Lifestyle

Rocketing sound and color for Independence Day

Jonathan Sage volunteers for the MOC Fireworks, Inc. crew loading 10-inch shells aboard The Pintail barge in Holmes Harbor for the Freeland July 3 fireworks display. - Spencer Webster
Jonathan Sage volunteers for the MOC Fireworks, Inc. crew loading 10-inch shells aboard The Pintail barge in Holmes Harbor for the Freeland July 3 fireworks display.
— image credit: Spencer Webster

The best pyrotechnicians have the power to elicit the most heartfelt “oohs” or “ahhs” from Fourth of July crowds all across our 231-year-old nation.

And here on the island, Leroy Olsen of MOC Fireworks, Inc. is the guy who brings in the noise and the color, from purple comets, to green palm trees, to red, white and blue chrysanthemums that light up the night sky.

The pyrotechny of the Mick Olsen Corporation was first started by Olsen’s father, Mick, who passed away in 2006. Olsen said his father had always been fascinated with fireworks. It started when he was a kid, and bought penny crackers out of magazines in the 1940s.

Mick Olsen began doing amateur “Class C” displays for the local island community down on Shore Avenue near Double Bluff beach in Freeland as early as the mid-1970s. Class C displays are made up of mainly fountains, sparklers, novelty items, smoke items, wheels and spinners.

Leroy Olsen was always a part of his father’s shows and learned how to wow the crowd at a young age.

“Those shows just kept getting bigger and bigger,” recalled Olsen.

By 1990, although it was still just a hobby, the Olsens had upgraded to professionals and were doing Independence Day shows in Roche Harbor, Friday Harbor and Maple Valley, in addition to the annual “Celebrate America” festival in Freeland. They eventually added private parties to their roster and now create displays for weddings and other special occasions as well.

Leroy Olsen is now the go-to guy for all things pyrotechnic on the island and seems to have inherited his father’s love for doing the displays.

Olsen said his favorite part is the creativity that goes into each show. And when he uses music to accompany the fireworks, it has to be fully choreographed.

“It gives me a chance to experiment with color and sound,” he said.

The “Celebrate America” show is semi-choreographed and uses no musical accompaniment by the crew.

“With that show we just want to get a lot of fireworks in the air,” said Olsen.

Getting fireworks in the air is not a simple exercise.

The crew works off a barge called “The Pintail” that was once a landing craft. The barge sits about 1,700 feet offshore on Holmes Harbor and is loaded down with all the instruments of preparation.

Olsen said attention to detail is the key to a good fireworks show. It’s a fairly complicated undertaking and his volunteer crew is essential.

“We’ve mechanized it as much as we can,” said Olsen. “But we have to do a lot with a very few people.”

They may have a small crew, but historically fireworks displays have always attracted a large audience.

Even the earliest of American settlers brought their enthusiasm for the spectacle when fireworks and black powder were used to celebrate important events long before the American Revolutionary War.

The very first celebration of Independence Day was in 1777, six years before Americans knew whether the new nation would survive the war. But even then, fireworks were a part of the festivities.

And in 1789, George Washington’s inauguration was also accompanied by a fireworks display.

Beside the historical significance of fireworks, there’s the ongoing love affair with the art and craft of pyrotechnics throughout the world.

The Pyrotechnics Guild International, Inc. or PGI has a membership of

3,500 amateur and professional fireworks enthusiasts. The non-profit organization holds a week-long convention every August where some of the world’s biggest and best fireworks displays can be seen.

The highlight of the event is a competition where hand-built fireworks are judged. They range from simple fireworks rockets to very large and complex aerial shells. The week ends with a grand public display, which gives a chosen pyrotechnical company a chance to produce a show for the best and brightest of the world’s fireworks specialists.

Olsen said that popular conventions such as PGI’s give fireworks professionals like himself the chance to see what’s new on the market. The gatherings are inspirational, too.

“I saw a show once in a field in the middle of nowhere North Dakota,” said Olsen. “It was the most spectacular show I’ve ever seen.”

Patricia Duff can be reached at 221-5300 or pduff@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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