By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
From Thanksgiving until soon after New Year’s Day, eager holiday light show watchers can make their way to Precocious Pyrotechnics Inc. (PPI) near Belgrade and feast their eyes on a choreographed Christmas display.
Tour buses and carloads of people come to watch the show designed by Garry Hanson.
“People start asking right after the Fourth of July if we’re going to do it again,” he said. “I always tell them that if God’s willing, yeah — we’ll do it again.”
Hanson is a manufacturer, importer, wholesaler and retailer of fireworks. He has been featured in a book, “How it Happens at the Fireworks Factory,” one of a middle-school-age book series by Megan Rocket.
Hanson’s patriotism was instilled by his father, who was born on the Fourth of July. Hanson’s interest in chemistry, physics and math in school fueled the development of fireworks as a hobby in 1965.
When he was drafted not long after, he chose the Navy. He was a Seabee and also served in the Special Forces, spending 1967-1969 doing three back-to-back tours near DaNang and in the Mekong Delta.
After returning to civilian life, “I taught steelworking and welding, and worked in electronics and radios,” he said.
He spent some years as a welder and electrical engineer working for other companies before going out on his own in 1979, with only $25.
Hanson now provides the fireworks for about 500 shows each year.
“PPI is one of the few manufacturers left in the United States,” he said.
In addition, he makes some of the components for nearly the entire industry — parts needed by others to put together their own products.
“I found a niche and expanded on it through automation,” Hanson said. “We’ve helped do shows in Japan, China, Canada, Mexico, England, Spain and Italy.”
Working for the National Fire Prevention Association, Hanson writes code for retail sales and display, rocket motors and the manufacture of fireworks.
It was a natural leap from fireworks to a light display, something that started with just a string of lights in the front window.
“I’ve always enjoyed designing. To me, a computer is a tool and not a toy,” Hanson said. “It can do a whole lot of things faster than I can. This is a challenge. The only parameter is my imagination.”
Hanson has 65,000 bulbs in the display this year. “My wife, Georgia, and I have the works for 80,000 bulbs, but I’ve travelled too much in the past six weeks to get them all up. Since PPI pays the bills, I have to work on that first.”
There are 550 design channels for the display, using more than half a million cues. The cues can be broken down into 1/20 of a second increments. The lights are connected by 500 extension cords, with a total of 7,000 feet of wire.
All of the lights are light-emitting diode (LED), something that saves significantly on the electric bill.
“The entire display is only pulling 14 amps,” Hanson said. “If it weren’t LED, it might pull up to 250 amps.”
Watchers can listen to the show at 89.7 on their radio dial. It lasts about 40 minutes. Every light is on at the same time only once in the show for about three seconds.
“The kids like it; it’s high-energy music, about 15 songs,” said Hanson.
Hanson gets the most phone calls and letters about one particular song used in the show, called “Soldier’s Silent Night,” about a veteran being alone on Christmas.
“It really touches people,” he said.
The show’s layout is different every year, with features moved around and new things added.
The show is continually evolving. “People coming different nights in a row can see different shows if I’ve had time to set more elements up,” he said.
Hanson has also helped put together another light show north of Willmar by Chad Kuzman, with more than 100,000 lights. Donations collected there go to the Salvation Army.
The owner of another show between New London and Hawick has called Hanson for troubleshooting. Donations at that show go to Toys for Tots.
“My favorite part of the Christmas lights is watching people enjoy them,” said Hanson. “We don’t ask for anything. But in the future, we hope to be set up to accept donations on behalf of a veterans group.”
Find the display at 4420 278th Ave. N.W., Belgrade.