Sunday, September 05, 1999

Family business always booming


Fireworks define four generations of Rozzis

BY JOHN JOHNSTON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[rozzi]
The third and fourth generations of Rozzi fireworks makers gather in a building that stores shells: From left, father Joe Rozzi, Dan Erdeljohn, Louise Rozzi Erdeljohn, John Rozzi, Paula Rozzi Lutz, Art Rozzi, Nancy Rozzi, Annie Rozzi and Kathy Rozzi.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        When Cincinnati's first family of fireworks shows its stuff tonight, 77-year-old Joe Rozzi will watch from a barge on the Ohio River.

        Shells launched from the barge produce smoke, cinders and ash, marring the view. A vantage point on the riverbank would be best, but he's never watched from there, and never will.

        “I'd feel dumb sittin' over on that shore,” he says. “I have to be on that barge, and worry about them boys.”

        His sons are grown men, but they're still his boys.

        He is the patriarch of a proud fireworks family that for four generations has built, sold and shot shells that streak across the night sky. Fireworks defines them. Fireworks killed one of them.

[rozzi]
Joe Rozzi, family patriarch, packs powder into a shell at the Rozzi plant in Symmes Township.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        “This is more than just a job, more than just a business,” says Joey Rozzi, at 31 the youngest of Joe and Jeanette Rozzi's seven children. “This is what we do, and this is who we are.”

        Riverfest's Toyota/WEBN Fireworks, which each year draws half a million people downtown, is by far the family's biggest show, their signature event. But the Rozzi reputation extends beyond the Tristate.

        “There are a handful of premier (fireworks) companies, and I would say Rozzi's is one of the top five,” says Julie Heckman, executive director of the Bethesda, Md.-based American Pyrotechnics Association, which represents about 300 fireworks companies.

        Part of the Rozzi reputation is built on longevity. In business in this country since 1895, their fireworks are a staple at scores of Fourth of July celebrations. Customers include Paramount's Kings Island, the Reds and Disney. Rozzi's Famous Fireworks have been featured at Riverfest since it began in 1977.

[rozzi]
Tonight's Riverfest fireworks display is the Rozzi family's biggest show of the year.
(Enquirer file photo)
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        Underlying it all is the Rozzi family's single-minded dedication to their craft. Over the years, in good times and bad, they have not deviated or diversified. They make fireworks. Sell fireworks. Shoot fireworks.

        Tonight, Joe Rozzi and all but one of his seven grown children will be at Riverfest. Art, John and Joey will be working. Nancy, Paula and Louise will be watching. Daughter Angela is in North Carolina, where she gave birth to a baby girl Friday afternoon. Wife Jeanette Rozzi, 76, took ill a week ago and is in a hospital.

        To understand this family is to trace the path of fireworks through the generations. Only then does it make sense why a 77-year-old man still spends every workday in a fireworks factory. And why he has to be on that barge tonight.

Immigrant's son dared to dream big
        The Rozzi Inc. plant covers 50 acres in Symmes Township, near the Loveland border. Fireworks are manufactured and materials are stored in about 100 buildings, most of them painted white, some no bigger than a telephone booth.

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        Joe Rozzi spends his days in the air-conditioned final assembly building. This day his fingers are smudged with black powder as he wraps brown paper around wheel drivers, which propel large pinwheels.

        “Not too many people like us left in this country, makin' stuff like this,” he says. In recent years, Chinese imports have grabbed a large share of the market.

        He looks up from his work only occasionally. Large amber-shaded eyeglasses offset his white hair. Like most of the Rozzis, he's quiet. It's almost as if they'd rather let their fireworks speak for themselves.

        His family came from Pietramelara, a small town in southern Italy, a region that in the late 19th-century became known for producing fancy fireworks. It's where Joe's grandfather, Paul Rozzi, learned his craft.

        Paul brought his fireworks-making skills to America in 1895. He eventually settled in Pennsylvania, where he started the New Castle Fireworks Manufacturing Co.

        Paul, who spoke broken English, never dreamed big. But his son, Arthur, did.

        Arthur's ambition, and Paul's lack of it, didn't mesh. So when he was old enough, Arthur struck out on his own. In 1930 he landed the fireworks job at Cincinnati's Coney Island. The next year he moved here with his wife and two boys, Joe and Paul. He found cheap land in rural Symmes Township and began making shells.

        “Fireworks is all my dad knew,” Joe says, his voice soft and gravely. “He didn't know anything else. He didn't want to know anything else.

        “You've seen people with nervous energy? That was my dad. He was going all the time. He loved a challenge.”

        The Depression presented a big one. With few venues able to afford big displays, the family suffered through some lean times. Arthur compensated by also making items people could shoot off in their back yards — bottle rockets, Roman candles, fountains, and the like.

        “He was a great guy, but he was obsessed with one thing — fireworks,” says 52-year-old Art Rozzi, Joe's oldest son.

        “He never talked about anything else, never did anything else. He loved fireworks. That rubbed off on everybody — on my dad, and then on me. It's kind of hard to get away from it, to do anything else.”

        Arthur, of course, didn't want to get away. He had a large mural painted in his Loveland home (where Nancy Rozzi now lives); it shows an Italian garden graced by archways, with red, yellow and blue shells exploding in the sky above.

        “The story is, he could sit in the dining room and watch fireworks,” Nancy says.

        Arthur Rozzi worked every day until suffering a stroke in 1980 at age 85. He died a few weeks later. When the hearse passed by the Rozzi factory on Lebanon Road, a booming series of aerial salutes exploded overhead.

        A charcoal drawing of Arthur hangs in the Rozzi Inc. offices. The white hair, glasses, and hint of a smile bear a strong resemblance to Joe Rozzi.

        Ask Joe Rozzi if he's like his father in other ways, and he says, “Not too much.”

        Two longtime co-workers overhear and simultaneously declare: “A lot.”

Entire family became active in the business
        Family members use the same word to describe Arthur as they do to describe Joe: obsessed.

        Like his father, Joe never took a day off. Even now, at age 77, he's usually at the factory by 8 a.m. He sometimes comes in a little later these days to help his wife of 54 years, Jeanette, as she recovers from hip-replacement surgery.

        “He laughs about going to a (retirement) home,” says Angela Rozzi Burns, who at 36 is the youngest of Joe and Jeanette's daughters. “I said, "You're going to be the only guy in the home that wakes up and goes to work.'”

        With seven children to support, family members say he felt a deep obligation to work hard. “It kind of filtered down to everybody,” Angela says.

        Family vacations weren't really vacations at all, but out-of-town shows Joe was shooting. Then again, he's always known how to mix business with pleasure.

        As a girl, Angela often accompanied her father to Kings Island for the nightly fireworks display. For her 12th birthday, he surprised her — and everyone else in the park — by launching a 12-inch shell that awed all who saw it explode.

        “Nobody in the audience had ever seen anything that big,” Angela says. “He was laughing and said, "Did you see that? That was for you.'”

        For years, making shells was Joe's forte. His older brother, Paul, meanwhile, handled the consumer end of the business.

        That changed on Oct. 2, 1962. “One day I'll always remember,” Joe says.

        Workers at the factory had always mixed explosive powder by hand; they still do today. Paul, though, was rigging up a machine that would mix it automatically. Joe says an electrical short might have caused the powder to explode.

        Paul, 42, was hurled against a fence, breaking both his legs, according to an Enquirer article. He died that night from his burns.

        Even in the aftermath of such tragedy, Joe says, the family did not consider selling out. Paul's death forced Joe to spend less time making shells, and more time running the overall business. The factory today employs two of Paul's grown children, Annie and Kathy Rozzi.

        Paul Rozzi was one of 12 people who died in accidents at the Rozzi factory from 1947 to 1975, according to Enquirer files. The Rozzis say the factory is safer now, in large part because today's chemical compounds are less sensitive to friction and static, which can cause them to ignite.

Mother has kept faith; tonight she will pray
        Jeanette Rozzi says she didn't particularly want her boys to follow her husband into the fireworks business.

        “It's a worry,” she says, sitting in her Kenwood home where photos of family far outnumber those of fireworks.

        But Jeanette knew she was marrying into a fireworks family. She and Joe said their vows in 1945 while he was home on leave from the Navy.

        Even though she is recovering from hip replacement surgery, Jeanette did not expect to miss Riverfest. She planned to watch, as usual, from the Clarion Hotel (formerly Quality Hotel Riverview) in Covington.

        But she became ill Aug. 28, and underwent emergency surgery that was unrelated to her hip replacement. She remains hospitalized.

        At 9:05 tonight, Jeanette will worry.

        And pray.

        Other years, she has ventured down to the riverfront in the daylight hours. She has placed a St. Joseph prayer card somewhere on the barges that launch shells. And she has blessed the barges with Holy Water.

        “I just quietly do my thing,” Jeanette says. “It's a worry. You never know.

        “You have to have a little faith in something.”

Young Rozzis know they hold lives in their hands
        As the oldest child of Joe and Jeanette, Art Rozzi was the first of the siblings to learn the family business. As a kid he rolled and wrapped the paper tubes that would become shells. Today he oversees manufacturing.

        He says he never seriously considered another occupation. As for hobbies, well, that was almost unheard of. The subject causes his voice, barely above a whisper, to soften even more.

        “I took up golf. I'm almost ashamed to tell anybody. Three years ago. I met a friend in the fireworks business who plays it, and he got me to try.

        “I really like it,” says Art, who lives in Loveland. “I'm going to continue playing.”

        The younger generation of Rozzis can afford not to be consumed by their work, if only because there are more of them to carry the load. Nancy Rozzi, 49, has handled a variety of office duties since 1976, but also finds time for ballroom dancing. And at least one sibling seriously considered another career.

        “I was going to be a musician,” says 39-year-old John Rozzi, who lives in Loveland. A drummer, he played in a band at Kings Island one summer. He'd perform in five musical shows, then help shoot the nightly fireworks.

        After he graduated from Notre Dame, his father sent him to Europe to establish relationships with companies that supply fireworks materials. Before long, he, too, was firmly entrenched in the family business.

        Joey, the youngest sibling, is one of the most vocal and outgoing. Like the others, he spent the summers of his youth at the plant. The Morrow resident now runs the display end of the business.

        “I like this work, doing shows. The most pleasing aspect is after a show when you hear a crowd applaud.”

        He knows the dangerous aspects, also. While launching shells from a barge this summer, “something decided to go a little haywire. Some shells were breaking open on the deck, kind of close to us. It was a close call. Could have been a lot worse.”

        He acknowledges that the daily give-and-take of working closely with family members “can be difficult. But we all trust each other with our lives. It's a lot of work, but we all know what to do, so I guess that makes it a little easier.”

Riverfest is biggest event, but July 4 brings 75 shows
        With 10,000 or more shells lighting the sky, the Toyota/WEBN Fireworks is bigger than any other single Rozzi show. But from the family's perspective, the Fourth of July always looms larger.

        Twelve- to 16-hour work days are common the month before the holiday as the family prepares for some 75 shows. It's make-it-or-break-it time.

        Sisters Louise Erdeljohn, 41, of Milford, and Paula Lutz, 46, of Maineville, take time off from their photography and department store jobs, respectively, to help with the Independence Day rush at the Rozzi retail store. Nancy's there, too.

        “Summers always began after the Fourth. I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard "after the Fourth,'” Nancy says.

        Her birthday is July 7. Had she been born on the Fourth, “I guess my mother would have had to go to the hospital by herself,” she says.

        “And she would have,” Paula agrees.

        Angela, who worked full time in the business until moving to North Carolina recently, returned to Ohio to work the July 4th crush this year. But because of the new baby, she will miss Riverfest for the first time. “It's going to be hard,” she says.

        Riverfest is like a Rozzi reunion for family members young and old. But it's stressful, too, the sisters say.

        “We all worry,” Nancy says. “(Louise's) husband is out there. (Dan Erdeljohn has worked for Rozzi's more than 10 years.) It's my family. Our father, brothers. And then you've got your name on the line, so you hope everything goes well.”

        Years ago, Louise watched the show from a towboat lashed to the barge where shells were being launched. Cinders and smoke spoiled the view. But what she remembers most was the reaction of the crowd as the boat pushed the barge in place.

        “Going up the river, seeing those people. You hear them. The noise. They're shouting, and you know what a rock star feels like. It kind of gives you chills.”

Joe Rozzi can't leave until the show is over
        When he was younger, Joe Rozzi says, he had more enthusiasm for events like Riverfest. He will allow that he's happy when it's all over, when the last shell has broken in the night sky.

        He could have the best seat on the riverfront, if he wanted it. Instead, he'll be on the barge, gazing overhead, getting showered with cinders.

        “It's kind of silly to have to be on that barge,” he says. Even if something went wrong, “Nothing I could do about anything. What could I do about anything?”

        Jeanette, his wife, nods knowingly. “He wants to be there,” she says. “Til it's over.”

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