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A booming business. Tomorrow night, the skies of about 900 US cities will sizzle and smack with pyrotechnical wonders designed by the flamboyant Zambelli family

By Nancy HerndonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 3, 1987



New Castle, Pa.

IN an old, one-room workshop with a crucifix over the open door, Joseph Zambelli wraps silvery aluminum and potassium perchlorate powders in bits of newspaper, tying them by holding one end of a string in his teeth. Beside him, Benny Siciliano loads cardboard cylinders with small black balls of chemicals that will explode into color and sound. The two men work entirely by hand, since machinery might cause a fatal spark. Shouting to each other occasionally in Italian - Mr. Zambelli has damaged his hearing in explosions over the years, and Mr. Siciliano prefers his mother tongue - they work according to formulas and procedures that have changed very little for centuries.

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Tomorrow night, the fireworks they've assembled will be detonated from electronic firing boards, synchronized to music with computer-generated timing cues, and illuminated with lasers.

Such are the art and science of fireworks at Zambelli Internationale.

Once a moonlighting business run by Joe, his brothers George and Louis, and their father, Antonio, Zambelli Internationale Fireworks Manufacturing Company is now arguably the biggest fireworks manufacturing and display operation in the United States. Under the direction of George Zambelli, pyrotechnicians will supply three-quarters of a million shells of fireworks for displays in 900 cities this Independence Day.

For the Zambellis, there is no night quite like the Fourth.

Since Easter, the company's two manufacturing plants have been running seven days a week, 10 hours a day, preparing for the one night of the year when they will do about 75 percent of their annual business. For the last month a steady convoy of trucks has left the warehouses in New Castle, Pa., bound for cities as diverse as Las Vegas, Nev.; San Diego; Indianapolis; Miami; Philadelphia; Atlantic City, N.J.; and Tulsa, Okla.

Two weeks ago, at corporate headquarters in New Castle, company president George Zambelli - a.k.a. ``Mr. Fireworks,'' ``The Great Zambelli,'' and ``Boom Boom'' - was answering seven phones and hurling orders at his staff, which includes three of his daughters.

After seven years of coordinating work orders and truck deliveries, Annlyn Zambelli still approaches her father's office with caution. She takes a moment to chat on the phone with her sister, Marcy, manager of the Florida office, which provokes George's scowl. Danabeth Zambelli trips into the office with a bright smile. She's been working at the company full time since last December, helping with bookkeeping and learning the ropes. Now, at 23, she exercises a youngest child's privilege, joking with George, as seasoned men wince under his sharp commands.

Later, George is fuming over the mixture of business pressure and family dynamics. He has been a hardworking man all his life, used to 18-hour days. ``They were yakking away in there - c'mon, this is a place of work. I'm the boss, I'm the father; how am I going to entice someone else to move if they get away with it?'' He slumps in his chair, rumpled and irate. ``Now they're mad at me.''

Outside town, at the new plant on Nashua-Harbor Road, hands hired for the season bring the number of employees working in shipping and manufacturing to an amazingly scant 32. An additional 2,000 trained technicians will shoot the shows. In the warehouses, workers preassemble and number as much of the displays as possible before they're boxed. ``Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia are almost done,'' a worker calls out as his supervisor passes by. A line of yellow Hertz trucks waits to be loaded.