Red, White and Boom! Nothing says "Happy Birthday, America" like a 500-gram cake

Red, White and Boom! Nothing says "Happy Birthday, America" like a 500-gram cake
Dan Zettwoch

They're big. They're bad. And since they won federal approval for consumer use in 1998, they've transformed the fireworks industry.

They're 500-gram "cakes," also known as multi-shot repeaters. These mega-fireworks are two-and-a-half times more powerful than the old 200-gram explosives they upstaged. These guys let backyard enthusiasts put on a Fourth of July display to rival Fair Saint Louis'.

And they're big business here in Missouri — one of nineteen states that (God love our legislators!) allows the sale of these (barely) legal pyrotechnics.

Since the advent of 500-gram cakes thirteen years ago, revenue for the domestic fireworks industry has more than doubled to about $950 million a year. According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, 500-gram cakes now account for 25 percent of all fireworks sales nationwide. And with price tags of $50, $100 and $150 a pop, it's no wonder that they command such a market share.

So where can you plop down a Benjamin (or two, or three) to honor, um, B. Franklin and our nation's other founding founders with a 500-gram display of patriotism?

You're in luck. The RFT just spent the last few weeks scouting out the area's best fireworks stands and asking employees about their personal favorites. Here's what we found.

St. Charles County
On a recent afternoon a clerk at Captain Jim's Fireworks (13896 US Highway 67, West Alton; 636-753-2120 or captainjimsfireworks.com) wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the acronym "MILF" across the chest. MILF, as is revealed on the back of the shirt, stands for "Man I Love Fireworks." (You knew that, right?) This outpost, located between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers in the tiny speck of West Alton, has been in business since 1947 and is a big draw for both Missouri and Illinois residents. As for its vast stock of 500-gram cakes, managers Karlee Verdun and Ryan Woodson are both partial to the $65 "Khaotic Kaboom" that fires nine separate balls 150 feet into the air where they explode into enormous 60-foot bursts. "The shots range from pink to purple to green to orange to blue. They're all really bright and big and loud," says Woodson.

Jefferson County
B.J. Knight, manager of Phantom Fireworks (98 Francois Drive, Herculaneum; 636-475-3790 or fireworks.com), has two favorite 500-gram cakes. Both happen to cost $180, making them the most expensive items for sale inside this hangarlike warehouse. "Da Bomb" features nine big, tall blasts from three-inch tubes; "Phandemoniun" fires off a barrage of 200 whizzing shots. "Put these two together and you have yourself a complete Fourth of July display," says Knight.

Franklin County
Don't let her relatively young age fool you. Eighteen-year-old Sabrina Shinkle has four years in the fireworks industry under her belt. Get her talking about 500-gram cakes, and it's clear this teen knows her stuff. Inside the sprawling and garishly painted Fireworks World (1515 Thornton Street, Pacific; 636-257-6944 or myfireworksworld.com), Shinkle talks up the nine-shot "Earth Shaker," a twenty-pound cake-style firework that sells for $130. "The booms really do rock the ground, and the big bursts are a punchy mix of multicolored bouquets and stars," says Shinkle. "Just feel how heavy the base of this thing is. It's not going to tip over."

Steven Kell's family has owned Molly Brown's Fireworks (1501 Thornton Street, Pacific; 636-271-2500 or patriotsales.us) since the 1950s. Also located in Pacific, Molly Brown's sets itself apart from competitors in that it also sells Amish-made furnishings. And what, we ask, could be more patriotic than picking up Amish crafts and fireworks this July Fourth? Kell won't commit to any one favorite 500-gram cake, but he acknowledges that the sixteen-shot Cardinals-themed "Go Crazy Folks, Go Crazy" repeater (retailing for around $75) is pretty popular around these parts.

Chantal Baker, manager of Fireworks Supermarket (3602 Osage Street, Pacific; 636-451-0855 or fireworkssupermarket.com) boasts that there's not a 500-gram cake for sale in her box-shaped outlet that she hasn't seen lit. Her personal favorite is the 24-shot, $60 "Time Bomb," which begins with big balls of red, green and blue and finishes with a series of golden willows. "There's something about the bursts," she says. "They're just so nice and big and colorful, and they end with all these great crackling sounds."

 
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