Messenger - Vol. 1, No. 3, Page 7
Spring 1992
Got to set the night on fire

     Administrators working in horticulture museums are expected to
know a little about a lot-plants and shrubs, management and personnel,
even architecture and the fine arts. Somehow, these topics all seem
related and appropriate.
     But, fireworks?
     That enlightening subject never crossed the mind of Colvin
Randall while he was a graduate student in the mid-1970s, studying in
the University's Longwood Program in Ornamental Horticulture. In fact,
the 1977 master's degree recipient had no idea he would end up working
at the world famous Kennett Square, Pa., horticultural display. Not
that he's complaining.
     Being public relations manager of Longwood has its advantages,
one of which was a 1979 trip to France that Randall took to study
historic European gardens.
     During a stop at Versailles, he came up with the idea of
combining fireworks with the gardens' existing summer evening displays
of fountains, lights and music. The Europeans had included fireworks
with a high degree of success for hundreds of years. Randall said he
believed the idea would sell in the states.
     He contacted Ruggieri-USA, the 250-year-old French fireworks
company responsible for productions at Versailles, the Statue of
Liberty Centennial and Philadelphia's bicentennial celebration of the
U.S. Constitution. And, much to the delight of Longwood visitors, a
new tradition was begun.
     This summer will mark the 12th consecutive year that Longwood
Gardens will offer four summer evenings of sight and light to delight
its audiences.
     A sophisticated, computerized system coordinates the
multi-colored lights, non-stop music, water-filled fountains and
perfectly timed land and airborne explosions.
     The production-which takes several months to plan and nearly two
days to set up-involves 300,000 gallons of water, 234 fountains, 730
multicolored spotlights and 400 explosive shells that produce 1,000
special aerial effects.
     According to Alain Broca, technical manager of Ruggieri-USA
headquartered in Washington, D.C., "Longwood Gardens could be
qualified as the highest sophisticated display we do at the present
     Randall works for months, selecting music and developing an
outline for the one-hour show. He suggests certain desired effects for
the fireworks and fountains and mails them in the spring to Broca. The
technician, who says he can see the results in his mind because of his
familiarity with explosives, applies his more than 20 years of
personal pyrotechnic expertise.
     The two correspond by phone and fax, making adjustments as
needed, eventually meeting each year a few days before the initial
production when Broca arrives with a crew of six pyrotechnicians. They
place explosives throughout the area, carefully covering the charges
and devices in heavy plastic, many of which are located at the base of
the nozzles of the fountains.
     Some of the Roman candles shoot nearly 300 feet into the air and
combine with a prism of colors, spinning off flares, wheels, fountains
and aerial shells.
     Each summer on the opening night, Randall and Broca, along with a
capacity crowd of 5,000, finally see how their planning looks in real
     Randall says he's never quite sure how things will turn out.
Because of weather conditions, each evening is different. Even
drifting smoke, illuminated by the stationary lighting and
ground-placed flares, adds an ever-changing, eerie aura to each
     The merging of colors produced by the varying degrees of light,
Randall said, offers the audience "an infinite rainbow of
kaleidoscopic effects."
     Last year, the public patriotism that accompanied the success of
the Desert Storm campaign caused Randall to select patriotic music to
accompany the display. This year, the gardens will commemorate the
500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in America in two ways. First,
the museum's Italian Water Gardens will be reopened, following a
two-year, $4-million reconstruction project. Second, Italian music
will be used during the summer fountains/fireworks program.
     The finale, Randall said, will be accompanied by Respighi's Pines
of Rome, a very grand symphonic selection.
     The 1,050 acres of gardens, Randall said, are world-known for
their old trees, conservatories and fountains, which are the finest in
the country.
     His master's thesis focused on the history of the conservatory's
three separate fountain systems, which were installed by Pierre S. du
Pont. The fountains are based on those found in Europe and elsewhere
that du Pont saw at several world expositions in the late 19th
     "When Mr. du Pont created Longwood, he had a really good idea of
the gardens as theatre," Randall said. "He had visited Italy and
France and they were very good at that, and he liked what he saw.
That's one reason Longwood is so popular. You don't have to have a
sophisticated understanding of plants to appreciate it. It wows you."
     This summer, visitors from all over the world will have an
opportunity to be "wowed" by Randall's fireworks displays, scheduled
for July 10, Aug. 7 and 21 and Sept. 12.
     Since the programs are usually sold out well in advance, those
interested should call Longwood Gardens for reservations and prices.
Telephone (215) 388-6741, extension 100.
                                     -Ed Okonowicz, Delaware '69 '84M