The Michigan Brothers-in-law behind TC’s greatest fireworks show
By Ross Boissoneau | June 30, 2018
Like so many youngsters, Bruce Tyree was fascinated by fireworks. Unlike most, however, he failed to outgrow his obsession. So he made the most of it. Today he’s surrounded by Roman candles, display shells, and barrage cakes on a daily basis as the head of the northern division of Great Lakes Fireworks.
“I blame it on my brother-in-law,” said Tyree. “I grew up in West Branch, and his family had a cabin in St. Helen. He’d come up with fireworks and do a display in St. Helen. It got bigger and bigger, and a bunch of people started coming.”
Including the local gendarmes.
“The police came,” said Tyree. Though they weren’t charged with any violations, the twosome was warned about possible consequences. “They said if anything went wrong, things could turn out bad.”
So they decided to do it right. Barry Beltz, Tyree’s brother-in-law, went to Pennsylvania to learn the proper way to indulge in his passion for lighting up the sky, and they then went through the permitting process for shows. They did events here and there and continued to pick up business, eventually getting contracted by companies to do shows across the region.
Eventually they realized they actually had a business. “It just got to the point where we said we should just start bidding and doing shows on our own,” Tyree said.
They traveled across the country to suppliers and importers, until they decided they might as well take on that aspect of the business as well. They booked a flight to China, where most fireworks are manufactured. “Now here we are 25 years later,” Tyree said with a laugh.
Today Tyree, Beltz, and their crews travel across the Midwest, providing fireworks at about 150 shows a year.
About half of those are around the Fourth of July,” Tyree said — happening either on the holiday or the weekend before or after. “Right now it’s crunch time.”
That means that perhaps surprisingly, fully half of their business takes place at some other time. “We do festivals and events year-round,” he said, pointing to Houghton Lake’s Tip-Up Town, Alpenfest in Gaylord, Rogers City Nautical Festival, and Christmas events such as Manistee’s Victorian Sleighbell Parade and Old Christmas Weekend.
So what about those fireworks? Where do they come from and how does a show actually work? As Tyree pointed out, most come from China, though there are some manufacturers in Spain, Mexico, and even in the U.S. Tyree and Beltz fly to China frequently to watch demonstrations, assess the fireworks, and negotiate.
Given the pair’s practiced eyes for fireworks, they can immediately tell if the product is something they’d be interested in or not.
“If it’s bright, vivid color, it’s really pleasing to the eye,” he said. On the other hand, “Maybe the blue is dim, or half of it didn’t fire, or it’s lopsided. We see and know the difference.”
The operation today is significantly different from decades ago. “Originally they were all hand-fired with flares. You’d have five or six guys with hard hats,” said Tyree. “Safety and quality have improved a lot.”
Today, all the shells have electronic igniters. The hard work is done ahead of time, with each item labeled to tell the technician where it’s plugged into the firing system. Many of the displays are coordinated with music and controlled by a computer.
For a show like the National Cherry Festival, where the fireworks are shot off from the water, barges come in by truck and are craned into the water. The fireworks are set up, and the entire thing is covered by a tarp that is taped in place. That takes two full days. The day of the show, a single person at the controls tests all circuits, arms the system, then the show begins with the click of a mouse.
While it is an independent business, Great Lakes Fireworks still contracts with larger firms for various displays. “They often call us to help with big contracts. That’s gotten us to Dubai in 2014 for the world record, and again in 2017,” Tyree said. “My daughter Shannon (pictured above with Tyree) was invited to the international fireworks display (the Sanfermines Fireworks International Competition) in Pamplona, Spain, part of the Running of the Bulls Festival. The morning after the Cherry Festival, we get on a plane to Spain.”
In addition to the National Cherry Festival and the Fourth of July celebration in St. Helen, which the company still does, Great Lakes Fireworks does displays for the Venetian Festival in Charlevoix and celebrations in Bay Harbor, Harbor Springs, Torch Lake, Bear Lake, and Onekama, among other locations in the region.
So with his company at the 25-year mark and more than 30 years into the business, is it everything Tyree thought it would be? “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he said, laughing. “This time of year, it’s pretty stressful.”