Jeff Bartolotta, 59, is a pyrotechnician who creates choreography in the skies of southeastern Wisconsin. He led Bartolotta Fireworks Co., a business founded in Genesee Depot by his father, Sam, until 2017 when it became part of Michigan-based Wolverine Fireworks. Now with Wolverine, Bartolotta continues to put on shows from Festa Italiana and German Fest to weddings and winter carnivals.
This story is taken from our June 2019 feature:
99 Days of Summer: Here’s Your 2019 Guide to Maximal Milwaukee Summer Fun
Related: Milwaukee Fireworks 2019
8 places to catch a fireworks display in Milwaukee this summer
As told to Rich Rovito
I set off my first fireworks shell at a show in Sheboygan when I was 9 years old. I still remember what it felt like when that shell exploded. It knocked me on my ass! I didn’t want to do it again. My two older brothers said, “You’re getting back in there.” I did, and I’ve pretty much been doing it ever since.
That adrenaline rush gets in your blood. When you fire away, you feel the concussion when the shell comes out, you hear it. It’s like shooting a shotgun, but louder. And the smell? Everybody who does this loves that gunpowder.
If you don’t get nervous before a show – I don’t care what size it is – something is wrong. You are performing, and you never know if something is going to work the way it’s supposed to.
We look for things that can go wrong and plan for it. A shell can blow up inside a mortar – that creates a big mess – and we always monitor the weather. I’ve seen a whole fireworks display go up at once because a bolt of lightning came down. I’ve seen guys get hurt, burned.
There are still places doing shows manually, where you fire it up and walk away, but everything we do now is remote-controlled. We can be wherever we want and shoot the show. It’s much safer for the crew. We do a lot of shows on inland lakes. We used to run cables from a barge and through the water. Now, with wireless technology, you can sit in a boat and float around. When you hear the crowd cheering after a show, that’s your gratification. It’s still a thrill for me. I don’t think I’ll ever retire.
Related: 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.