During the 1890’s the city of New Castle, Pennsylvania, experienced incredible growth mainly due to being the center of the tin plate industry. Many Italian immigrants, most hailing from the area near Naples in the Province of Caserta, began to flood into the area to work in the various tin plate mills, steel plants, and limestone mines. Most of them took up residence on the south side of New Castle.
Among these Italian newcomers were several fireworks manufacturers who had learned their craft back in the old country. Leopoldo “Paul” Fazzoni was the first man to set up a fireworks operation in New Castle. The small enterprise became known as the Fazzoni Brothers Fireworks Manufacturing Company. In the coming years Fazzoni employed some of the area’s most skilled Italian-born pyrotechnic experts to include Paul Rozzi, Jake Conti, and up and coming youngster Antonio “Tony” Zambelli.
Antonio Zambelli (sometimes given as Zambella) hailed from the village of Teano just north of Naples. In 1893, when he was sixteen years old, Zambelli arrived in New Castle and found work as a laborer in what became the New Castle Works of Carnegie Steel. Within a few years he found part time employment with the Fazzoni Fireworks firm, manufacturing fireworks by hand and shooting them off during demonstrations for the public.
Before long several other fireworks companies, led by former employees of the Fazzoni Fireworks Company, began to set up operations in New Castle and competition became fierce. Two things that almost all the local fireworks men – in the early 1900’s and in the future – had in common: Italian heritage and they were members of St. Vitus Catholic Church.
Antonio Zambelli married a fellow Italian immigrant named Maria Tuscano in September 1907. Within a couple of years they had two children – Joseph born in 1908 and Annabelle born in 1909. At some point, probably in the fall of 1911, they traveled back to Italy for a prolonged visit. Maria was soon pregnant with their third child. Travel soon became difficult when Italian military forces invaded Libya in September 1911 and became embroiled in a conflict with Turkey.
Zambelli managed to return to the United States in March 1912, but his wife stayed behind. She gave birth to a child named Concetta a few months later. Travel became even more restricted when several conflicts broke out in the Balkans during 1912-1913. Unbeknownst to Antonio Zambelli, largely due to the coming events of the Great War (World War I) from 1914-1918, it would be another eight years before he would be reunited with his family. Maria and her three children were finally able to return to New Castle in April 1920. The reunited couple, who took up residence at #510 East Division Street, had three more children – George in 1924 and twins Lou and Rita in 1926.
Patriotism abounded in the post-war period and fireworks became a hot commodity. As a result several additional fireworks companies sprung up in New Castle and the industry steadily grew during the 1920’s. The Fazzoni Brothers firm grew and they soon relocated to a facility on English Avenue in Union Township.
On April 3, 1930, a series of explosions rocked a fireworks plant located in Devon near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Ten people were killed, dozens were injured, and numerous homes and businesses were heavily damaged. The State of Pennsylvania soon adopted strict new guidelines regarding the manufacture and storage of aerial fireworks. As a result of the new policies the various fireworks across the state were forced to cease operations in late August 1930 until they complied with the guidelines.
On Tuesday, October 28, 1930, the New Castle News reported, “Fazzoni Brothers Fireworks company, English avenue, pioneer fireworks manufacturing company in this district and the entire state, today received from the state department of labor and industry at Harrisburg, certificate No. 1, permitting the concern to go ahead with the manufacture, storage and handling of fireworks in the state of Pennsylvania. The fact that the certificate numbered “one” indicates that the Fazzoni Brothers Fireworks company is the first in the entire state to meet the new requirements of the state relative to the manufacture of fireworks.”
The decade of the 1930’s, despite the tough economic times, was generally a good time for the local fireworks companies. While other businesses suffered they seemed to thrive and expand their outreach into new states. Antonio Zambelli found additional work to help support his family after the Carnegie Steel plant was closed in 1931. He worked with the Civilian Works Administration (CWA) during 1933 and did stonework in Gaston Park.
The 1940’s featured a time of transition and witnessed the passing of all the “old guard” fireworks men and the slow rise of the Zambelli family. The decade started off with the loss of the man who started it all – as Paul Fazzoni passed away in April 1940. Within a few years fellow pioneers Jake Conti and Paul Rossi passed away as well. Antonio Zambelli, a loyal employee and friend to Fazzoni, teamed with his oldest son Joseph and acquired ownership of the Fazzoni Brothers Fireworks Company. Antonio was sixty-three years old at this time and took a small role in the company. His oldest son Joseph managed the daily operations, while his younger sons George, Carmen, and Lou got involved as well. The company progressed at a fairly slow pace during the next fifteen years or so.
In March 1957 the family lost its patriarch when Antonio Zambelli passed away at the age of seventy-nine. He was laid to rest in St. Vitus Cemetery in Shenango Township. His widow Maria lived another decade and passed away in February 1967. Soon after his father’s death George Zambelli Sr., a 1946 graduate of Duquesne University and a true fireworks visionary, took over management of the Fazzoni Brothers Fireworks Company.
The Zambelli’s suffered another blow when on the early afternoon of Wednesday, April 30, 1958, an explosion rocked the fireworks plant on English Avenue. Part-time employee Sam Caimano, the thirty-one-year-old husband of Rose Zambelli (daughter of Antonio Zambelli), was critically burned. He lingered near death for almost two weeks, until he finally succumbed to his injuries on May 13. Caimano’s death was a reminder of the real dangers associated with the industry.
George Zambelli initiated efforts to greatly expand the family business, which was officially rebranded as the Zambelli Fireworks Manufacturing Company in the fall of 1960. It was about this time that the company opened an additional facility in rural Mahoning Township known as the Nashua Harbor plant. Zambelli and their main rival Vitale Fireworks (later Pyrotechnico FX) began modernizing their operations, while several of the smaller companies were closed down.
Zambelli Fireworks gained great esteem when it provided fireworks for the inauguration of popular U.S. President John F. “Jack” Kennedy in January 1961. The firm also provided fireworks for the inauguration festivities of U.S. Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson in January 1965 and Richard M. Nixon in January 1969. A decline in enthusiasm and demand for community-based fireworks displays during the decade made the competition for business even fiercer.
Zambelli Fireworks had grown at a phenomenal rate and by 1970 was considered one of the largest, if not the largest, aerial fireworks company in the United States. The old method of loading mortars, lighting the fuse, and running for safety was pretty much disappearing, as fireworks shows – now choreographed to music – began to be pre-programmed and “lit” with electronic firing systems. Zambelli also began importing most of its fireworks from China, while continuing to manufacture a smaller percentage of specialty shells.
The various Bicentennial celebrations of July 4, 1976, completely reinvigorated public interest in the fireworks industry. Aerial displays became highly sought out and sales of consumer pyrotechnics grew immensely. The New Castle firms benefited greatly from the “Spirit of 76.” In the late 1970’s the Zambelli firm opened regional offices in Boca Raton, Florida, and Rialto, California (later moved to Shafter, California) and has opened other smaller offices from time to time.
George Zambelli Sr., who took over his family business back in 1957, had turned what became known as Zambelli Fireworks Internationale into one of the largest and most well-known aerial fireworks companies in the world. He had revolutionized the company by expanding its reach across the country, choreographing the displays to music, adding additional pyrotechnic-related services, and providing packages for smaller events like weddings. His brother Carmen, who helped in the office, and brothers Joseph and Lou, both master fireworks manufacturers, had played an integral role as well.
In 1986 the Zambelli’s were honored to take part in Liberty Weekend, a four-day event celebrating the restoration and 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty in New York. The 30-minute fireworks demonstration of July 4, 1986, was at that time the largest fireworks display ever presented in the United States.
The New Castle News of Thursday, July 3, 1986, reported, “New Castle is contributing in a big way to the colossal July 4 celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. The festivities will be capped by 40,000 fireworks, and New Castle businessman George Zambelli heads one of the three companies providing the display… The Zambelli family is calling the Statue of Liberty display “the greatest outdoor entertainment event of the 20th century in the world.” They say it will be an “awesome” combination of specially made shells, choreographed to a specially written musical score. The spectacle will be launched from a “necklace” of 30 barges surrounding the tip of lower Manhattan. The finale will surround Liberty Island itself.”
Over the years Zambelli Fireworks has provided aerial fireworks, close proximity pyrotechnics, and special effects to clients all over the world including in Canada, Russia, Kuwait, Oman, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands. In the United States the company has put on spectacular shows at the National Mall in Washington D.C., Philadelphia Art Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, the downtown area of Detroit, Michigan, Times Square in New York City, Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, Mount Rushmore in Keystone, South Dakota, “the strip” in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
Zambelli has also provided fireworks for many special events, including the return of the U.S. hostages from Iran in 1981, the pre-nuptial celebration to honor Princess Diana and Prince Charles in 1981, the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Canada in 1984, the opening of the Ellis Island museum in New York in 1990, the visit of Pope John Paul II to Baltimore in 1995, the 300th anniversary of Yale University in 2001, the 250th anniversary of Pittsburgh in 2008, the 150th birthday of West Virginia in 2013, and the visit of Pope Francis to Philadelphia in 2015.
Zambelli developed a close relationship with the Walt Disney Company, while providing fireworks for occasional events at Walt Disney World or movie premieres around the county. In August 2005, per an unusual request, the company fired the cremated ashes of the late author Hunter S. Thompson into the air at his private funeral in Colorado. The company has also been featured on numerous television shows, to include a 2008 episode of the popular Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel.
The company’s signature event is “Thunder Over Louisville,” the fireworks extravaganza that serves as the opening of the Kentucky Derby Festival. This Louisville-based event is considered the largest annual fireworks show in the United States. The company also provides regular fireworks for several professional sports teams, including the Pittsburgh Pirates, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Colorado Rockies.
On the late night of Thursday, September 18, 1997, a massive explosion rocked the Zambelli facility along English Avenue. The plant was devastated and firefighters fought the blaze throughout the night. Six nearby residents were injured, several homes were demolished, and many other homes, businesses, and a church were damaged. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) conducted an investigation and a month later concluded that it was a malicious act of arson. A criminal investigation continued, but the perpetrator was never apprehended. In the wake of the explosion the company closed the plant and relocated all its operations to the Nashua Harbor site.
It was truly a sad day when George “Boom Boom” Zambelli Sr., at the age of seventy-nine, passed away on Christmas day in 2003. The Youngstown Vindicator of Monday, December 29, 2003, had this to say, “Mr. Z was fireworks. He was an icon to the industry and the most recognizable fireworks name in the country, if not the world. Above all, George Zambelli lived life as a true gentleman,” said Bruce J. Zoldan, president and CEO of B. J. Alan Co. of Youngstown.” Zoldan’s company operates the popular Phantom Fireworks chain of fireworks stores.
Zambelli was laid to rest in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Union Township and a large fireworks demonstration in downtown New Castle was held in his honor on New Year’s Eve. His brothers Carmen and Joe had since passed away as well. His youngest brother Lou Zambelli continued his involvement in the industry. His daughters Marcy and Danabeth, who had been running the Florida office, took over the day-to-day operations of the company. A few years later, on September 30, 2006, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell was on hand to dedicate Zambelli Plaza, a small downtown park built to honor George Zambelli Sr.
Back in 1990 the Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce began an initiative to trademark the moniker of “Fireworks Capital of America” for New Castle, based on the long history of the industry in the city. The process took some time in October 2006 it was finally official: New Castle, Pennsylvania, was granted a trademark as the “Fireworks Capital of America.” The illustrious history of Zambelli Fireworks certainly played a major role in that successful effort.
In May 2007 the Zambelli business was drastically reorganized and George Zambelli Jr., a skilled ophthalmologist by trade, assumed control with a 50% stake in ownership. Three of his friends acquired the other 50% interest. Doug Taylor took over as CEO and President, the first non-family member to ever run the business. It was a true changing of the guard. It was also a tough time as imports from China became problematic and the economic recession saw many municipalities cut back on public fireworks displays. Taylor stepped down in October 2013 and George Zambelli Jr. assumed the reigns of upper management.
Lou Zambelli, the last surviving child of Antonio Zambelli, passed away in February 2014 at the age of eighty-eight. His obituary read in part, “Mr. Zambelli proudly spent his entire working career with the family business, Zambelli Fireworks. He was a master pyrotechnician who was also involved in the manufacturing and making of the fireworks. His profession started in May 1946 until his retirement in December 2013. At the end of his career he worked as a consultant for the company. His line of business took him all over the country and around the world twice which included some very special exhibits. Mr. Zambelli had the pleasure of putting on displays for seven of our U.S. Presidents as well as for Pope John Paul II.” The death of “Uncle Lou,” an old school master of fireworks manufacturing, truly marked the end of an era.
Zambelli maintained its national headquarters office in the Z Penn Center on Mercer Street in downtown New Castle for many years. In early 2018 the company relocated its headquarters to an industrial park in the Pittsburgh suburb of Warrendale, but continues to house its manufacturing operations at the Nashua Harbor plant in Mahoning Township. Zambelli also maintains regional sales in Florida and California and has sales employees in about twenty-five states. The company employs about fifty fulltime employees, but that number swells when several thousand seasonal workers are employed across the country in June and July. For the Fourth of July holiday in 2015 the company put on over 750 fireworks displays in forty states. Overall, Zambelli averages about 1,600 total shows a year. The Zambelli’s, who have put on major fireworks displays for nine U.S. Presidents from John. F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, are proud to be known as the “First Family of Fireworks.”
To read a full write-up on the entire fireworks industry in New Castle click on: NEW CASTLE – Fireworks Industry.
Antonio “Tony” Zambelli (or Zambella) was born in the village of Teano near Naples, Italy, and came to the United States as early as 1893. He had worked in a local steel mill and also with fireworks man Paul Fazzoni. Zambelli married fellow Italian immigrant Maria Tuscano (together, top right) in September 1907. After a trip to Italy in 1911-12, they were separated – due to various conflicts in Europe – for over eight years until reunited in New Castle in 1920. They eventually had seven children together. (c1928) Full Size
A proud Antonio Zambelli (at center) poses with his four sons. From left it’s George Sr., Carmen, Joseph, and Lou. All four of his sons were involved in the family fireworks business. (c1945) (Photo courtesy of Zambelli Fireworks) Full Size
George “Boom Boom” Zambelli Sr. (on left) and his brother Lou inspect fireworks shells. George initiated efforts to greatly expand the family business in the early 1960’s and it “boomed” in the coming decades. (c1961) (Photo courtesy of Zambelli Fireworks) Full Size
Joe (on left) and Lou Zambelli were both skilled in the old school method of manufacturing fireworks by hand. The type of expert craftsmanship they excelled at is rarely seen today. (c1980) (Photo courtesy of Zambelli Fireworks)
An aerial view of the sprawling Zambelli fireworks plant along Garner Road in Mahoning Township. It was after a giant explosion at the Conti Fireworks plant on the south side of New Castle in 1908 that the fireworks companies were eventually forced to relocate to more rural locations. (c1985) Full Size
An explosion, which injured one person, rocked the Zambelli plant in Mahoning Township on Tuesday, September 4, 1984. Firefighters work to extinguish the resulting fire. Accidents such as this provide a reminder of the constant danger fireworks manufacturers face when they go to work. (Sept 1984) Full Size
Richard Mort #
Great article on the company. I actually took the Ariel photo of the Nashua plant. I was Zambellis Lead choreographer from 78-84 and also manufactured shells at both plants. From 84-2000 I did pyrotechnic design and fired displays from the Boca Raton offices. Once again, thanks for the article.
Joe Augustinne #
Thank you for this story my dad was into pyrotechnics and had worked for the Zambelli family in New Castle, PA.