Information Sciences and Technology

Volunteers ready for 4thFest celebration

University Park, Pa. -- It takes a lot to put on one of the largest Fourth of July fireworks shows in the nation. Just ask Bernie Keisling, executive director of Central Pennsylvania 4thFest.

"We have about 500 volunteers working on this event, with a core group working year-round," said Keisling, who has been the volunteer in charge of the event for the past seven years. "It's kind of like a Noah's Ark of the community. You're liable to see ministers, nurses, housewives, professors, mechanics, farmers … there are at least two of everything you can possibly think of, all out here helping to put on this great big, family-friendly, patriotic birthday party."

Gary Mahew, chair of the pyrotechnics committee, has a core group of about 50 volunteers, along with about another hundred or so that help at various times during the year. "They come from everywhere," he said. "We've got volunteers from Florida, they come in from California, lots of local folks, and several travel from elsewhere within the state of Pennsylvania to come here and help out."

Some volunteers, such as Keisling, are retired. Many others work at Penn State or elsewhere in the community, and take two or three weeks of vacation each year to work on the show. "Coming back and seeing these people, reuniting with them year after year is probably the main thing that keeps me involved," said Matt Lindenberg, assistant chair of the pyrotechnics committee, who has been volunteering with 4thFest since 2003.

Volunteer Sandy Ball has been working on the pyrotechnics setup since 2002. "I love it. It's a big family reunion," she said while loading 3-inch shells into their tubes. "We see each other two weeks a year, and most of us never in between."

Mahew has been part of 4thFest for 17 years. "It's exciting, it's a challenge, it's a change from my daily routine in my real job, and there's always gratitude and thanks from both board members and the community," he said. "People walk up to you and say, 'What an outstanding job.' You just can't replace the feeling you get when they tell you that. That's what keeps me coming back."

Most of the visible work for the show takes place in the three weeks leading up to July 4, when the fireworks are set up. Other work takes place throughout the year, however. A subcommittee of about eight to 10 people makes up the choreography team, and they do most of their work between Labor Day and Christmas.

"All of our members year round are just listening – listening to the radio, listening to soundtracks when they go to the movies. We also get ideas from other people who are out here helping," said Lindenberg. "When we come together right around Labor Day, we end up with a list of 40, 50, 60 different songs. We go through them, thinking about what kind of effects, what kind of shells, what we can do with that song. Typically by mid-October we have the whole score together. We know what songs we're going to use and what order they're in for the show. Then we'll spend from mid-October until about mid-December putting the effects in, putting the shells in, assigning specifics to each of the songs."

That choreography is synced and a time code is superimposed over the music through a software program provided by Fire One of State College. When it's played for the show, the music is broadcast over the radio and the time code is transmitted to the receivers that trigger the computers that fire the shells.

It would be impossible to manually launch the fireworks in time to the music, because of the sheer number of fireworks that will be used in the show. This year, the team will launch 15,771 shells during the 45-minute show, or about five shells a second. The grand finale will feature 120 shells a second for 90 seconds. "That's a lot of booms," said Mahew. "Sitting at the control tent, looking down at all the mortars, it looks like a firefight."

There's more to the celebration than the fireworks, however. The day kicks off with the Firecracker 4K race at 9 a.m. Entertainment starts at 2 p.m. and the party really gets rolling at 4 p.m. with a carnival, demonstrations, kids' crafts and more. The party also continues after the fireworks. "Special this year is our street dance at the Towne Square stage, after the fireworks, featuring the live band Velveeta," said Nancy Silvas, who runs all the day's activities except the fireworks. "The dance will enable people to keep celebrating, enjoying the evening while the parking lots clear."

Also new for this year's Star Spangled Spectacular, weather-permitting, a skydiver will deliver an enormous flag to the grounds of 4thFest at around 5:45 p.m. "If the weather cooperates, a skydiver from Team Fastrax will jump with a 7,000-square-foot flag. It's impressive – the largest American flag under canopy in the world. Each star on the flag is six feet tall," said Keisling. The skydiver will jump from a mile high, and the flag will be visible for about 12 miles up and down the valley. In the event of high winds, they may need to use their second-largest flag, which is 3,500 square feet, or they may need to delay the jump. "We have a jump window from 5:45 to 8:45 p.m. to accommodate changing winds," said Keisling.

Those attending 4thFest will have no question about when to look for the skydiver. "When we get the word from the pilot in the sky and the jumper that it's good, we're going to set off a Titanium Salute," Keisling said. Throughout the day, Civil War re-enactors will be firing their muskets in the same general area of the flag-landing. However, visitors won't have any question whether the sound is that of the muskets or the Titanium Salute. "The sound from the Titanium Salute is so loud, it could wake the dead," Keisling said. "There will be no doubt when people hear it that it's the signal that in 15 or 20 minutes the skydiver will be jumping out of the plane." The landing area will be the grass field across from the BJC at the corner of University Drive and Curtin Road.

The size and quality of the celebration has garnered nationwide attention for the past several years. According to, 4thFest ranks third in the Top 10 list of the "largest, biggest, best 4th of July Fireworks shows annually," behind only Macy's 4th of July in New York City and the Pops Concert at the Esplanade in Boston. Ranked behind 4thFest are: Welcome America! in Philadelphia (4); Independence Day Celebration in Washington, D.C. (5); WaMu Family 4th in Seattle (6); Go 4th on the River in New Orleans, La. (7); Fair St. Louis in St. Louis, Mo. (8); Lights on the Lake in Lake Tahoe, Nev. (9); and Freedom Over Texas in Houston (10).

One thing that sets 4thFest apart from the other celebrations is that it's run completely by volunteers, and paid for with donations.

"There are no paid staff, so every penny raised goes right back into the event," Keisling said. "The fireworks represent about 40 percent of our event expenses. That includes both the cost of the infrastructure needed to shoot the fireworks as well as the cost of the fireworks. However we incur significant additional expenses for police and EMT services, insurance, entertainment staging, equipment rental, etc." About half of the organization's revenue comes from business and community sponsorships, with the remainder coming from day-of-event revenue including parking donations, purchase of VIP viewing and parking passes, concessions and the 4K race fees.

"In addition we have seen wonderful contributions come to us from folks who watch the fireworks from afar. In the Centre Daily Times on July 5 we place an insert that requests a donation from the community if they enjoyed the fireworks show," Keisling said. "We thank the folks who make this annual contribution. It allows us to create the fireworks show that they enjoy from their backyards and parties. We also have a donate option on our website at that makes it easy to contribute via PayPal."

VIP viewing and parking passes are on sale to the general public through the Bryce Jordan Center leading up to the event, and can be purchased on-site on July 4. VIP viewing passes are $25 and VIP parking is $20. General parking donation is $10 to park out in the grassy fields. RV parking is $30. More information about the passes and parking options can be found on the 4thFest website.

The popularity of the VIP viewing area keeps growing, and the venue has doubled in size in the last three years, with 5,200 people buying tickets for VIP seating last year.

"When you're here in the VIP area, you see the entire show," Mahew said. "People that sit outside the area, sit on their back porches in the surrounding areas around here, they miss at least a third of the show because the most intricate parts of this show occur in the smaller mortars in the front. That's where all the special effects happen. The VIP area is where you can see the set pieces. The other thing they're missing is that by sitting in the VIP viewing area, you not only get to see the show, you get to smell the show and you get to feel that concussion from the shells firing, and that in itself is a rush."

The VIP viewing area is a grassy field so visitors should bring blankets or portable chairs on which to sit. However, Keisling asks that visitors refrain from bringing alcohol to 4thFest. "We really make this a family-oriented, patriotic birthday party. It's all about the families and the kids and the memories that go with it. We really discourage people from bringing alcohol to this event."

Also, the debris from sparklers and other consumer fireworks can hurt the livestock that occupy the fields once the fireworks setup is removed. "We're providing close to 16,000 shells for your entertainment. Come and enjoy the show, but please, leave your sparklers and other fireworks at home," Mahew said.

There's still time for anyone interested in helping with 4thFest to volunteer. "We're always looking for help on the 5th and the 6th to clean up the show. We have 10 acres of debris to clear, and we have usually about 200 people here each day that sweep through the area," Mahew said. Details on how to help are on the 4thFest website.

For photos of the setup, visit online. For information about special viewing glasses from the Penn State Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, visit online.


  • WHAT: Star Spangled Spectacular, 4thFest Celebration
  • WHEN: July 4, 2010. Events begin with the 4K at 9 a.m., some entertainment begins at 2 p.m., other activities kick off at 4 p.m., fireworks to begin at 9:15 p.m.
  • WHERE: Between Beaver Stadium, the Bryce Jordan Center and Medlar Field at Lubrano Park on Penn State's University Park campus. Music will be played in the VIP seating area, and simulcast on 93.7-FM, The Bus.
  • DETAILS: For more information, check online.


  • Organizers will give away about 5,000 hot dogs at the free FreedomFranks hot dog tent, all cooked by volunteers who bring their grills.
  • More than 1,400 servings of the 14-foot American Flag birthday cake were served in 30 minutes in 2009. It takes 240 pounds of cake mix, 145 pounds of icing and eight hours of labor from the bakery at Giant to bake and decorate the cake plus the volunteer hours for the  employees of Restek to transport, cut and serve the cake.
  • The 2009 fireworks show featured 10,806 shells and lasted 44 minutes, 49 seconds. This year's show will explode 15,771 shells in that same time period.
  • Fifteen musical groups performed on three stages in 2009. This year, 20 groups are scheduled to perform.
  • In 2009, there were 909 racers in the Firecracker 4K. Organizers hope to top 1,000 this year.
  • Approx 5,200 people watched the fireworks from the VIP viewing area in 2009.
  • Nearly 500 volunteers work on putting together and running 4thFest.
  • In 2009, 242 sponsors donated money and in-kind contributions to support 4thFest.
  • More than $2,000 was contributed by the public last year through "Operation Thank You" to mail items to service personal in Iraq and Afghanistan.

From left, Rik Harris, Richard Killam, Phil Halleck , Sue Salvaggio and David Babb work to unpack, label and sort fireworks shells. This year's 4thFest celebration will feature nearly 16,000 such shells. For more photos, click on the image above. Credit: Andy Colwell / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated November 19, 2010