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Felix Grucci: A man at the center of the New Year’s Eve pyrotechnic storm

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Photo: Justin M. Bowen

NYE: Strip Fireworks

NYE Firework Command Center

First Fireworks of 2010

Before the big show, there is a smaller show, and its star is wearing an apron and a tall white hat. His name tag says “Loc.” He’s a chef at Hamada's Asiana restaurant at The Rio, and brother, can he do the pyrotechnics.

Loc takes his post, winks and asks how we’re doing. “Fine, Loc!” we say. Then he squeezes gold-colored liquid from a plastic bottle -- this fluid could be cooking oil, or maybe butane! -- onto a gray, rectangular slate. It is shaped like a smiley face!

Loc then flicks a lit match onto the face.

Poof! Fire!

But Loc casually controls the combustion, centering the flames with a few quick sweeps of a long silver spatula. He then dumps assorted ingredients -- shrimp, steak, chicken and rice -- onto the sufficiently heated surface. This is dinner, which he doles out to the dozen guests ringing his workstation. As he finishes, he squirts still more liquid on the cooking area and scrapes it slick and clean.

Positioned at the corner of the table, Felix Grucci is transfixed, gazing intently at Loc’s handiwork.

“It’s sort of hypnotizing,” Grucci says. “There is an artistry in what he does.”

Grucci speaks from experience. In about 90 minutes, he will be crafting his own fiery, time-honed art for an audience of more than 300,000 merrymakers in the same way Loc has mesmerized this exclusive crowd of 12. Grucci’s stage is a lot larger, of course -- the Las Vegas Strip and even Fremont Street -- but the principle is the same: Stage a show you can’t help but watch.

Grucci is a master of pyrotechnic theatrics, born into a family famous for the art form. He remembers his first job as sort of a debris mine-sweeper, walking in front of a tractor pulling firework displays and making sure anything that would impede the equipment’s progress -- say, a 2-by-4 with a big nail jutting through -- would be pulled aside.

He’s now the executive vice president and CFO of Fireworks by Grucci, which has been enlisted by the LVCVA to put on the $500,000 New Year’s Eve extravaganza, the chief requirement being that it is to be the grandest fireworks show ever staged in Las Vegas.

No problem. For this event, we are in good hands. Grucci’s family is the most famous in the whole pyrotechnic galaxy, with Felix the second-generation head of the company. He says he still feels butterflies fluttering in his stomach in the minutes before a show and relishes the crowd’s roar as the thunderous grand finale subsides and smokes wafts over the landscape.

But even as he giddily relates his love for fireworks, Grucci back-burnered the company for a time to serve as supervisor for Brookhaven Town, N.Y., being elected to a position similar to mayor of a city of 450,000. Then he was elected to a single term (2000-2003) in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican from New York’s 1st Congressional District, which covers eastern Long Island. Yet, as Grucci relates, spending four hours a day making calls to raise money for re-election was not what he envisioned when entering public service.

And really, what better public service is there than launching thousands of explosives to the delight of thousands of holiday celebrants, many of whom are bombed themselves?

It all sounds so romantic as Grucci leads the crew to the very top of The Rio, the command center for the “America’s Party” fireworks show. We hasten up a hidden stairway to the landing overlooking the outdoor patio at VooDoo Lounge. This is the spot 53 stories up -- just below the scripted, flashing Rio sign -- that seems sky-high from ground level. As we approach the door leading out to the control center, you wonder what we’ll see. Maybe a veritable farm of switchboards and monitors manned by dozens of long-bearded scientists dressed as wizards? Something similar to the Imperial Stormtrooper-protected nerve center of Death Star?

Nope, nothing of the sort. Family picnics have been more elaborately arrayed. There are three small stages, the middle serving as the actual post where 96,000 audio prompts will spark an equal number of explosions from the tops of MGM Grand, Aria, Planet Hollywood, Treasure Island, Venetian, Caesars Palace and Stratosphere. There are three wood-topped, folding tables; a single laptop (a Dell Vostro 1500); three land lines plugged into a trio of push-button phones; a pair of handheld radios; and three transmitters to coordinate the music and verbal cues sent out to technicians posted at the seven hotel rooftops. “Fire-1, fire-2,” like that, while the show’s soundtrack -- launching with “Auld Lang Syne” and ending with 2 Unlimited’s “Get Ready for This” -- plays out.

Representatives from Clark County Fire Department keep watch to make sure all the blasts are those planned. A retired FAA official, Thomas Petrakis, monitors helicopter activity, which on this night is limited to crafts representing news media, guided tours and law enforcement/emergency. Petrakis retired a couple of years ago from the FAA after 34 years because he woke up one night on a cardiac ward, having suffered something that felt a lot like a heart attack. Stressful stuff, this FAA work.

The sparse ’copter activity, which is steered away from the Strip for more than 20 minutes spanning the run-up and duration of the fireworks show, is relatively easy for Petrakis to track. During the NASCAR Sprint Cup events at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Petrakis electronically follows about 800 helicopters.

Concerns are scant as the countdown approaches. Test shots are launched at 11:50. Perfect. There’s hardly any wind, which is fortunate. If gusts exceed 10 mph, the show is off. As Grucci says, “If you have 11 mph winds and have to call off a show for 300,000 people -- I don’t want to make that call.” In the 10 years the LVCVA and Las Vegas Events have coordinated a New Year’s Eve fireworks display, never has a show been “winded” out. Last year, of course, was the land-locked “Takin’ It to the Streets” show that was appreciated by approximately nobody.

“I was up here (on The Rio rooftop) last year, and it was tough,” Las Vegas Events President Pat Christenson says. “We knew it was going to be a subpar show. We keep setting a new standard every year, and we can’t go backward like we did last year.”

This show, with its nod-to-craps, 7-minute, 11-second duration, was a flawless flourish. At the culmination, with smoke hovering over the nation’s grandest New Year’s Eve spectacle, Grucci could only grin.

“I thought it was awesome,” he said. “The weather was clear and crisp. The crowd was attentive. We did what we were supposed to do, which was mesmerize 300,000 people for 7 minutes, 11 seconds.” And as they say, wait ’til next year.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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