Gene Evans is the fireworks man. Where most little boys begin and end a short, lusty affair with anything that lights on fire — bottle rockets, frogs, little sisters’ ponytails — Evans and fireworks never broke up. They live together in Las Vegas, taking annual summer trips to Los Angeles since 1969 to light up the sky at the Hollywood Bowl. It’s a never-ending honeymoon.
His shows defy exact description, but it’s got something to do with timing. “I’ve seen a lot of fireworks displays that go with music,” I tell Evans, “but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything go quite to the music.” This is a happy moment for a man who, two minutes prior, began by saying, “All right, kiddo, you’ve got three minutes.” The magic is indeed in the timing. “I’m glad you noticed that,” he says, “I didn’t want to be the one who said it because I don’t like to read about other people gloating. But yeah, that’s what sets us apart.”
Evans doesn’t need to gloat. The few hundred pounds of explosions that erupt in precise rhythmic sequence with the evening’s musical program — last Friday it was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture — boast for him. The first blossom of light during the Tchaikovsky comes on a predictable downbeat. A white comet dazzles out of the domelike stage cover, rapidly gaining altitude as it dances into the night and then unfurls into silver streams without making a sound. It is a coy introduction considering the sensory onslaught that awaits.
During the weeks leading up to a show at the Bowl, Evans sketches his nascent ideas on loose-leaf notebook paper. They are simple drawings, like what you might expect from a child. One picture suggests a metal structure to be welded into a sort of flamethrowing pinwheel. More sophisticated are the notes jotted in the margins about color, effects and rhythm. These blueprints are the first step toward creating the next Bowl spectacular. From there, he goes to the desert.
Somewhere between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Evans settles for up to a week in some barren nowhere land to test new products and revaluate old ones. “Pyrotechnics manufacturers change their products every year and they’re cramming every bloody gadget and effect in every device,” says Evans, who sounds like a lot of grandfathers when he muses on about technology. He’s a great-grandfather, actually, and he likes things simple, or perhaps more, he likes things to be his way. When it comes to pyrotechnicians, Gene Evans is old school.
“Our biggest bugaboo is when the violins are playing a beautiful passage,” says Evans, imitating a violinist as he speaks, “then we shoot something off and you’ve got a loud crash and some whistles. It’s terrible.” If a new product has gratuitous bells and whistles, Evans makes a note of it in the desert. Then he orders a truckful of the new devices anyway.
On the afternoon of the show, as the crew scurries around the roof installing the fireworks and their cannonlike launching pads, Evans and his partner Megan Swan sit down to rehearse the Tchaikovsky — they practice their timing. It’s minutes after the orchestra’s rehearsal, which Evans recorded. He’s planned tonight’s show using an old recording of the 1812, but, he says, “they always play it differently.” A two-second passage in the old recording might take two and a half seconds tonight, and as the music goes, so must the fireworks.
Evans and Swan listen to the recording three times, making slight adjustments with each listen. Swan says “go” at each cue and Evans taps the table. Come performance time, he’ll tap a live button. There are 71 cues for fireworks in the Tchaikovsky, and not a single one of them is dispensable.
Evans is a bit on edge. He’s unsure about the six flamethrowing metal pinwheels now jutting out of the roof at the Bowl. “If I have six [pinwheels] and only five work, the audience might not notice, but you can be sure I will,” he says. “If one of those doesn’t work, don’t come say ‘hello’ after the show.”
Later that night, all six pinwheels go off without a hitch. I want to say hello to Evans, but then wonder if something else went wrong — maybe cue 54 was late, or cue 19 was too loud. It’s probably better to be part of the unknowing audience. In any case, I was lucky enough to get my three minutes with the fireworks man. Timing, as he says, is everything.