if fireworks are actors, then Gary Caimano is their director, producer and most ardent fan.
During the past two decades, Caimano and his Oklahoma-based outfit Western Enterprises have turned the Avon fireworks show — officially known as FirstBank’s Salute to the USA — into one of the country’s most coveted.
Sure, it happens a day before the Fourth of July, but it’s a fitting lead-in to the raucous holiday, drawing nearly 20,000 people to Nottingham Park for an aerial performance by Caimano’s, um, explosive troupe. And sure, it’s no longer the largest in Colorado as it was in the ’90s and early 2000s, but the arsenal boasts 6,000 multi-hued shells, all choreographed to 23 minutes of music pumped across the valley via KZYR.
In other words, this is one show that almost can’t — and seriously shouldn’t — be missed.
“You have thousands and thousands and thousands of aerial bombs, and they need to work together to make a statement,” said Caimano, who has choreographed the Avon show more than 20 times. “I see them as performing characters, thousands of them, and I put them together so they arrive on time, on stage, in the sky.”
Given his pedigree, Caimano is akin to an A-list film director — say, the Hitchcock of lush tableaux hits or the Scorsese of show-stopping mortars — and he knows how to coax the most from a sprawling cast of fireworks. Like all actors, they need proper motivation, so to speak, and the valley surrounding Avon is a pitch-perfect theater.
“It’s just a gorgeous setting, like a cathedral there in the mountains,” Caimano said. “It’s picturesque, but those tableaux hits spread beautiful colors across the ground, and they’re paired with the shells to all work together. You really want to knock the crowd out, let the music drive what’s happening.”
The music truly is a cornerstone of the entire night. Caimano, a self-professed literature fanatic who writes a full script for choreographed shows, works with every genre imaginable. He’s timed fireworks to patriotic tunes from Neil Diamond, Bruce Springsteen, Coldplay, the “Star Wars” soundtrack — anything fit for those red, glaring rockets.
But the soundtrack isn’t just wall-to-wall anthems — that would be too one-note for Caimano. The Avon finale is a full minute long, yet his favorite section is the lead-in with “Oh, America” by Celtic Women, an almost delicate tune he calls “the most beautiful patriotic song I’ve heard.”
And Caimano samples dozens. Beginning in February, he buckles down and jumps headlong into the Avon choreography, spending a full week — usually 20 hours per day — pairing 18 different songs to the right pyrotechnics. It’s a huge time commitment, but when working with actors that are on stage for only a few seconds, there’s little time for rehearsal. Everything needs to click.
“These are bombs, of course,” said Caimano, who also oversees the production of custom fireworks at his Oklahoma factory. “I may do the scripting and the choreography, but you have to drop and load and package these rockets the right way. It’s a big operation from start to finish.”
Behind the scenes
A vital cog in that operation is Paul Zoch. By day he’s the director of engineering at the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek, but by night — well, more like nights around the holidays — he feeds a firework fetish more than four decades in the making.
While growing up in Chicago, Zoch joined a pyrotechnics club to learn the ins and outs of the industry, from show design to mortar construction. (Yes, it involved explosives.) He thought the hobby would fall by the wayside when he came to Colorado, but 25 years later, he’s still in charge of the logistics for shows in Avon, Beaver Creek and elsewhere. Like Caimano, his passion for fireworks runs deep.
“I’ve loved fireworks for as long as I can remember,” Zoch said. “Fourth of July was a more important holiday for me than Christmas — I was just always drawn to it.”
Zoch is a consummate behind-the-scenes guy, charged with leading the crew of 20 operators who set up mortar racks on the backside of the lake. The rack itself is surprisingly small — just about 90 feet wide and 4 feet deep — but the mortars inside are hefty. Most weigh 5 to 10 pounds, and the largest look no different than softballs.
Barring any nature-based hiccups — the show was canceled in 2012 due to a woefully dry summer — Avon’s display is known for going off without a hitch. The actors dazzle, the audience leaves stunned and the director lets out a sigh of relief. And yet, Caimano only hears about the oohs and aahs: In two decades, he’s never seen the Avon show in person.
“It breaks my heart,” Caimano said. “You have two things going here: People know this isn’t a normal show, and it also kind of announces the holiday. That’s really cool.”
Not to be upstaged by its downvalley neighbor, Vail puts on a show of its own with the Vail America Days parade, another long-running spectacle that could hardly happen anywhere but the town’s cobbled streets. Call it the second half of a patriotic double bill, albeit on a ground-level stage.
And like the fireworks show, the parade is chock-full of colorful characters. Yet one is often overlooked: the crowd. Every year, the parade draws more than 35,000 people to Vail for a morning of patriotic floats and funky routines — think the near-legendary Vail Precision Lawn Chair Drill Team — not to mention loads of free candy for kiddos.
For Denver resident Eric Schmidt, the parade is a slice of childhood. His family has owned a home in town since the ’60s, and he remembers marveling at by-gone floats like a three-wheeled motorcycle pulling daredevils on modified skis. A few years back, Schmidt and brood decided to take their seven-person bike — a 400-pound behemoth invented by installation artist Eric Staller — and enter it as a float, just because.
“We just decided three years ago to ride it in the parade, but we didn’t even know if it was possible. I thought we had to be a company or a group to be part of it,” Schmidt said, then chuckled. “When I filled out the entry form it asked for a spiel on our organization, so I just wrote something like, ‘The Schmidt family wanted to ride a bike.’”
The bike has become a new favorite of the parade, thanks to three generations of costumed Schmidts just having a blast — and feeding off the crowd’s energy. It’s the same mentality shared by the folks from Trinity Church. For the past 15 years, about 25 church members have come together to perform a marching version of “STOMP,” the kinetic Broadway show known for turning trash cans and pipes into instruments. The church group does a new version each July, complete with custom-made instruments and a drumline routine by Larry Dutmer, a local jazz drummer who’s played with Vail Valley Theatre Company.
“It’s so much fun to watch the people who watch them — they’ll get really excited when they see the ‘trash can band’ come down the street,” said Melinda Carlson, the church worship leader and float coordinator. “This is a fun, all-American parade, and the people who do this just love being in the middle of the action.”