Painting the sky

by | Apr 12, 2019 | Looking Back, Spring 2019 | 0 comments

The crisp, mid-April air still hummed with excitement after the last notes of pop band Saint Motel’s concert faded into Golden’s foothills. The band had headlined the 2018 E-Days concert, but another exhilarating show was about to start.

With adrenaline still coursing through their bodies after a long day of events, including trips down Clear Creek in makeshift cardboard boats, students eagerly waited, eyes trained north, watching for a spark in the distance. 

Their cheers rose to a fever pitch as the first bursts of fire erupted in the darkness, a stream of flame licking at a wooden structure in the shape of the trademark M that’s become synonymous with Mines. The letter burned bright against the silhouetted hills, and the crowd howled in further anticipation.

Then, in a series of ear-ringing bangs and bright flashes, the M exploded, kicking off a bright display of fireworks trailing high into the indigo sky. For the next 15 minutes, the sky above the Mines campus was painted with light and color, captivating the audience below.

The E-Days fireworks show has become a tradition at Mines, first started by students in the Sigma Nu fraternity for the 1980 E-Days festivities. A group of them had an interest in fireworks and pyrotechnics, so it was a natural fit. 

“The school recognized that a fireworks show would be a big draw for students,” said Scot Anderson ’79, one of the first students to start the fireworks show. “They gave us some money—it wasn’t much, only a couple hundred dollars—and we went to Wyoming and bought as many fireworks as possible.”

The show started out on Brooks Field—Mines’ former football field—when it was still grass. In the early days, before the display could be controlled remotely, the pyrotechnicians had to light each firework by hand—a potentially risky job. “You never wanted to wear any nice clothes on those nights,” Anderson said. “By the end of it, everything was singed.”

The effects were set up close to the stands—allowing the audience to be up close and personal with the display. “We used to be really close to the audience,” Anderson said. “Some people would swear the fireworks flew right over their heads, but in reality, they were far off to the side and nowhere close to hitting anybody.” 

Because of its close proximity to the audience, the show was known for its use of ground fireworks in addition to aerial fireworks, a combination that provided enormous bursts of light and teeth-chattering booms that seemed to send shock waves all through campus. According to Anderson, the louder the fireworks, the better. “Mines was known for being loud, and that certainly held true,” he said.

As the show got bigger and better as the years went on, there were a few times Anderson thought their ambitions were going to get the best of them. He recalled one year when a stray spark landed in a neighbor’s front yard, setting a giant evergreen tree alight.

“We thought we were in for it,” Anderson said. “We were prepared to buy her a new tree and plant it for her.” But it turned out the woman who owned the tree had been trying to get rid of it for years. As long as Mines helped her remove the stump, she wouldn’t think twice about the incident.

Eventually, the fireworks display had to be moved to the north parking lot near the intramural fields when the school laid artificial turf on Brooks Field—and later replaced the field with Marv Kay Stadium.

The location change altered the display slightly—with the audience farther away, it was harder to see the ground displays, limiting the show to more aerial fireworks. But the team in charge of the display was determined to still put on the best show possible that would make any Oredigger proud. “We still try to keep the same formula, with tall ground effects interspersed with aerial effects, and, of course, lots of noise,” Anderson said. 

Yet one aspect has remained a constant since almost the beginning: blowing up the M. “We got the idea to blow up the M,” Anderson said of the early design ideas. “Not in a demeaning way—just for fun and to punctuate the next round of shells. And people loved it. Now it’s become a tradition. It’s even written into our contract that we have to blow up the M at the start of the show.”

Today, the show is run by Marc Williams at Night Musick Inc., a fireworks display company, along with several Mines student interns and alumni with an aptitude for pyrotechnics, and they follow strict rules to ensure a safe show.

“It’s a vocation for a bunch of geeks,” Williams said, happily including himself under that term. “We train students throughout the year, and they often help me with other displays to learn about the process.”

It takes several days to set up the show, and it’s all computerized with safety measures in place to avoid prematurely setting off the show. “The computers are all encrypted so no one can set off the show too soon or when people are still setting up the display,” Anderson said.

There is one myth, however, that Williams wanted to dispel about the show: the use of dynamite. “The giant explosions in the show are not dynamite—and never have been,” he said. “We use low explosives that give you that satisfying thump in the chest—not the sharp and painful sound that dynamite would have.”

But it’s that myth that Anderson said they played on when designing the shows over the years. “We’d put fireworks in red cases that looked like dynamite,” he said. “They of course weren’t real, but that was part of the fun.”

Since the first fireworks show, Anderson has only missed a handful of years due to business or other commitments that happened to fall during the annual celebration. He returns to campus every year to participate in a tradition that he still loves nearly four decades later. “I really like how we can take something so scientific and find the art in it,” he said. “We are literally painting the sky.”