The lasers' red glare, the drops squirting in air? That would never have flown with Francis Scott Key. And when it comes to the glorious Fourth, many Americans will settle for nothing less than the incendiary light, concussive sound, and wafting-gunpowder smell of fireworks.
But when those iconic projectiles are scaled back or grounded – for reasons ranging from town-budget shortfall to grass-fire danger to a reach for novelty – alternative spectacles can carry the flag-waving day.
Even many groups that do launch fireworks go in for inventive sideshows, some of which have become traditions in their own right. No one's staging locomotive collisions anymore, as was done once for President Taft. More common today: iridescent beams and fountains with underwater lighting. Not to mention boom-box parades, candle-lightings, and synchronized kite flying.
Fireworks have evolved, too, pushed by the special demands of high-definition television broadcasts, tough post-9/11 rules on explosives, and a need to contain fallout over more crowded or drought-parched areas.
"It's a fact of life that real estate's being gobbled up and firing sites are getting smaller," says Jim Souza, head of Pyro Spectaculars by Souza, a five-generations-old family firm in Rialto, Calif., that runs more than 400 July 4 events nationwide.
Mr. Souza recalls watching the Macy's fireworks on television a few years ago and deciding that HD's aspect ratio demanded more vibrant colors – Pyro Spectaculars makes its own shells – and more "multishot bombardos" to fill in the lower parts of what he considers an aerial painting. That tactic also shrinks the show's footprint a bit.
"We're pushing things down," Souza says, "but still giving them the excitement."
That's a long-running demand.
Shock, awe, and backlash
The extravaganza approach to July 4 dates back to the 19th century, says Jim Heintze, a librarian at American University in Washington and author of this spring's "The Fourth of the July Encyclopedia."
"There were set pieces on framing, 200 to more than 300 feet long, set off at one end, and [explosions] would follow all the way through," he says. The spectacle – particularly in crowded cities – came with complications, and sometimes casualties.
By the early years of the 1900s a backlash took hold, driven in part by the American Medical Association, and forced "safe and sane" practices. (The US Consumer Product Safety Commission still produces a finger-wagging annual report that tracks fireworks mishaps.) Daytime fireworks were tried in Washington in 1909 to make the show less of a brawl and more family friendly.
Some cities picked up on gentle small-town traditions like one in Lititz, Pa. – where an all-day festival dating to 1843 culminates in the lighting of 7,000 candles. July 4 became more of a variety show.
"There were musical events, [adult] athletic events, all kinds of races for kids," Mr. Heintze says. By the 1930s cities such as New York supplemented their rocketry with major water shows set to music.
In Grand Haven, Mich., about 90,000 gallons of water circulate during evening shows at the Musical Fountain, says Roger Jonas, who chairs the committee that keeps a hand on the spigot. Fountain shows are a summer-long staple there, but the Fourth means cranking patriotic tunes on the 8,000-watt audio system and shifting the spectrum.
"There's a lot more red, white, and blue," says Mr. Jonas. It shows. The fountain, in its 45th year, is football-field wide and shoots water 125 feet in the air; it sits 80 feet up already, across the river from a boardwalk that draws 100,000 people on Independence Day. Fireworks follow the fountain show within seconds of its conclusion.
Elsewhere, add-on events favor quirkiness over drama. Edmond, Okla., works a synchronized kite-flying event into its celebrations. Willimantic, Conn., has kept alive a boom-box parade that dates back to the 1980s, Heintze says, when a school-budget shortfall muzzled the marching band.
Gatlinburg, Tenn., kicks off the party at 12:01 a.m. on the Fourth and runs an unmanned-craft regatta during the day – no balls or plastic eggs allowed. New Boston, N.H., fires off its Molly Stark cannon.
Science, as spectacle
In recent years, lasers have flourished as a main event or a fireworks sweetener. Prismatic Magic, a New Jersey-based firm whose primary function is science education, now pulls in 12 to 15 requests a year for July 4 presentations, says Chris Volpe, its president.
The firm has developed an "American Pride" show for the occasion. Backed by songs such as Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA," it deploys "graphic lasers" that project a fully formed Statue of Liberty or an Iwo Jima flag-raising scene.
"You can tell stories with recognizable images," says Mr. Volpe, who holds a PhD in atmospheric physics and has developed highly portable miniaturized laser projectors. He attributes rising interest in his shows, in part, to the growing number of high-school athletic fields – frequent fireworks sites – that use flammable (and expensive) synthetic materials. Others cite the risk of grass fires, high this year in much of the country.
"I'll get the Fourth booked months in advance, and as it gets more dry more people realize they won't be able to shoot off fireworks," says Tim Walsh, president of Laser Spectacles, in Austin, Texas. Mr. Walsh says that when conditions are right he often runs laser shows that accompany another firm's fireworks. He prefers his own medium.
"I've seen fireworks shows where they do one shell at a time, and it's boring," he says.
But good shows still thrill. James Cross Giblin, author of the children's book "Fireworks, Picnics, and Flags," still seeks out friends with Manhattan apartments on higher floors than his own to watch July 4 fireworks. "It's like a turkey at Thanksgiving," he says, "or a tree at Christmas."
"Fireworks are bigger than life," says Jim Souza. Other events can contribute, he says, and make for an interesting day. "But nothing's going to replace fireworks."