Watching the Super Bowl is a rite of passage in America. It makes people feel American, like apple pie and Fourth of July parades. But for one Californian family working behind the scenes at the Super Bowl, it's more than an American pastime, and more than just a job -- it's a family affair.
A dazzling family business
Pyro Spectaculars by Souza (PSBS) is a Rialto, Calif.-based family company, in business for five generations, which has come to be known as "America's Fireworks Family." President Jim Souza runs the company with the help of his two sons, Paul, 34, and Christopher, 32. Jim, who has been involved in at least 20 Super Bowl shows in the past 45 years, says that "it's one of the most prestigious events to be involved in."
For this family, fireworks is not only their favorite pastime, it's a way of life. Souza says that his company -- known for its high-level pyrotechnic displays and years of experience with explosives -- has always enjoyed a good relationship with both the NFL and other local production companies. Thus, their invitation, year after year, to create the largest explosives display at any football game.
Working at the Super Bowl for this fireworks family is a competitive career in a highly skilled field. "Everyone on my Super Bowl team has at least 10 years of experience," notes Souza. "They are my A-team." In order to be a pyrotechnic technician with PSBS, you have to attend their Pyro University and get certified with the state's Fire Marshall Office. There are also many hours of hands-on training.
Planning and preparation
The Souza family starts planning the Super Bowl halftime show a year or two in advance. Surveyors are sent to the site multiple times to assess everything from the field to the size of the stadium to the places where fireworks can and cannot be launched.
Three to six months in advance of the game, Souza's team meets with all the other personnel (NFL, stage managers, security, talent, creative designers, etc.) in a collaborative effort to come up with the perfect halftime show. "They [the other collaborators] tell us what they want for the show and we give them ideas. We always ask: What can we work with that is safe, fun, and in line with what the creative director wants?"
Once a specific halftime show is selected, Souza and his team get to work on custom manufacturing all the props and launchers that will be used to set off the fireworks. Tests are run on-site at the Super Bowl location for about one or two weeks before the game to ensure the safety and functioning of the fireworks. All pyrotechnic crew members need to undergo background checks and have their pyrotechnic licenses up to date too. "My base crew is about six to eight people, and then there are another 10 to 12 once we get up to the rehearsal phase two weeks before the event," he says.
Computers control today's fireworks display, so there is a precise science to the halftime show -- and if things do not work as planned during the testing phase, then the show is tweaked until it does. "We sometimes have to remove things for safety issues, which means reprogramming the computer system for the next day's test run, so we are 24/7," Souza notes.
The big day
On the day of the big game, the stadium is usually in lockdown as security personnel check the building and surrounding areas one last time for any suspicious activity or people. Once Souza and his team are given the go-ahead, they report to an area within the stadium known as "the compound." This is where their explosives are stored, and this is where they wait until showtime.
"We are now into the second quarter or with five minutes left in the game, and that is the moment we are waiting for," Souza says. "We get goosebumps and begin our pre-staging. As soon as the half time gun sounds, we are ready to roll."
Jim and his team have done pyrotechnic displays for musical greats such as the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd as well as the opening ceremonies at the Olympic Games, but he says that doing the Super Bowl halftime show is second only to doing the fireworks display on the National Mall for Fourth of July.
"It's a professional job that we are really excited about," Souza says. "We are paid to create 'oohs' and 'ahhs' -- and we are proud to do that."