Gillette has hosted the Pyrotechnics Guild International annual convention every four to seven years since 1998. But five years earlier, one of Gillette’s neighbors tried to throw its hat into the ring to host the explosive show.
In 1993, PGI member Bruce Burns tried to get PGI to come to Sheridan. He spoke with the mayor, who sent him to the fire marshal.
Burns wasn’t more than 30 seconds into his pitch when the fire marshal raised his hand and stopped Burns.
“He leans over and says, ‘No way, nohow. Not in my town. Never,’ which really didn’t leave a lot of negotiating room,” Burns recalled of the meeting.
Sheridan’s loss became Gillette’s gain.
A couple of years later, Burns heard from Rex Brown, then the marketing manager at Cam-plex. She’d attended the 1995 PGI convention in Wisconsin and thought it would be a good event to bring to Gillette.
PGI told Brown she needed a local host for the event and Burns’ name came up. Gillette hosted its first PGI convention in 1998, and since has developed a good reputation among the organization’s members, so much so that PGI picked it as the place to hold its 50th annual convention this year, it’s golden anniversary.
The 50th anniversary of PGI also happens to be the same year as the 150th anniversary of Wyoming granting women the right to vote, and they’ll collide this week.
Tickets were available online through noon Friday. Cam-plex associate sales manager Heather Kuhrt said that as of Thursday, 412 tickets had been sold, including 114 weekly passes for the four public shows scheduled Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday.
Tickets now must be purchased at the gate, and only cash is accepted.
The three gates at Morningside Park open at 7 p.m. for the public each night. Shows will begin at about 9:30, but tickets will continue to be sold 30-45 minutes after the start of the show. When the parking lots fill up, cars will be directed to one of Cam-plex’s open fields.
Wednesday will be Wyoming Equality Night and celebrate the 150th anniversary of women’s suffrage. It’s made possible by the state Legislature appropriating $35,000 for the show. During the display, PGI will shoot off the Super Nuke, which will use more than 1,000 gallons of gasoline.
To close things out Friday, PGI will attempt to shoot off a 36-inch shell. Highway 51 will be closed from 10-10:45 p.m. from Garner Lake to American roads, to create a safety zone for the launch. Kuhrt said this show might start a little later than the previous ones.
The 36 inches refers to the diameter of the shell, which will weigh about 380 pounds, said PGI President Paul Smith. With a diameter of 3 feet, it will be wider than four volleyballs placed in a line. It will require more than 24 pounds of powder just to get off of the ground.
“It’s not going to be great because it’s loud,” Smith said. “It’s going to be great because it fills the sky.”
When leaving Cam-plex after the shows, drivers will only be able to take right turns. The Sheriff’s Office will be out to direct traffic.
PGI member Tom Sklebar encourages the community to stay once the public performance ends to watch the pyrotechnics competitions.
“Hang around. Your ticket’s still good and you can avoid the traffic,” he said. “And then, you’ll see what a real master can do.”
“They’ll have it to where it’s actually a composite shell with multiple breaks,” Smith said. “It’s fascinating, some of these go up to nine breaks, so one shell creates nine different patterns.”
Fireworks will be going off until 1 a.m. every night, Smith said, but loud fireworks won’t go off after midnight.
This will be the fifth time Gillette has hosted PGI, the other four years being 1998, 2003, 2008 and 2015.
The excitement for the convention has been brewing in the community, particularly for those who’ve seen it before.
“I think it’s up there with Disney quality, maybe even better,” said Chris Stahl. “It’s pretty impressive to see and have that in your town.”
For Jeff and Grace Pulley, this will be their third time watching PGI in Gillette.
“It was just overwhelming. Sensory overload at times,” Jeff said of the first time he saw it in 2008. “There’s so much going on, so much noise.”
“No night is a dud,” said Grace, who recommends that people stay for the competitions. “There’s a lot of talent out there that you don’t get to see anywhere else.”
Jeff said it’s on par with the fireworks displays in New York City or Washington, D.C.
Both of them are looking forward to the 36-inch shell Friday night.
“To sit there, look up in the sky, breaking your neck as you look and the entire sky that you see be completely filled,” Jeff said.
Local volunteer Allen Strait said he’s attended at least one show every time PGI’s come to town.
“That gives me my thrill,” he said, adding that he enjoys watching companies test their gunpowder by blowing an anvil up into the air.
Strait said he’s grateful for PGI and all the work the organization does to bring people to the convention.
“They promote other people to come to Gillette, and we get to enjoy the fruits of their efforts, he said. “That really makes the show a good show.”
Burns, a longtime PGI member and former state senator from Sheridan, is the local host for PGI. As the host, he’s tasked with making sure Gillette has all the infrastructure in place and equipment available to make the convention happen.
“Fortunately, I have to do very little of that because of the expertise and experience of Cam-plex,” he said.
Burns said there’s only one downside to Gillette as a host. About two-thirds of PGI’s members live in the Eastern time zone — and most of the conventions are held in the Midwest — so Gillette is an extra day of driving for many of them. And because of the county fair, the convention has to be held a week later than usual.
“We hear year in and year out, there is no community (PGI members) feel as welcomed to as they do Gillette,” he said.
That hasn’t stopped Gillette from being viewed as a cut above the rest of the host cities, Burns said. From local restaurants offering discounts to PGI members to people in the community walking up to members and starting conversations, Gillette “is the most welcoming of any town.”
“The Gillette conventions have almost entered a realm of myth,” he said. “So that curiosity has taken over for a number of members who haven’t come before but keep hearing how good the conventions here are.”
Burns, who puts on fireworks shows in Sheridan and Buffalo, said he’s glad that PGI never came to Sheridan, if only for selfish reasons.
“Frankly, people would have gotten jaded about my show there if they’d seen this every four or five years,” he said.