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Obituary: George Zambelli Sr. / Headed one of oldest fireworks companies

Saturday, December 27, 2003

By Michelle K. Massie, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

George Zambelli Sr., head of the famed Zambelli Fireworks Internationale who with his business acumen expanded his company far beyond its Western Pennsylvania borders while keeping it firmly rooted in the region, died Thursday. He was 79.

Mr. Zambelli died of complications from the flu. His 10-year battle against cancer also weakened his immune system.

In 1946, upon graduating from Duquesne University, Mr. Zambelli sat down with his father and brothers and asked if he could take the helm of the family business, which was founded in 1893.

His family agreed and allowed him to lead the way. Since then, as president and owner of the company, Mr. Zambelli became an innovator in the fireworks industry, becoming the first to introduce choreographed fireworks displays to the country.

He also pushed the industry forward with how it staged such pyrotechnic displays. He saw the usefulness of displays beyond the major holiday celebrations. Mr. Zambelli incorporated fireworks into more intimate settings, such as weddings, and cultural and religious festivals.

Ida D'Errico, of Mt. Lebanon, a consultant and former producer of such Pittsburgh events as the Three Rivers Regatta, knew Mr. Zambelli for more than 20 years, both as a friend and as a professional colleague.

"What he loved more than anything was seeing people of all ages smile. And his fireworks brought happiness around the world. He reminded me so much of Santa Claus, so it's ironic that he would die at Christmas," D'Errico said.

"When George walked in the room, he lit it up more than he did with the fireworks," said Wayne Hettinger, a producer of Thunder Over Louisville who worked with Mr. Zambelli for the past 15 years on displays.

"When we were searching for fireworks vendors, and we looked at a lot of them, George was very interesting. He did what he did best. He introduced himself and became a friend," Hettinger said. "And on the business end, he backed up everything he said he was going to do."

Due to his business savvy, stringent work ethic and devotion to fireworks, Mr. Zambelli successfully ran the nation's largest fireworks manufacturer from its corporate headquarters in New Castle, Lawrence County, and earned several nicknames over the years including, "Boom Boom," "The Great Zambelli" and "Mr. Fireworks."

"In the 1950s and '60s, we were doing displays in Central America and later on in Kuwait, Switzerland and other places around the world," said George Zambelli Jr., 55, of Marshall. "But the company started here. My dad never forgot his original customers -- his loyalty and wanting to give back to the community who supported the company."

George Jr., an ophthalmologist, said that he started hanging around his father's office when he was 5 years old and by the time he was 6, he was answering telephones as an operator at the company.

Each year, Zambelli Internationale produces more than 3,500 fireworks shows throughout the world.

From weddings to community festivals to company picnics and ball games to displays before U.S. presidents (the company has done displays for every president since and including John F. Kennedy) and visiting dignitaries to the most popular of all -- annual Fourth of July celebrations, Mr. Zambelli, his wife of 59 years, Constance, his five children and throngs of grandchildren have all been a part of the family business.

Mr. Zambelli expected the family to be with him at the fireworks displays, George Jr. said.

Mr. Zambelli's father, Antonio Zambelli, a laborer and fireworker, emigrated from Cassarta, Italy to New Castle and brought with him a knowledge and artistry of pyrotechnics which blossomed into Zambelli Fireworks Manufacturing Co.

"[George Zambelli Sr.] was a good friend of mine and a remarkable man," said Allegheny County Chief Executive Jim Roddey. "When I came to Pittsburgh 25 years ago, I was amazed that Pittsburgh had so many parades and fireworks. ... The Zambellis were a big part of that. They're a unique family. They're the First Family of Fireworks and I think they're a lot more famous worldwide than they are locally. George has created a legacy and the family should have no problem carrying it on."

Despite the success of the company, Mr. Zambelli played down much of his fame.

"George was the most genuine human being," D'Errico said. "George wasn't like other famous people. He did what he did to bring joy to people."

D'Errico worked with Mr. Zambelli and his company to produce Millennium Pittsburgh on Jan. 1, 2000, which was the largest live New Year's Day fireworks display in the country.

The Zambellis were known for pleasing their audiences and doing all they could to accommodate a crowd, no matter how large or how small the budget for the event.

"He always thought fireworks were magic," said George Jr. "He was like a painter who painted the sky."

Mr. Zambelli, his family and the company have been highlighted in television specials and in a recent biography titled "Zambelli: The First Family of Fireworks."

"His life was the fireworks business," said Marcy Zambelli Fumagali, of Boca Raton, Fla., one of Mr. Zambelli's daughters. "He'd be up at 5 a.m. and work until 10, 11 at night. Fireworks consumed most of his time but he loved to be around the crowd. It was a labor of love."

Mr. Zambelli often contributed to a number of charitable organizations, including Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Besides his wife, son and daughter, Mr. Zambelli is survived by three other daughters; Donnalou Zambelli McVay and Annlyn Zambelli Richards, both of New Castle, and Danabeth Zambelli Trasatti, of Boca Raton, Fla.; a brother, Louis Zambelli of New Castle; and 10 grandchildren.

Visitation will be from 2 to 4 and 6 to 9 p.m., Tuesday at William F. and Roger DeCarbo Funeral Home, 926 Cunningham Ave., in New Castle. A funeral Mass is scheduled for at 11 a.m., Wednesday at St. Mary's Church, 125 Beaver St., New Castle. Daylight fireworks will be displayed in his honor at St. Mary's Cemetery, New Castle. Later in the evening, a New Year's Eve fireworks tribute by Constance Zambelli will be displayed in downtown New Castle.


Michelle K. Massie can be reached at mmassie@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533.

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