Sunday, April 03, 2005

The 1812 Overture

When Tchaikovsky wrote the 1812, it included music for sixteen cannon bursts late in the piece, an initial salvo of five, then a full scale battle of eleven. A friend of mine actually makes a living performing this from a pyrotechnics perspective and I have occasionally helped out, having performed myself at the Birmingham Symphony Hall (which was a partial success) and the Royal Albert Hall (although the percussionist (actually the triangle player) pushed the buttons on that occasion)as well as being 2nd fiddle elsewhere around the Country.

My first experience of this was as a schoolboy, when I had a job at the Newcastle City Hall; first as casual CSI Op(Limebuy)/humper, then showman house electrician. I recounted the story of this on Tabslist (which I administrate, declaring a personal interest) some years ago but I decided to track it down from the archives and repost it here for a (potentially) wider audience.

(A Maroon is basically a large banger type firework that is fired electrically)

SUBJECT Re: [tabslist] Re: Flash Bang!

On Tue, 1 Oct 2002 18:31:33 EDT, wrote:

>Second, the wiring may not be very robust. It often needs to be
>hidden. Batteries are much safer. Even dry cells, in sufficient
>quantity, will set off something like this, although I should go for
>a thinner wire.

I remember watching with amusement (and increasing concern) an 1812
Overture in the mid-70s which involved a number of new galvanised
dustbins, some fairly beefy maroons & a jerry-rigged mains firing
control. The practitioners were well known to the organisers for
lighting, but it became apparent that pyro was not their Forte'.
When it blew 13A fuses, they wrapped fuse wire round the plug fuse so
it blew the ring main fuse instead. they then wired it to the 30A
stage sound feed. When that went after a couple of bangs, they tried
it on a phase of the 200A lighting temporary supply which was
perfectly happy, although I wasn't as they were basically using a 2.5
mil TRS tail into the TPN box. Realising this was a little dangerous,
they went out and bought some slightly less dangerous flat twin &
earth cooker cable that must have cost them more than their fee, but
they were philosophical about it as it would "come in useful".
The bins were on sale or return and they probably only managed to
take a few back at the end of the day. They were located in a stair
well that led to the choir stalls at the back of the stage. After the
first detonation they discovered that putting the bin lid on wasn't a
good idea. At the dress rehearsal they realised that a) not having a
mesh over the bins resulted in flying shrapnel that could gouge
chunks out of plaster, and b) having more than one maroon in the same
bin wasn't successful as the first one blew out all of the bell wire.
It was also pot-luck as to whether the bins split on the seams or

Getting back on topic, as this comedy of errors proceeded, I
eventually twigged how clueless they were and asked whether they were
sure they needed mains to fire the maroons as in my (limited)
experience battery detonators did exist (although this pre-dated
LeMaitre systems so the humble mains flashbox was de-rigeur). As the
maroons seemed to have very thin wires coming out of them it seemed
bizarre that you had to stick 30 Amps plus up them and there just
might be a possibility that a PP9 may have sufficed. At this point
after some thought they agreed that this might be the case, but
unfortunately they only had 16 maroons left out of the 40 they had
brought and they couldn't actually spare one to prove it as then they
would be one short for the show.

Needless to say, the performance went without a hitch, although the
stairwell needed re-decoration.

Some shows just stick in your mind for all the wrong reasons, if you
ever have the misfortune to meet me in a bar, buy me a drink and ask
about Blue Oyster Cult. (If you have 20 minutes to spare).


As a postscript to this, I actually found two maroons in a box after the performance when clearing up so they weren't actually short of them after all. Whether they were also innumerate, suffering from stress or were victims of dark-holing I can no longer recall. These two maroons were discharged in subsequent years (one with spectacular results) but that can also be another occasion.

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