Star Power

Western Display Fireworks’ pyro-in-chief Bob Gobet gets fired up about shows for billionaires and the art of making people swoon.

By Ted Katauskas May 19, 2009 Published in the July 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

You do 300 displays a year, and 250 of them are on the Fourth of July. How much firepower do you need? We’re regulated by the ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms], so out in Canby, we’ve got 50 tons of explosives stored in bunkers with earthen berms around them and concrete walls that are 10 inches thick. I’d say we go through more than half our inventory on the Fourth. Most of it comes from China. We’re already ordering for 2009.

On the night of the Fourth, you have an army of 1,200 workers. What exactly do you look for in a pyrotechnician-for-hire? All of the top people have three or four high-risk hobbies like hang gliding, flying, skydiving, skin diving, or motorcycle racing. Most of ’em say they like being in control of all of that explosive energy. But I tell ’em, “I think you guys just like blowing stuff up.” And they do.

And where are you on the big night? For the last five years, I’ve been working the barge for the Blues Festival. I’m on the deck inside a control booth with reinforced walls, where I’ve got a laptop running a custom-designed software program that fires the mortars. I’m wearing a fireman’s coat and a helmet with a face shield. I’ve got a cell phone in each ear, and I’m getting reports from all the shows around the Northwest. I’ve also got a two-way radio so I can stay in contact with the tugboat skipper, the harbormaster, and the Coast Guard vessels that are patrolling the area.

What’s it like out there when the mortars are going off? It’s loud, like being on a battlefield. There’re thousands of people cheering, but between the cell phones, the radio, and all the explosions, I don’t hear it.

You’re the TNT guy and your wife is the choreographer. So just how do you set explosives to music? Our client gives us a soundtrack a few months in advance with the usual standards: “Stars and Stripes Forever,” “God Bless America,” what have you. Judi listens to it over and over to get a feel for the music; then she’ll use a computer program to write a score that specifies the firing sequence of explosives, down to the tenth of a second. If there’s a high point in the music, she’ll shoot something large-caliber, maybe a 10- or 12-inch shell. If she wants something bright, she might use a brocade shell that breaks and, over a long duration, droops into the water. In essence, it’s like painting a picture in the sky.

I hear you also do private parties in the off-season. Have you had any celebrity clients? Up until two years ago, around Mother’s Day, we’d do this huge job in the Puget Sound area for the original group that formed Microsoft. A third party would call us and make the arrangements. We’d give them the coordinates of where the barge was going to be, then that night, this private yacht just shows up out of the dark. The skipper calls us, and we shoot this big display. It was huge, one of the 10 biggest displays in the United States. For just 25 people. We never knew who they were, but we were told they always had a great time.

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