Igniting Albany's floating, burning tulip

Dr. Z with flaming handsMore Mission Impossible than 1812 Overture. That's what Dr. Gary Zeller (that's him on the right holding the fire) says it will look like in Washington Park on Friday night, when Mayor Jerry Jennings ignites "Night Fire", aka Albany's floating, burning tulip.

Gary Zeller (alias Dr. Z.) is a chemist, entertainer, pyrotechnics expert and the owner of the environmental technology company Zeller International. He did the special effects for "Dawn of the Dead" and won an Academy Award for the development of Zel Jel, a fireproof substance that protects stunt people.

He's also the guy who figured out how to make "Night Fire" burn.

AOA talked with Dr. Z about how to burn down a giant tulip display without, you know, burning down everything else around it.

So how exactly does this work? How do you set Night Fire on fire?

With a very, very long magic wand. (laughs)

Mayor Jennings will light a fuse, like a coal miners fuse. The fuse will go out to a windmill which will start. It's a reveal. Once the windmill burns, inside the windmill is the tulip. We wanted to use a cannon. We have a replica cannon like the one that launched the tall ships. We were going to let the Mayor shoot the cannon but neighbors on the park were concerned about noise.

The big assembly is wood and floats on a fireproof barge. There will be other tulips floating nearby, but none of them are connected. They will all be preloaded with a flammable, ignitable substance. Lead wires from a firing station will go to station nodes with the tulips on the water. It will all be controlled electrically. This is about color. Even thought it burns on the water, we didn't want a bonfire.

How do you set something like this on fire without burning down other things?

You're always concerned about safety. We'll have the fire department standing by with hoses. Anytime you use pyrotechnics there's always some character that shows up with bottle rockets who thinks because you're using pyrotechnics, it's OK for him to do it. And you don't know if the wind kicks up and a flaming leaf lands on a roof -- you've got to be able to chase that down.

So what are some of the challenges involved in making something like this burn?

You try to do things a little differently. You know if you just put a sculpture in
the water you see it and you walk away. But people are attracted to pyrotechnic displays. And this is fire and water. Night Fire is indicative of many things. It's reflective, it has patterns of color because tulips are colorful and the colors will wave in the wind like tulips do. You get colorful rhythms.

Next year we're thinking about doing a waterfall with tulips projected onto a water curtain. One could get philosophical but it's really about color, spectacular magic and participation.

photo: Zeller International

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