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5 Fascinating Facts About Macy's July Fourth Fireworks

By Nicole Levy | July 1, 2016 2:37pm | Updated on July 4, 2016 4:53pm
 Fireworks light up the night sky during a Macy's Fourth of July Fireworks show
Fireworks light up the night sky during a Macy's Fourth of July Fireworks show
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Macy's/Kent Miller Studios

Bursts of light in colors from lemon to lavender will illuminate the night sky over the East River Monday night as part of the Macy's Fourth of July Fireworks show.

With more than 56,000 shells set to launch from five barges, the 25-minute display kicking off at approximately 9:25 p.m. will be Macy's largest since its celebration of the new millennium in 2000, according to a press release. 

You can admire the fireworks from anywhere in Manhattan, Brooklyn or western Queens with a view of the sky above the East River, or from one of the public viewing areas designated by Macy's. 

Here's what we'll be keeping in mind while we watch them, after speaking to the event's executive producer, Amy Kule, about its evolution over the last 40 years and its 2016 incarnation:

The first-ever Macy's fireworks show lit up New York skies in 1958, but not on July Fourth.

The "pyrotechnic extravaganza" took place over the Hudson River on July 1 as a celebration of the department store's 100th anniversary since its founding. About a million people showed up to watch, police told the New York Times.

fireworks poster

Poster advertising the first-ever Macy's fireworks show (credit: Macy's)

That early antecedent was replaced by the show we know today in 1976: that year Macy's partnered with the Walt Disney Company to celebrate the nation's Bicentennial with a fireworks display that became an annual tradition.

Planning a Macy's fireworks show begins with the musical score. 

”The music," performed by the U.S. Air Force Band, "is the first thing we do," said Kule. "We pull together the soundtrack almost in January. And after the soundtrack is recorded and done, that’s when we really start working on the fireworks themselves.”

The pyrotechnics are choreographed to mirror the crests and troughs of the score, which this year includes songs like "Simple Gifts," "This Land is Your Land," and, at its climax, Jennifer Holliday's rendition of "America the Beautiful."

If you're watching the show live on Monday, you can tune in to the music on radio station 1010 WINS.

The Macy's show may be run by computers these days, but there's still a lot of human labor involved.

Gone are the days when fireworks were manually fired from the barges by a person with a metal rod, but the on-board preparation of shells and firing mortars still takes up to 12 days, Kule said.

“We have 50 pyrotechnicians on the barges that are hand-loading each one of the shells into the mortars and then hand-wiring those shells into the computer," which is located at a command center in Long Island City.

Altogether, it takes 50 miles of cabling and 1,600 lines of computer programmed cues to prepare the synchronized launch of about 2,200 shells per minute.

The shells, which come from all over the world, vary in colors, size and effect.

Macy's shops for shells in the U.S., Mexico and Asia. 

This year's shells come in 22 different colors and sizes from one to 10 inches.

"They each have different technical aspects: some are waterfalls, some sparkle, some just burst into the biggest fireworks that you could possibly imagine and seem to cover the total sky," Kule said.

Those effects go by all kinds of evocative names in Macy's written preview — "blooming strobing rings," "screaming wizards," "swirling farfalles," "palm tree bouquets" — but Kule compares them to the names giving to nail polish colors: "They’re really descriptive, but don’t tell you much about the firework itself.” 

Some new pyrotechnic effects will be making their Macy's debut on Monday.

With more than 56,000 shells set to explode during this year's show, there's plenty of room for experimentation. 

"Everybody always writes and says they love the smiley faces ... so this year, we decided to take it a step farther, and take these smiley faces and make them blink," Kule said.

"And to top things off, we’re going to do a little bit of skywriting with pyrotechnics: the letters U.S.A. will be displayed in the sky this year.”