Now, at shows from Britney Spears to Ozzy Osborne, audiences expect a mini Fourth of July by the second encore, or, at the very least, bursts of flame intense enough to burnish a marshmallow at 50 yards. On Thursday, in an attempt to excite a club circuit where fog machines are passé, the band Great White ignited several sparkler fountains in the low-ceilinged nightclub, with tragic results.
"People are trying to draw bigger crowds and one of the ways of doing that is to make the shows flashier," says pyrotechnician Gerald Beardmore, James's brother. "[Pyrotechnics offer] more bang for your buck, and more bucks for your bang."
But proximity fireworks aren't just for musicians. Indoor fireworks are now used to trip the light fantastic at ballrooms, shopping malls, and convention centers. "People might not remember what they ate at a wedding, but they'll remember the display," says Harry Basiliko, lead pyrotechnician for Fireworks for All Occasions in Maryland.
As pyrotechnics have taken off, codes have followed. But even the most comprehensive standards - the National Fire Protection Association's code 1126 - are just guidelines, making for a legal patchwork as scattered as a sparkler's spray. While some states, like California, have rules stricter than the federal guide, others have only basic fire codes.
James Beardmore recalls a fireworks show in rural Virginia for a college basketball game. His inspector was from the local volunteer department, and greeted Beardmore's demonstration with more awe than rigor. "He said, 'is it like the stuff they use on WWF? Boy is that cool!' " Beardmore recalls. "He could have been so easily snowed."
Tom Ginsberg of Wald's All-American Display Fireworks in Kansas City, Mo., was a "little incredulous" to learn he needed no permit at all in Omaha, Neb., at a recent show. "This has been a no-incident type of thing for so many years that it's become more and more lax," he says. "Now I believe you're going to see a big change in states adopting 1126."