What it’s Like to Run the City’s Fireworks Display

Jeff Bartolotta shares a Milwaukee story about lighting up the sky, year after year.

As told to Mario Quadracci

My dad grew up in the Third Ward and used to tag along with the guys doing fireworks displays way back when he was 9 or 10. In 1977, he quit his job running a printing press and started Bartolotta Fireworks. He got addicted to it. Then I got addicted. It happens.

We have doctors, lawyers, firemen, even a Catholic priest who’ve worked summers with us. You’ve got to be a little crazy to love it. Standing in knee-deep mud, soaking wet and shivering, I always ask the crew why they do it. I think it’s mostly the adrenaline.

Technology lets us use computers to launch shells now, but we still like to do it by hand. It gets crazy with stuff exploding everywhere and men running around with flares. Sometimes a shell goes off in the tube, or too low. You always have to be ready.

I tell the guys to always check to see if your fingers are still there. But I have done hundreds of shows since I started in 1980 and luckily there have been very few accidents. The guys are careful.

People love what we do. Nothing like creating something that will inspire thousands of people to want to camp out all day for 20 minutes of action.

‘Big Bang Theory’ is party of the essay collection, “True Stories,” which appears in the 2016 City Guide issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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