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Splendor in the Sky


A NOLA New Year’s Eve lights up the night with fantastic fireworks on the river

Could there be anything more exciting than a midnight display of kaleidoscopic fireworks?

It’s a tradition to flock to the French Quarter on December 31, champagne in hand. Wearing feather boas and cardboard tiaras, we stroll up and down Decatur and Bourbon streets eventually making our way through crowds in Jackson Square, nearer and nearer to the riverfront for the countdown. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six … ! We yell, inching toward the New Year and to the th explosions in the sky.

Many people think the New Year’s Eve celebration of fireworks on the river and the lighted ball drop atop Jax Brewery is a city sponsored event. But it’s really a community effort. “The Crescent City Countdown Club was formed as a nonprofit to produce the traditional New Year’s Eve fireworks in the French Quarter,” says coordinator Debra Bresler. “We are a group of people in the community who every year get together and donate money to ensure that we don’t lose our tradition.” A NOLA New Year’s Eve, as it’s officially called, is produced each year with the cooperation of the city and the support of numerous sponsors. A stage in front of Jackson Square features live music and is organized by Ernest Collins who heads the city’s Office of Arts and Entertainment; and the mayor usually makes an appearance onstage to join in the countdown. Bresler secures funding, the fireworks company, a barge for the display and coordinates with WWL AM 870 radio. “They do all the different spots to promo the event. And whatever we need to set up a live simulcast. They are the keepers of the clock.”

Erskin Terry, building engineer for Jax Brewery, has been the man behind the lighted ball drop for the past 22 years. A common misconception is that the ball drop is a baby drop. “Recent years it’s been a gumbo pot, but originally it was a lighted ball. And the baby that everybody seems to remember is a seven foot tall freestanding statue on the sixth floor deck,” Terry points out. “We put lights on it so that it’s visible from quite a distance. But the actual gumbo pot drop occurs at the top of the building at the highest point.” The idea for the gumbo pot took shape after Hurricane Katrina. Bresler and Brian Kern (who created the pot at Mardi Gras World) came up with the idea as something different to exemplify New Orleans. Terry assembles and rigs everything and will make sure that the old wooden sign affixed with several hundred lightbulbs accurately reads “2009.” “If you were to see what I was doing up there at midnight … in one hand I’m operating the electric winch that raises and lowers the pot. In the other I’m holding a trigger which operates the lights. So when the pot gets down to the bottom, I trigger the lights.” Cue for the fireworks to let her rip.

Pyrotecnico, a fourth generation family owned company that produces nearly 2,000 shows per year and recently won a prestigious fireworks competition in Montreal, Canada, has been the fireworks producer for New Year’s Eve for as long as the CCCC has been producing the event. “We’re a national based company and purchased a local company here [from CCCC founding member David Spear], and we’ve been doing the show for nine years. Debbie and I put a music track together for the show. I do all the choreography for isplay,” says Rocco Vitale, general manager of the pany’s Louisiana office. “WWL radio and Magic
101.9 FM simulcast the show,” says Bresler. “We pick music that reflects local themes, so when this is heard all over the country, we have music that represents New Orleans artists. And we throw into that the fight songs for the two teams that are here for the Sugar Bowl.”

Unlike when I was a kid, lighting bottle rockets and black cats with a long punk, there are no punks on the Pyrotecnico barge. “Basically it’s one button,” says Vitale. “We work off a computer program called Show Director.” The barge gets put in place early to eliminate the risk of fog inhibiting movement on the river. Pyrotecnico secures river closure and safety permits from the Coast Guard and the New Orleans Fire Department. “Putting a fireworks display together from start to finish is a good deal of work,” says Vitale. “The crew will start the day before and assemble all the equipment. There are tubes which the fireworks go down into. They’ll have to lower the actual fire shell down into the tube. And because it’s all computerized, each specific shell has to go into a specific part of the electrical system.”

How is it all synchronized? Everyone has a radio and a clock: Terry, the CCCC, the stage at Jackson Square, the pyro crew. But since WWL 870 is the emergency broadcast station, everyone’s clock is synced with WWL, which does the countdown on air. It’s a well oiled machine, but there has been occasion when things didn’t go quite as planned. “One year,” says Terry, “it got so foggy you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, much less a lighted ball 75 to 80 feet in the air. Everybody was worried we wouldn’t be able to see the ball drop or the fireworks show. Maybe five minutes before 12, for some reason the entire fog bank just blew away. It was the craziest thing.”

Fog, rain or snow, the show goes on because New Orleans residents have come to expect it. “It’s like New Year’s can’t come without fireworks,” says Bresler. “Nobody can celebrate like we can. Between the gumbo pot, the music and the fireworks, it’s a wonderful show.” Adds Vitale, “When the show’s over and you hear all the people on the river bank screaming and yelling and the tugboat’s pulling its horn that’s a good feeling. It always feels good to work with the people involved in the event and give the city a great show.”

For the show schedule and a list of sponsors, visit www. crescentcitycountdown.com.