Newtown Pyrotechnist Sets World Record With Recent Firework Launch
“As a kid, my favorite day of the year was the 5th of July,” related Newtown resident and expert pyrotechnist Jim Widmann.
For years as a child and as he grew into his teen years, Mr Widmann told The Newtown Bee, he headed to where local kids were lighting fireworks to collect duds and “cobbled them into something that went boom!”
More than half a century later, the world renowned pyrotechnist is still creating fireworks and effects that have thrilled audiences at county fairs, sporting events, weddings, special corporate events, and countless 4th of July activities — even lighting up the stage behind the band Kiss.
And on February 8, Mr Widmann broke his own previous world record after successfully launching and exploding a shell that weighed nearly a ton and a half, creating a burst stretching more than a half mile across. The culmination of his lifelong career in pyrotechnics and fireworks occurred at Colorado’s Steamboat Springs Winter Carnival, where it was witnessed live by more than 15,000 spectators, and countless others who viewed the event’s live simulcast on the internet.
“Within a short time I was getting congratulatory messages from colleagues in Slovakia, Sweden, Australia, Italy, England, and across the United States,” he said while reflecting on the event in the relatively quiet confines of The Newtown Bee offices ten days later. “I’m part of a small community of fireworkers around the world, so when something like this is happening, we all know about it.”
Thinking back on how it all started, Mr Widmann remembered initially that his focus was exclusively on the boom factor as he was combining all those misspent fire crackers.
“But when I was 12, I got $10 together and mailed away for some literature on how to make colored fireworks,” he said, and a career — albeit a very unique and potentially dangerous one — was born.
Ten years later, Mr Widmann found himself working as an apprentice display operator for the Grucci family, arguably the biggest name in fireworks anywhere. And upon completion of his apprenticeship, he founded his own business, Connecticut Pyrotechnics Display Co.
“I did over 200 shows around Connecticut,” he said. In 1995, Mr Widmann invented a machine that replaced the need to hand paste the paper mache-like wrapping around explosive shells in airborne fireworks.
Inventing The WASP
Today that patented machine, Widmann’s Automatic Shell Paster or WASP, has been sold to hundreds of fireworks companies in 24 countries around the world.
“Virtually every fireworks manufacturer in the United States uses one,” he said. “To make these giant shells for professional displays, the pasting job is enormous and this machine makes it possible. The bigger the shell, the more pasting is required.”
As his reputation grew, Mr Widmann continued his own pursuits while contracting for the Grucci family, and discovered his talents were in demand across the globe — especially in the Middle East.
It was on the World Islands in Dubai that he was responsible for designing and firing the largest fireworks display ever back in 2013, employing 600,000 different pieces. But it was a decade earlier that he first shared with Phil Grucci an idea to eventually create the world’s largest single firework shell.
“I didn’t set out to do this, but it eventually happened with the right people involved,” he said. “People became fascinated with the idea of launching the world’s largest shell.”
Four years after he first mentioned it, Mr Widmann ran into Phil Grucci again.
“He pulled out his phone and showed me a copy of his bucket list, and my idea was on it,” Mr Widmann said.
But it ended up being a sheikh in the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah who helped Mr Widmann develop a single shell weighing in at 2,397 pounds.
“He was committed to going for the record,” Mr Widmann said, “and we got it.” That shell was fired on December 31, 2018.
Six years earlier, the Newtown resident had also started working with the team at Steamboat Fireworks, where in 2019 they made a first attempt to launch a 62-inch, 2,797-pound version.
“That one blew up in the mortar,” he said of the 14,000 pound canon cylinder designed to launch the shell.
“So we used our experience, recalculated a few things, made our next best guess, and let her rip,” Mr Widmann said, describing the recent successful launch. “After setting that record in the United Arab Emirates, we brought it back to the United States in 2020.”
Away She Goes
On the chilly evening of February 8, a 26-foot mortar cannon catapulted the monster shell 2,600 feet at more than 300 miles per hour into the clear Colorado night sky. For a fleeting few moments, it illuminated the surrounding mountains and canyons in a wash of red light before its trickling, shimmering streams faded, returning the landscape back into darkness.
Project Manager Tim Borden of Steamboat Fireworks publicly thanked Mr Widmann and his colleagues Ed MacArthur and Eric Krug. “Without their dedication and their expertise, we could not have succeeded in this project,” Mr Borden said.
A representative of Guinness was on hand to witness the event and to present Steamboat Fireworks with official certification of their standing within the list of Guinness records.
“We invested hundreds of hours into this project, and we anticipate that we will enjoy the satisfaction of this success for months to come,” Borden said. “People are already asking us, ‘What’s next?’ I really can’t answer that question, other than to say, whatever it is, I hope to do it with this same bunch of guys.”
Among Mr Widmann’s other achievements and honors is an award from the Pyrotechnics Guild International for the largest aerial shell. He has also led three safety seminars, helping to train around 300 Connecticut fire marshals.
He is always quick to remind anyone who asks about his work, “Everything I do is done legally and within the confines of state and federal laws.”
So what other pursuits are on the horizon for the local pyrotechnist?
“I’d like to play a role bringing fireworks displays back to Newtown,” he said. While that idea will require its own fundraising effort and the blessing of various local officials and agencies, Mr Widmann is no stranger to achieving the goals he has set out to accomplish.
So do not be surprised to see his name come up — and his pyrotechnic inventions go up — when and if a future fireworks show is planned for Newtown.
Check out a video of Jim Widmann's World Record-setting burst over Staemboat Springs, Colo. earlier in February: