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Here's the Iowa company behind the Cedar Rapids fireworks show

J&M Displays planning 30-minute Freedom Festival blast

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YARMOUTH — On July 4, over the course of 29 minutes and 20 seconds, exactly 5,360 individual fireworks shells are to light up the sky over Cedar Rapids as the finale to the annual Freedom Festival celebration.

Those precise numbers are no accident. Rather, they are the result of meticulous planning, choreography and coordination by the southeastern Iowa company hired to organize and launch the annual show in the City of Five Seasons.

Marc Thannert, a designer for J&M Displays of Yarmouth, said the Cedar Rapids show has been in the works since last fall.

“I spent three or four days setting all the fireworks to music,” he said. “A shell is set to burst about every two or three seconds.”

Monday’s show is to begin around 9:45 p.m. with fireworks being set off from the First Avenue Bridge. Those with Freedom Festival buttons can view the show from the Second Avenue and Third Avenue bridges for free. Many other popular viewing sites are scattered throughout the area.

Thannert, who has designed shows for cities across the United States, said, in terms of size, the Cedar Rapids show is among the top 10 largest he’s choreographed in recent years.

Company officials describe the venue as a “tight shoot site,” which means spectators are going to see a lot of 3-inch-diameter shells exploding above them.

“You have to have 70 feet per inch of diameter from the audience,” Thannert explained.

Without giving too much away, he said this year’s show features the iconic “waterfall of sparks” raining down from the First Avenue Bridge into the Cedar River.

What viewers might not know, he said, is that the string of fireworks producing the effect isn’t actually attached to the bridge as it appears.

“It’s not that far from the water’s surface,” Thannert said. “They are attached to poles which are 8 feet above the bridge.”

Thannert promises plenty of red, white and blue fireworks — as well as many other colors — and said the blasts should line up with music spectators can hear through speakers set up downtown or on their radios at FM 98.1 KHAK and FM 104.5 KDAT.

“If there is a big note and I want a blue shell, I pick the spot where I want it to break,” Thannert explained in discussing how he uses a system called Pyrodigital to choreograph the show, taking into account the size of the shell, how high the firework travels and how it explodes.

“It gives me a spot to line up the music with the shell I want.”

Company behind the show

J&M Displays has been producing the Cedar Rapids show the past 10 years, according to company officials. It’s one of more than 1,000 shows the company puts on annually.

That’s a far cry from the seven shows the company was hired to do in 1980, the year the company was founded by brothers Jim and Michael Oetken, who turned a hobby into a living.

“The hobby got a little too expensive,” said Jim Oetken, CEO of J&M Displays. “We’ve gotten a little bigger and have a few more people now.”

Today, upward of 20 percent of the shows the company produces are in Iowa. The rest are in cities across the U.S. and around the world — from Atlanta to the Bahamas, Oetken said. The business has grown, in part, because J&M bought out smaller fireworks production companies that couldn’t stay in business with increasing regulations, he added.

“It’s a lot of paperwork before they get to do anything,” Oetken said.

The company’s headquarters sit amid fields off a gravel road about 10 miles from Yarmouth, located in Des Moines County. As one approaches the 100-acre site, the scope of the operation becomes quickly apparent — 50 bunkers, a pack house, an assembly complex and various other support buildings.

The view from inside is even more impressive.

Each of the bunkers is packed with boxes filled with different kinds of fireworks, many made in China.

“A couple people go to China each year and look at new products we haven’t carried,” Thannert said.

In the low-ceiling pack house, white shelves hold small bins labeled with bar codes that identify each shell.

“There are more empty bins closer to the Fourth,” Oetken said.

The room has an odor much like matches before they’ve been lit, but make no mistake, there are countless measures in place to keep the area safe, including explosive-proof lights, double-lock doors and electric switches on the outside of the building rather than inside.

“There are a lot of government regulations — it’s inspected every year,” Oetken said.

Prepare for liftoff

Thannert has worked for J&M Displays since 1998 and says it is important to know how each firework functions.

“Without being familiar with what each firework looks like in the sky, it’s hard to design a show,” he said.

Every year, usually in February, company officials test a shell from each case to make sure the fireworks aren’t faulty and to record how long it takes each firework to liftoff and explode.

Each shell in storage is labeled with the J&M Displays logo, which shows it meets the company’s specifications and government requirements.

“We’ve got to keep track of every shell from when it arrives, to when it goes boom,” Oetken said.

Once a shell is selected to be part of a show, it gets an additional label that tells the crew setting up the display how it should be hooked to the firing system.

Paul Myers is leading the 10-person crew setting up this year’s show in Cedar Rapids. He said set up on the First Avenue Bridge is to begin Sunday night. That evening, the First, Second and Third Avenue bridges are closing at 6 p.m. for Freedom Festival preparations.

While the firing systems are reliable, like all technology, they occasionally malfunction, Thannert said. Two years ago, an electronic issue with the firing system delayed the show, but the crew was able to get it fixed quickly and the show went on, he said.

Crew members are to spend the night on the bridge to guard the fireworks before waking up early Monday to finish setting up, a process that doesn’t end until a few hours before showtime.

The Cedar Rapids show requires a lot of equipment due to number of fireworks used in the show, Thannert said. Robyn Rieckhoff, executive director of Freedom Festival, has called the Cedar Rapids show the largest Fourth of July fireworks show in Iowa.

“You’re not going to see a fireworks show like that anywhere around,” Thannert said.

Blast off!

Here is a schedule of area fireworks shows:

Sunday, July 3

Iowa City — launched from west side of Old Capitol; view in various locations
Cedar Boat Club — best viewing along Ellis Boulevard along the Cedar River

Monday, July 4

Amana — Lily Pond
Cedar Rapids — launched from First Avenue Bridge downtown, view in various locations
Coralville — S.T. Morrison Park Hilltop Shelter
Lake Macbride — launched from main boat ramp, beach is best viewing area
Williamsburg — Rec Center

Thursday, July 7

Mount Vernon — Heritage Days

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