Preparing For Thunder Over Louisville

17018424189_7573dc8a92_oIt’s hard to imagine Derby time in the city without Thunder Over Louisville.

The largest annual pyrotechnics display in North America, this Saturday’s festivities on April 23 will mark the 27th year of Thunder. Although it’s undeniable that the event is widely known within the city, few likely know the origin of Thunder and how it came to be. Moreover, due to the event’s annual success and spectacle, it’s probable that just as few, if not fewer, give much thought to the nonstop action and organization that’s happening behind the scenes.

16680738994_a17b6a34a2_oThe idea of Thunder as Louisville knows it today was conceived in a Kentucky Derby Festival (KDF) board workshop. When Atlanta was preparing for its hosting of the 1996 Summer Olympics, the Festival paid attention. Michael Berry, president and CEO of KDF, recalls the team drawing inspiration from Atlanta – if they could plan an opening ceremonies, why couldn’t KDF? The Festival was already hosting the They’re Off! Luncheon to kick-off the season, but the team wanted a larger event that could involve the entire community.

So in 1990, the KDF held the first-ever Thunder Over Louisville at Cardinal Stadium. The next year, it moved to the waterfront, where it has taken place ever since. “We went big out of the gate, and we’ve maintained it at that level ever since,” contends Matt Gibson, senior vice president of events at KDF. Indeed, the KDF has been offering a world-class pyrotechnics display ever since the very first year of the event.

17016835780_a35b7b2e8b_oWhile the fireworks have consistently been reliably spectacular, other aspects of the event have grown significantly. “Really, the whole process has grown – some things by design, some things by luck,” Berry relates. The airshow for example – an integral aspect of Thunder – was never even supposed to be a formal airshow. “We put some planes and banners in the sky and added a few things because people kept arriving for the fireworks so early, and we didn’t want them to create mischief,” Berry relates. “So we had to put something in the sky to keep them entertained.”

Now in 2016, the airshow is, in many regards, just as looked forward to as the fireworks, if not more so by some. Gibson asserts that every year there is actually an airshow crowd, which leaves once the planes clear the air; a fireworks crowd, which arrives later into the evening; and a Thunder crowd, which comes for the entire day.

No matter what visitors are coming for though, Gibson maintains that nature plays an enormous part in the actual realization of the big day. Beyond simply affecting when people arrive (i.e. worse weather yields a late crowd), there are several factors that go into determining not only the attendance but also the show itself. Cold weather means brighter fireworks; high barometric pressure means smoke won’t dissipate as quickly; wind will prohibit some fireworks from fully expanding. Interestingly, rain has little effect on the fireworks themselves.

17094313757_984fbdfa93_oWeather can also determine where some spectators choose to make camp for the day. While Gibson admits that many are traditionalists who go to the same place every year, Berry describes a unique subculture of Thunder: “Then, there are the Thunder gypsies who follow the smoke.” They will check which direction the wind is blowing – if it’s blowing north, they’ll watch from the Kentucky side, and if it’s blowing south, they’ll watch from the Indiana side.

Regardless of the position from where they’re watching, everyone can agree on the unparalleled nature of the event. For one, it’s entirely free if you want it to be. “This is something that makes Thunder very unique – this has got to be one of the largest free shows in the country,” Berry emphasizes. “Literally, if you want, you do not have to spend any money.” Very few places are Pegasus Pin admission only, and while the the KDF encourages purchasing a pin, attendees are still welcome to enjoy the show without one.”

Conversely, it can also be extraordinarily expensive. To get the truly awe-inspiring views of Thunder, be prepared to shell out hundreds for admission to certain rooftops and balconies. “You have some people who are paying the big dollars to go to the VIP areas, and you have others who pack a picnic basket and come down with a blanket,” Berry affirms. The experience can be exactly what you want it to be.

17115632470_ced029473d_oBut the show itself remains singular. It is designed by Pennsylvania-based company Zambelli Fireworks, and Wayne Hettinger, owner of Visual Presentations, is the show producer. And while staples of the event won’t go away – such as the waterfall of fireworks off the Clark Memorial Bridge – certain elements are often tweaked to pump up the show’s production value.

“We constantly have to try to do different things with what we have,” Berry explains. “There may be times that you will see different effects on the bridge than you were used to seeing.” Last year, Gibson proudly recalls how the KDF invested in syncing the light system on the Big Four Bridge with the fireworks.

This year, however, Thunder is incorporating a very special brand-new element: music by the Louisville Orchestra – the inspiration for this year’s “No Strings Attached” theme. Despite what many have assumed, the Orchestra will not be playing live on the waterfront, for not only could the temperature affect the instruments but it would be near impossible to sync such a large scale pyrotechnics display with live music.

17171009709_6631d03c15_oBut the presentation will be nonetheless spectacular. The music will range from Katy Perry to Michael Jackson and Metallica. Orchestra Music Director Teddy Abrams arranged every song specifically for the show, and the Orchestra recorded the set and sent it to Zambelli to match the fireworks with the music. This will be the first orchestral show Zambelli has produced where the music was specifically arranged for the show.

In 2014, Abrams saw Thunder for the first time and instantly knew the Orchestra had to be involved, Berry relates. The following year, Abrams got a closer look at the sound operation and how the show syncs with the music. And now this year, his arrangements will be aligned with the largest fireworks show in North America. Consequently, Berry maintains that the Orchestra’s involvement has been a process that has lasted “every bit of two and a half years and a dream longer than that.”

While the event and all its production aspects will assuredly seem flawless to the public, it takes a staggering amount of people to produce the show. “It takes everybody to make this show happen,” Gibson insists. “Just about every metro government agency touches it.” However, as Berry contends, the biggest threat to the survival of Thunder – if there is one – is the finances of the event.

17277247796_20c55baf3a_oThunder is literally a million dollar day for KDF, and the existence of its six presenting sponsors is the sole reason why it’s able to be produced in the magnitude it is each year. “We could say the Festival could not do Thunder, and it would save the Festival $1 million. But what are the costs to the community?” Berry poses. “Because we’ve now created another weekend you can’t get a hotel in downtown Louisville. And what about all the groups that do a fundraiser? What would the actual cost be if you ever had to pull a plug on this event?”

Fortunately, that’s not a question that anyone will have to answer any time soon thanks to the unmatched celebration Thunder brings to the city. The crowd that attends each year is roughly six times larger than that which attends the Derby Gibson says. Indeed, he realtes, “The police always say it’s the safest night in Louisville because there’s no one creating problems in other areas!”

Last year was a small year for Thunder, with attendance around 575,000. The largest it’s ever been was in 2009 when it was pushing over 700,000, but the average attendance is roughly 650,000. And these people keep coming back year after year, which means the KDF must be doing something right. With this year’s incorporation of the Orchestra and the “Fantasia” element Berry says the event will see, Thunder is unabashedly a spectacle. And thanks to the support of the community and the generosity of its sponsors, it will be a spectacle Louisville will cherish for years to come. VT

Photos courtesy of The Kentucky Derby Festival