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Lighting Up the Skies

After 50 years in the fireworks business Jim Young still loves his job

By Ken Sturtz

Jim Young, president of Young Explosives in Ontario County. Photo provided.

After decades in the business Jim Young still enjoys a good fireworks display, but watching shows staged by his Ontario County company makes him nervous enough that he can’t really enjoy himself.

“I’m more at ease watching somebody else’s work,” he said. “To watch my own is a little hard, but I’m sure there’s a lot of actors in movies who don’t like to watch themselves.”

He’s able to relax and enjoy the show when he travels out of town to festivals or out of the country to fireworks seminars and conventions.

Young’s family has been illuminating the night sky and delighting audiences for more than 70 years.

As president of Young Explosives, he oversees a company that puts on shows throughout New York and across northern Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

His father, Robert, went into the fireworks business in 1949. He developed a fascination with fireworks as a child and worked for a company called Atomic Fireworks before buying the business and changing the name. Back then it was a part-time, summer business. Young’s father worked full-time as a technician at General Dynamics.

Young began helping his father as a kid and remembers going to shows with his mother and sister and returning home late at night.

“I was always a little more nervous watching it even as a little kid because I knew the people that were setting them off,” he said.

Growing popularity

Fireworks display over the Rochester skyline.

Fireworks shows grew in popularity beginning in 1976, the year of the nation’s bicentennial celebration, and the family business grew in the following years, Young said.

When he turned 18 he began shooting shows on his own.

Although he continued working for his father’s company part time through high school and college, Young studied criminal justice at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He thought about becoming a police officer after college or maybe working for probation. But as the family business grew he became more involved, joining full time in 1985.

Over the years Young has witnessed many changes in the industry. For example, when he started there were fewer occasions to shoot fireworks. Shows at weddings, parties and on New Year’s Eve were rare. Now firework shows at weddings are popular and New Year’s Eve is his busiest time of year except for Independence Day.

And it doesn’t end with ringing in the new year. Although still a fraction of their overall business, winter shows have become more popular, Young said, regardless of temperature. A few years ago, he put on a winter show in Lake Placid despite the teeth-chattering cold.

Fireworks shows have also become shorter and faster paced. When Young was a child a show might have featured a steady cadence of effects and lasted for 35-45 minutes.

“Now that’s unheard of,” he said. “People’s attention spans are not as long as they used to be plus they see stuff on TV.”

As an example, Young points to a show he watched a company do for a hotel and casino opening in Las Vegas. The $75,000 show only lasted about five minutes, he said. His company’s shows typically don’t go much longer than 20-25 minutes.

No matter how long the fireworks display lasts, however, people generally don’t realize how much legwork goes into a successful show. Young likens it to showing up to an all-day concert without giving any thought to everything that went into setting up for the concert.

“People just come to the concert or a firework show and just ‘say oh that’s great,’” he said. “They don’t realize how much time went into it.”

Aside from obtaining the necessary permits, workers have to design the show and make the fireworks. A good show will slowly build to a spectacular ending. Poor planning can lead to a show that starts off strong, but peters out at the end.

Jim Young and one of his children, Tim, who is involved in the business.

They have to pick a good location — not too close or too far from the audience — and factor in variables such as temperature and humidity, which can affect how high shells travel into the air. And there’s the work of actually setting everything up on site. That averages four or five hours.

The family business has grown larger than his father, who died in 1996, could have imagined. The company includes eight full-time employees and more than 150 seasonal workers.

After bouncing back from the pandemic, Young said they’re on pace to do close to 500 shows this year. Customers include municipalities, civic organizations and people having weddings or private parties.

One of their higher profile clients is the Rochester Red Wings. They’ve done shows for the team for decades and put on shows about 30 nights a season.

Young is 67 years old and said he doesn’t have a plan for how long he wants to keep working. His sons Tim, 33, and Brian, 37, work part time, but have day jobs and haven’t decided yet if they want to take over the business.

“You see so many family businesses eventually they just sell out to somebody bigger, it’s just too difficult.” Young said. “All family businesses certainly are getting harder and harder to do, but we’re still maintaining it that way.”

Young said he benefits from the fact that the fireworks business remains somewhat seasonal, so in February, for example, he’s not working himself to the bone and gets a break.

Even though he spends a good deal of his time running the company, he still shoots shows himself, albeit fewer than in the past. He said that after decades in the business, he still enjoys it.

“I like entertaining people,” he said. “I like hearing the crowd afterward.”