Unalaska nearly didn’t have a 4th of July fireworks display this year. But, the city was able to convince Larry Mattingly to return. Larry is a pyrotechnician, and has been in charge of the fireworks show in town for 13 years.
In an area with very few licensed pyrotechnicians, Larry has his hands full. He estimates, “five or six years ago, we figure we fired 100,000 shells. In one night. In five states.”
This year, Larry managed over one hundred 4th of July fireworks shows. First, he works out all the details on paper, from start to finish. “So that there’s a progression in the show, so that if you watch it you can see things move from one kind of effect to another kind of effect, and color, to try to build some excitement,” he said.
Larry calls his work choreography. Each year, he arranges thousands of shells – with names like “Chrysanthemum, pearly white,” “red to silver peonies,” and “red, white, and blue whistle ring” – into an elaborate display. This year’s show had 450 shells.
But none of this is daunting for Larry, who’s been in the business for over 60 years. “My first show that I was in charge of was almost an accident,” he said. “The pyrotechnician was sick, couldn’t get out of bed. And the mayor says, I don’t know what we’re gonna do, so I said, get the police to release the fireworks to me, and she said can you do that? I said, yeah I’ll do it! I became the town pyrotechnician…that was 1958. 16 years old.”
And it wasn’t long before he carved out a reputation. “The company would call me because they knew Larry was a can-do pyro. At 18 years old, put me in a five window pickup with a trailer full of fireworks and sent me across Montana with 6 shows.”
Since then, Larry has had a career in nuclear research and development, has owned more than one business over the years, and built his own houses. But all this time, he’s still “shooting fireworks every chance I get.”
And as for why he keeps returning to Unalaska every 4th of July? “I think there’s a certain mystique in a lot of things about Alaska,” he said. "Some of it is the challenge – it’s a very challenging show. You’ve got weather to worry about, and it affects all of our thinking. How we design the show, how we set the show up, where do we work?”
Preparing the shells in Unalaska begins days before the show, on a flatbed trailer indoors, to protect the shells from weather. Since space on the trailer is limited, Larry adjusts his methods.
“I choreograph vertically, rather than horizontally, like I would if I had room to angle the mortars and spread things out in the sky. Instead I spread things up, and it makes a pretty nice show.”
He works with a team of volunteers from the community, and says the show is always a hit.
“This show I get a lot of feedback. I meet people all the time that, you know, the next day when I go in for breakfast at Amelia’s people say hey, great show!”
But business isn’t just about the 4th of July. Larry has put on shows for weddings, Valentine’s Day, and even christenings.
Larry estimates he’s shot about 5,000 fireworks events. He one day hopes to spend his retirement visiting the friends he’s made around the world through the pyrotechnics community, but for now, he’s still having fun and he says he’ll be back in Unalaska with another display at New Years.
“To this day, I still love it.”