By Leah Call —
Nothing turns an event into a celebration like fireworks. In 1929, 10 La Crosse residents contributed $10 each to celebrate New Year’s Eve with a fireworks show for all to enjoy. That $10 investment launched a tradition that has thrilled people in the La Crosse area for nearly 90 years.
The original 10 residents, known as the Fireworks Committee, were dubbed the Grandad Sky Rockers after the inaugural fireworks display atop one of the Coulee Region’s geological gems. The group now goes by the name La Crosse Skyrockers, an all-volunteer, nonprofit community organization rocking the sky over La Crosse on New Year’s Eve, Independence Day and other events throughout the year.
While the Skyrockers put on fireworks shows year-round, it’s the New Year’s Eve show that elicits the most excitement among the group’s members. Patrick Bonadurer, president of the organization, has a powerful connection to fireworks—particularly the New Year’s Eve show.
Bonadurer is the grandson of Bill Bonadurer, Sr., one of the original 10 organization founders. Three generations of Bonadurer men have passed on a love of community service through fireworks from father to son. Patrick Bonadurer fondly remembers the special role fireworks played in his childhood. “My dad was always doing fireworks with the La Crosse Skyrockers club,” says Bonadurer, the oldest of five brothers. “Being a boy, I thought fireworks were cool. But I never played with fireworks the way other kids did because of my upbringing, being around what I call the big stuff.”
Since he turned 13 years old, Bonadurer had firsthand experience with the big stuff, working alongside his father on Grandad Bluff to prepare for and execute the New Year’s Eve show. “My dad had a rule—you had to be 13 to be up there. I remember when I was 13, I got to stay up there all night, and it was COLD.”
Bonadurer braved that cold, as did his brothers when they turned 13 and could take part in the event. If the bluff could talk, it might share some of the many tales known to the Bonadurers and others before them. Most of those tales include the challenge to stay warm. Bonadurer also recalls the community support and visits from community members and friends who braved the winter conditions to drop off donations or extend gratitude to the crew on the bluff as they prepared for the big show.
One distinct memory for him is watching the legendary 1967 Ice Bowl—the National Football League championship game between the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys—on a small black and white television beside a blazing fire inside the shelter on the bluff. Another fond recollection is that of cozy warm feet inside boots purchased with money earned from a paper route in preparation for that one cold night. The Bonadurer boys became adept at scaling the bluffs to place various fireworks in just the right spot.
“As a parent, my dad was concerned, but we survived. I’ve been doing it ever since. I know where I’ve been on New Year’s Eve for the past 40-plus years.”
Though Patrick is the only Bonadurer brother officially involved in the La Crosse Skyrockers today, the family still gathers most years on New Year’s Eve, a night that meant so much to their father and grandfather. “It is a good camaraderie for us, remembering Dad and this tradition,” says Patrick Bonadurer. “It’s kind of like our deer camp. We go up there no matter what the weather and set up the fireworks display, keep the tradition going. We love to hear the applause at the end, probably like those original Grandad Sky Rockers felt.”
This Club Rocks
For the past 12 years, Bonadurer has served as president of the La Crosse Skyrockers, which consistently maintains a membership of 40 to 50 volunteers. Members range in age, gender and vocation. “We have a mix of members in the group,” notes Matt Carlson, Skyrocker’s vice president. “Some are involved in the operations and planning end. Others are more interested in running site security or doing public relations. Everybody can do what they enjoy.”
Members attend monthly meetings throughout the year. In December, the organization joins forces with Rotary Lights for a kickoff fireworks show to mark the beginning of the holiday lights display at Riverside Park in downtown La Crosse.
“And then throughout December we invite people to Pettibone to light off a few fireworks,” notes Carlson. “We call it the countdown to New Year’s. We talk about fireworks, safety, what goes on with the setup of the show. It is another way to interface with the public.”
Carlson was recruited to the Skyrockers in the early 1990s by a neighbor who was the group’s safety director at the time. “I was taking pictures from the bottom, and he invited me up to take pictures from the top,” recalls Carlson. “When I turned 18, I officially joined the group.”
The group continues to recruit younger members to the organization, which may be one key to its longevity.
What’s Carlson’s favorite part about being a Skyrocker? “Just seeing the look on people’s faces. We light fireworks off on a firetruck as we go through the Maple Leaf Parade,” he notes. “Seeing the reaction on people’s faces, the reaction on kids’ faces, the smiles. And after we shoot the show at Riverfest and even up on Grandad, we can hear people cheering and honking horns. It’s nice to know that the people like the show.”
Skyrockers’ public relations director Jonathan Vermes has belonged to the Skyrockers for nine years. Joining the group was a fulfillment of a dream for Vermes.
“As a child, I watched the various shows the Skyrockers put on—especially the Fourth of July show—and told my parents, ‘someday I want to be a Skyrocker!’”
That childhood dream became a reality when a co-worker invited Vermes to join. “After the first show, where I was on the performing end,” adds Vermes, “I was hooked!”
Getting Ready to Rock
Since that first show in 1929, the New Year’s Eve fireworks show has taken place every year except for two years during World War II. While those first shows may have lasted just a few minutes with lengthy lulls between blasts, today’s show is 22 minutes of nonstop oohs and ahhs.
Numerous hours of preparation go into those 22 minutes. The planning starts months before the show. “When we plan for it, one guy will plan the main body of the show and one will be in charge of the finale, but then we have a bunch of little effects that are incorporated,” notes Carlson.
Among those special effects are crisscross fireworks shot from different sides of the bluff and a mix of various other extras. “We always put out a Niagara Falls, a waterfall off the face of the bluff,” notes Carlson, who points out the unique opportunity the Skyrockers have to use a natural feature to support the waterfall versus poles and wires that are typically used in other shows.
Another somewhat unique technique used by the Skyrockers is digging in the mortars, steel tubes from which the shells are dropped and shot. “It makes the show that much safer,” notes Carlson, who served as safety director for years before he was recently elected vice president. “When a firework goes off early, it can cause the other fireworks to tip over and fire into the crowd. We use power tools and actually dig into the ground for the mortars we use to light the fireworks. If something goes wrong, the ground will absorb much of the energy. That not only keeps spectators safe but those who are shooting it off as well.”
The plans are finalized. The fireworks have been purchased and safely secured. All the necessary insurance and permits are in hand. It’s Dec. 31. It’s showtime.
The day begins early for about 20 to 25 Skyrocker volunteers. “You wake up on those cold, crisp winter mornings, and go up on the bluffs about 8 a.m.,” says Bonadurer. “Sometimes it’s a challenge to overcome the weather, but overcoming those challenges makes it so rewarding.”
The group shoots off a few fireworks for an early show at 6 p.m. as a prelude to the big show, which takes place at the stroke of midnight.
The bluffs become a 600-foot limestone stage, notes Bonadurer. “People watch from their houses, from cars parked down below; people are sledding on the golf course. I’ve heard from some people that they had their first date at the show. I love hearing those stories. The New Year’s Eve show has a special place in my heart. I love going up there. We try to make each show a little different, a little better every year.”
The show is certainly bigger and more complicated than in those early years. Bonadurer says it takes longer now to set up and take down. “We don’t get off the bluff until 2:30 in the morning.”
With over 40 years of experience under his belt, Bonadurer has a lot of respect for the first Skyrockers. “I imagine how hard it was to shoot that show in 1929. There was no shelter, roads weren’t plowed very good, cars didn’t have good heaters. Somehow they got the show off.”
The Skyrockers keep busy year-round planning and executing fireworks shows for several community events. Thoughtful planning for the biggest impact goes into each and every show. “Occasion makes a difference; for example, we emphasize red, white and blue for the Fourth of July show,” notes Vermes.
In addition to New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July, the Skyrockers light the sky at Freedom Fest and Oktoberfest. They also celebrate the return of veterans from each Freedom Honor Flight with fireworks and do shows for various private parties and weddings as a way to raise funds for the organization. While most of the shows are paid for by the organization hosting the event, the New Year’s Eve show is paid entirely by the Skyrockers through donations and fundraisers. In fact, it is the longest-running community-sponsored fireworks display in the country.
The nightly countdown throughout the month of December builds excitement for the New Year’s Eve show, and it’s the organization’s biggest fundraiser. “Businesses, families and even Skyrockers members make a suggested donation of $25 a shell and get to use a vintage dynamite plunger to launch their shell into the air,” explains Vermes.
When you are working with explosives, safety is a number-one priority. Even the mishandling of a sparkler can lead to serious burns. The Skyrockers designate a safety director as part of the organization’s leadership. The safety director is involved in educating club members and the public on the safe use of fireworks.
“Typically, we partner with other organizations in the community in order to further our mission as a club, to not only bring fireworks displays to our community, but to promote education to our community on fireworks awareness and safety,” notes Vermes. “In the past, these organizations have included the Gundersen Health System, the La Crosse Public Libraries and the La Crosse-area Optimist Club.”
This focus on safety is appreciated by city and law enforcement officials. “They respect us,” notes Bonadurer. “We have good training programs and bring in new members the right way. We have a site diagram of what we are going to do for each show. That gets passed around to everyone at the city.”
So You Wanna Be a Skyrocker?
Fireworks fans and anyone interested in joining a fun and diverse group focused on bringing a little boom and excitement to holidays and community events should consider becoming a Skyrocker. “Interested parties can send an email to email@example.com, and we will give instructions at that time to have them come to one of our monthly meetings to be interviewed,” advises Vermes.
Current members vote to admit potential new members. Once admitted, the new member receives training. “Often, most prospective members have a sponsor that is already a member, and that sponsor will often mentor the new member to train them on how we set up our shows,” explains Vermes.
Skyrocker wannabes can also visit the La Crosse Skyrockers Facebook page or the organization’s website at skyrockers.org.
As fireworks explode in the sky over La Crosse this New Year’s Eve, residents and visitors watching the display should think about the history and the dedication of decades of volunteers behind the booms and bursts. And don’t forget to honk and cheer for the volunteer Skyrockers who make it all happen. They deserve it!
Nov. 25: Rotary Lights Kickoff, Riverside Park
Dec. 1-30: Countdown to New Year’s Eve, 6 p.m. at Grandad Bluff and Pettibone Park
Dec. 10, 1-4 p.m.: “Stuff the Mortars!” open house and fundraiser is held for the New Year’s Eve show. Snacks are provided and members of the club are available to answer questions and provide some demonstrations!
Dec. 31: New Year’s Eve Fireworks, 6 p.m. (early-bird) and midnight at Grandad Bluff