Peabody show has become an institution

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JANET HAMOUS
The words “Peabody” and “fireworks” have become almost synonymous over time, and on July 4, thousands will head for the city that is famous for its celebration of Independence Day.

Parents bring their children to see the familiar ground displays they remember from their childhood, visitors “ooh” and “ah” over the colorful aerials set to music, and children scream with delight as they see their favorite cartoon character come to life in a ground display.

Behind the scenes, 50 dedicated volunteers put their hearts and souls into creating the show that is known far and wide as one of the best fireworks displays around.

The Peabody event has been held for 83 consecutive years, but local history says it actually dates back to the 1880s when people would ride the train into town to watch the fireworks.

The ground displays are the hallmark of the show. These displays, called “set pieces,” are increasingly rare because most shows today feature aerial fireworks.

As the design and building of ground displays has become a lost art, the fireworks volunteers have become the keepers of this sacred local tradition, and they are charged with passing on the legacy from generation to generation.

Alisa McDowell is one of those tradition-keepers. She has been part of the fireworks crew since 1987.

She said much of the work today is still done using the techniques they were taught by those who came before them. But they have taken advantage of some modern technology to save time.

“We used to have to use masking tape to tape our fuses on,” she said. “Now they’re in cellophane, and the cellophane is sticky. You just put the fuse on and stick it as you go along, and you don’t have to tear masking tape off to do it. It probably cuts our time in half.”

She said they also bought a nail gun this year.

“We used to pound all the nails in by hand,” she said. “The nailer helps cut our time down too.”

But the majority of the work is still a labor-intensive, time-consuming process, she said.

“We make our own tubes that shoot the aerials,” she said. “And they light them by hand. In your bigger cities, they do it all by computerized electrical.”

She said each member of the crew has a certain job he or she likes to do.

McDowell specializes in the design and creation of the set pieces, which are basically large pictures formed with fireworks.

“We start out with grid paper and we draw pictures on it,” she said. “Some pieces I can whip out in half an hour and others it takes me several hours because I’m pretty picky. If it doesn’t look right, I have to start over.”

Although some set pieces are old favorites that have become annual traditions, new designs are created every year. Sometimes a set piece is created at someone’s request.

“Or, if we don’t get any ideas from everybody else, we try to come up with some of our own,” she said.

This year, they have 20 set pieces, McDowell said.

After a drawing is completed, the picture is copied onto the “set” by bending strips of bamboo onto wooden grids.

The time required to put together a set piece depends on the complexity of the piece, McDowell said.

“Sometimes we can get one or two done a night in four hours,” she said. “Some of them take us 8-10 hours. It depends on if it looks right. We do a lot of tearing down.

“A few years ago, we did a deer and it took us 12 hours because it just didn’t look right. So we kept taking the bamboo off and putting it back on.”

Set pieces are put together in the octagonal building in Peabody City Park that was built in 1881 as a floral exhibition hall.

“We start half way through June,” said McDowell. “We usually work two to three nights a week. The week before the Fourth, we may be there every night.”

After the set pieces are built, they are “lanced,” which involves gluing lances-candles containing colored gun powder-to the set. The next step is to attach the fuses that run across the top of each lance.

“We don’t start lancing until a week before the Fourth, because if it’s very damp-you don’t want all that moisture to get into your lances,” McDowell said. “So we lance, and then we come back and start fusing. We need to let the glue dry before we start fusing.”

McDowell said once a set is made, it will last for years.

“We have to repair them sometimes because things get broken or burnt, but we reuse them,” she said.

When the big day arrives, the fireworks crew works together like a well-oiled machine. Crew members have their assigned jobs putting up and tearing down the ground displays, lighting the ground displays, lighting aerials, or wiring and setting off the signature finale display “The Battle of New Orleans.”

Everyone knows exactly what to do, McDowell said, thanks to the training they received from others who had a passion for keeping the tradition alive.

McDowell said she learned the tricks of the trade from her first husband, George Holm (now deceased), and his brother, Richard, who trained with Peabody fireworks legend Jack Whisler. Whisler, nicknamed Mr. Fireworks, supervised the fireworks show for more than 40 years.

Judy Mellott, Whisler’s daughter, said the fireworks show was her dad’s pride and joy.

“That probably brought him more joy, other than his grandkids, than anything,” she said. “He loved it. He lived for it.

“We’d have the Fourth of July, and then the next Sunday at dinner, that’s all he talked about. He was like a golfer going over each hole and how many strokes-that’s what he’d do with the fireworks.”

Mellott said her dad took over the fireworks show in 1940.

“They told him he could spend $50 on that first show, and he told them he wouldn’t do it for less than $100,” she said.

That figure is a far cry from the $10,000 the fireworks cost today.

She read from some notes written by her dad: “I explained that if they would turn me loose and let me buy and spend their (the city’s) money as I saw fit, not counting any rainouts, I would make them one of the best fireworks in the country.”

When Whisler retired from fireworks in 1982, he was proud that under his leadership there was never an injury accident. He was also pleased that younger people were interested in carrying on the tradition. He died in 1991 at age 80.

Mellott said her father loved designing the set pieces.

“My dad was very creative,” she said. “He worked at Boeing in the engineering department. He had an upholstery shop downtown and built awnings and upholstered furniture and interiors of airplanes.

“I remember one time he had a boat down there and they wanted a cover built. He just looked at that boat, laid the canvas over the top of it, took a piece of chalk and marked around it, cut it out, sewed it up and it fit. He just had that talent. He could envision what those set pieces would look like.”

Mellott said several of the shapes designed by Whisler are still being used today-although none of the original pieces still exist. Those shapes include the Statue of Liberty, the windmill, the Liberty Bell, and the flag.

She said her father was especially proud of the fireworks shows held for Peabody’s 90th and 100th birthdays.

“1961 was the big show because it was Peabody’s 90th anniversary,” she said. “He said there were 41,000 people there that year, and for Peabody’s centennial, the estimate was even greater.”

The centennial in 1971 was the first year for the annual crowd pleaser, “The Battle of New Orleans,” that is still to this day used as the show’s grand finale.

The five-minute barrage of lights, noise and smoke, affectionately known as “The Battle,” brings the crowd to its feet and creates a frenzy.

Whisler noted in his journal that the first Battle of New Orleans used 4,000 shots, 12 9-inch bombs, 50 10-ball candles, and 10 12-inch real bombs.

“It only lasted three minutes, said Mellott. “But it was loud, it was neat, and the crowd just cheered.”

Thirty-three years later, they’re still cheering.

This year’s fireworks show will begin at 9:45 p.m.

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