson Road in Union Township. In early 1995 the company made plans to move its operations to a 92-acre site on Martin Kelly Spear Road at Hillsville in Mahoning Township. Local residents fought the move and Pyrotecnico remained at its old facility on Wilson Road. The company expanded its reach by acquiring the Classic Fireworks Company in Mandeville, Louisiana, in 2001 and later the Telstar Display Fireworks Company of Jaffrey, New Hampshire in 2011. Pyrotecnico now has over a dozen regional offices including those in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas, Las Vegas, and Tampa.
Pyrotecnico FX has put on major fireworks displays at the Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall in Washington D.C., Wings Over North Georgia in Rome, Georgia, French Quarter Fest in New Orleans, Louisiana, Pyrofest near Butler, Pennsylvania, Three Rivers Regatta in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Freedom Over Texas in Houston, Texas, Wynn Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the Orange Bowl halftime show in Miami, Florida.
Fireworks and special effects were also provided for the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show in Houston, Texas, and the 2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony in Cleveland, Ohio, and for numerous professional sports teams to include the Cleveland Cavaliers, Philadelphia Phillies, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The firm also provided pyrotechnics and special effects for a 2014 Cadillac car commercial, the 2014 motion picture Transformers: Age of Extinction, and the 2015 christening of the submarine U.S.S. John Warner in Newport News, Virginia, as well for music artists such as Justin Timberlake, Nicki Minaj, OutKast, Skrillex, Armin van Buuren, and various electronic dance music festivals to include Coachella and Tomorrowland.
Pyrotecnico FX, which annually does about 2,600 shows of different varieties, is a true innovator within the industry. Constantino Vitale would be amazed how far his company has progressed!
Back in 1990 the Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce began an initiative to trademark the moniker of “Fireworks Capital of America” for New Castle. This was done based on the long history of the industry in New Castle, the amount of companies that once manufactured fireworks there, and also by the fact that two of the largest national fireworks companies remain headquartered in the city. An application was filed with the U.S. Patent and Trade Office (PTO) in December 1993, but it was never completed and lapsed after a few years. The first of several related applications were filed again in March 2003, and after several years of review they were granted beginning in October 2006. The title was now trademarked and official!
By early 1991 another committee was in full gear preparing for the first ever Lawrence County Fireworks Festival. The first event was held at Pearson Park on Thursday, July 4, 1991, but was designed to be held at different locations around the county in subsequent years. At some point that “county-wide” idea was dropped and the event became the New Castle Fireworks Festival. The second annual festival was moved to downtown New Castle, where it has remained ever since. The festival was permanently moved to a Saturday after the Fourth of July holiday beginning in 1995, and was expanded into a two-day event a few years later. Zambelli and Vitale/Pyrotecnico basically take turns providing the fireworks each year.
In August 1994 the Pyrotechnic Guild International (PGI), an international organization of fireworks enthusiasts, held its annual fireworks convention at the SNPJ Recreation Center near Enon Valley. PGI returned again in August 2013, and held its 40th annual convention at Cooper’s Lake near Moraine State Park. Visitors to the conventions witnessed several nights of fireworks demonstrations and other special events.
Zambelli and Pyrotecnico FX, fierce competitors for many years, are two of the most prosperous pyrotechnics companies in the country. That competition has truly pushed them to new heights and both firms remain headquartered in New Castle, Pennsylvania – the undisputed “Fireworks Capital of America.”
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Pyrotecnico FX, which annually does about 2,600 shows of different varieties, is a true innovator within the industry. Fireworks from its “Allen USA” show, a annual festival held in Allen, Texas, is show here. (Jun 2015) (Pyrotecnico FX photo)