Igniting the Light

Who Does the Freedom Over Texas Fireworks?

Behind the sparks is an explosive family legacy.

By Nicki Koetting June 22, 2018 Published in the July 2018 issue of Houstonia Magazine

It was, apparently, fate that led Rocco Vitale’s great-grandfather to settle down in New Castle, Pennsylvania—otherwise known as the fireworks capital of America—after emigrating to the United States from Italy in 1889. That same year he turned his firework-making hobby from back home into a business, naming it Pyrotecnico. Now with a branch in Dallas, the fireworks-display and special-effects company—which passed to Vitale’s grandfather, father, and now his brother—has been lighting up Houston skies for Freedom Over Texas, the city’s big July 4 celebration, for almost a decade. We chatted with Vitale, Pyrotecnico’s creative director, about the 129-year-old business, and what it takes to put on a spectacular show:

The man behind the magic, Rocco Vitale

Did you always know you were going to help take over the family business?

(Laughs). No, it was a summer job for me when I was in high school. We all started at the bottom, which is good—loading trucks and unloading them after the Fourth of July. Real dirty work. Then one summer, it kind of grabbed me a bit. I got really into it—that was 20 years ago—and I haven’t looked back.

Tell me about the process behind Freedom Over Texas.

We do a custom soundtrack for it every year and really make sure we put some dynamic music together. Once we get the song selections in place, then my team will put an edit together of a track that we’ll send off, and we’ll kind of massage that. Then I do all the choreography for the show. 

There’s a huge variety of effects we have in inventory, and it’s all about knowing those effects, knowing what they do, and then incorporating them into the show in the best place. Computers drive it. There’s not a person out there flipping switches or doing anything like that. It’s a completely automated process. You pull all those elements together, and you end up with an amazing, 17-minute display that you see every year at the park. It all comes together so beautifully.

What’s your favorite fireworks effect?

It changes! I’m really into things that make noise right now; that’s my thing right now. Stuff that has a little bit of a report to it, a rumble to it, that’s my thing. I’m in that phase of my life right now, I guess. 

What’s your favorite memory from Freedom Over Texas?

One of the most amazing compliments I ever got was when I watched the show and I was walking back, and I ran into Susan Christian from [Mayor Sylvester Turner’s] office. She was with the mayor, and she introduced me to him, and he said, “Man, that show made me feel like a kid again.” Because that’s what we do—for that 20 minutes, people kind of lose their thoughts about everything else, and they’re just engulfed in this fireworks display, and they’re like a kid again.

What’s the best part about being in the fireworks business?

Of course there’s a lot of fireworks, and of course there’s a lot of firepower—that’s important—but the most important thing is that we get oohs and ahhs. We look at it from a design standpoint: how to create that, not how many pounds of explosives there are. We take a more artistic approach. We look at what we do as bringing communities together, and that’s a rewarding feeling. 

Freedom Over Texas. 4–10 p.m. July 4. Featuring performances by Chris Young, The Mavericks, and more. Eleanor Tinsley and Sam Houston parks.

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