Fire in His Belly
John Stubbs likes to smoke. That's not surprising, given his line of work: He's a fireworks expert. And at the Putting Green Pub, 7785 West Colfax Avenue in Lakewood, he's allowed to indulge his habit.
Stubbs -- known in the bar's trivia contests as "Pyro" -- cradles a cigarette in his left hand, his fingers curled around a cigarette lighter, as he talks about pyrotechnics and the adrenaline-charged art of producing them. "I smoke, but I don't drink or use drugs," says the 38-year-old Lakewood resident. There are many other smokers among the 27 employees at the Pennsylvania-based Pyrotecnico's Denver office, but no substance abusers. "It's a safety issue," he explains. "I'm looking out for number one and don't want anyone under the influence."
Precautions are the name of the game when your job -- as a "shooter" or, in Stubbs's case, lead pyrotechnician -- is to make thousands of shells rip hundreds of feet into the air, each with the force of three sticks of dynamite, then explode and burn in radiant chemical hues.
Planning, permitting and setting up a typical sixteen-minute show can take days. But the advance work pays off: According to Stubbs, there were no deaths connected to professional fireworks displays anywhere in the country last year. A combination of training, regulation and common sense gets much of the credit for that clean record.
"This is a pretty close-knit community, and everybody knows what goes on," he says.
Despite the pros' care, fireworks shows across Colorado -- six of them Pyrotecnico jobs -- have been canceled because of wildfire danger. For the events that are still scheduled, Stubbs plans to station crew members with fire extinguishers in a zone around the launch area. "I've shot under worse conditions," he says. "I tell my people to think about what could happen and what to prepare for." Still, the decision of whether a show can go on rarely rests in his hands. Usually it's the local fire marshal's decision -- and this summer, with so many workers away battling fires, some departments simply can't spare the manpower.
Stubbs orders a Mexican hamburger. Spicy, he notes, but not too fiery. "The old owners used to serve a New York chile. This is hotter," he says.
The food connects him to memories of growing up in Santa Fe. There, in the second grade, his own interest in things combustible caught fire. After watching a forty-foot Old Man Gloom being burned to start a fiesta, the inventive Stubbs created his own backyard version of the figure out of his mother's sheets -- then doused it with gasoline.
"I got a whuppin'," he recalls, laughing.
Yet he was never one of those kids constantly trying to buy fireworks, like some pint-sized crack addict. And it wasn't until years later, while working as a paralegal, that he was exposed to professional fireworks when his boss asked if Stubbs would help his son on a pyrotechnics job. "I thought, 'Wow! How can I get involved in this?'" he recalls.
A combination of professional seminars and on-the-job training raised his level of expertise. "That's how you do it," he says. "Every show's different."
But one thing is constant: the rush of the event itself. "I can't explain the feeling you get after the show, hearing thousands of people applauding, honking car horns," he says. "I'm an entertainer, and that's why I do it." It's the same feeling that fireworks experts have enjoyed for over 500 years, as first the Chinese, then the Italians used gunpowder technology to paint the sky with fire -- an artistic science that has remained largely unchanged over the centuries.
Despite the glories of outdoor work -- Stubbs produced the fireworks show that marked the Pepsi Center's first anniversary, an extravaganza that drew a handful of noise complaints and hundreds of kudos -- his true forte is indoor special effects. He's partnered with Rocky, the Denver Nuggets mascot, and helped put sizzle into the mountain lion's act.
Stubbs is proudest of a Rocky-shaped propane fire ring that the daredevil mascot jumps through. He also rigged up some spark-shooting gloves for Rocky to use during a slam-dunk stunt; the gizmo involves a protective titanium plate, a remote trigger and flameproof material. Unfortunately, Rocky once released the shower of sparks too late, and the spray burned tiny pits into a filmy screen on the backboard as the mascot ricocheted past.
His reputation as an explosives Einstein has landed Stubbs gigs at professional athletes' parties and inspired Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to come see how the Mavs could heat things up at their games. Some of Stubbs's ideas have found their way into the pyrotechnics marketplace; others he'd prefer to keep secret.
"If someone wanted to do that, I'd hope they'd ask me, and I could send my own crew so it was done right and safely," he says.
The word "safely" crops up again and again in his conversation, like a mantra. Although Stubbs has never had a serious accident, a shell exploded about twenty feet from him once, its shockwaves hurling him into the air and leaving him bruised from head to toe. When ordering fireworks -- most of which are manufactured in China, Brazil or Germany -- Stubbs buys extra so that he can test them to ensure that they work properly. Duds can be disastrous.
He also works closely with customers to ensure that they get value. Indeed, he believes his company has revolutionized the Denver market, producing top-quality shows at much more reasonable rates than in the past. The old figure of $1,000 per minute of display doesn't hold anymore, he says. That's partly because his company ships its fireworks from a central location and doesn't add a huge markup.
Stubbs, who has let half of his burger get cold as he warms to the topic, turns his attention to the upcoming Fourth. "It has changed since 9/11," he says. "I try to incorporate the patriotism in our shows and in the music."
Just listening to the choreographed soundtracks can give him goosebumps -- and those are minor compared with the emotions he hopes to raise in audiences. Pyrotecnico has 400 Fourth of July shows scheduled across the country; for the past two years, Stubbs has supervised the holiday shows in Hailey, Idaho, paid for by a local named Bruce Willis. "He's a real nice guy, an average sort of guy," Stubbs says. This year, shifting schedules might find Stubbs in Montana.
His dream, though, is to return to Santa Fe. And there, where the food has plenty of fire, he hopes to start a fiesta with his own Man Gloom.
"It's only a matter of time," he says. And sky-lighting pride.
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