Quebec team competes for fireworks glory with ode to 1969 moon landing

BEM Fireworks, a third-generation family business from Coteau-du-Lac, is aiming to take gold at the 35th edition of the International des Feux Loto-Québec with Saturday night's show at La Ronde.

BEM Fireworks, 3rd-generation family business from Coteau-du-Lac, aiming for gold with Saturday night show

At Montreal's annual international fireworks competition, teams from countries all around the world compete for bronze, silver and gold Jupiter trophies before a paying audience at La Ronde — and spectators who gather at good vantage points all over the greater Montreal region. (Marilla Steuter-Martin/CBC)

Marc Masson has gunpowder in his blood. He's been around fireworks since he was "the size of a 12-inch shell."

"My grandfather started the family business back in the '50s, and my father took over in the '80s — and he's still in charge," said Masson, 40.

The family business, BEM Fireworks, is based in Coteau-du-Lac, Que., 48 kilometres southwest of Montreal.

BEM will compete in the International des Feux Loto-Québec at La Ronde on Île Sainte-Hélène for the fourth time, and with a bronze trophy already under its belt, the team is aiming to take the gold in this 35th edition of the international fireworks competition.

Marc Masson's grandfather started the family fireworks business in the 1950s, and it's still going strong today. (Marilla Steuter-Martin/CBC)

Masson remembers watching the first edition with his father in 1985, when he was six years old.

"He brought us here. We parked in Longueuil, and we hiked the Jacques Cartier Bridge. He was holding my little sister on his shoulders. We saw the show, and it was the biggest show I ever saw," said Masson.

"I told him, 'All right, Dad, we're going to do that show.'" 

At first, his dad was skeptical. Taking on a 30-minute pyrotechnical show choreographed to music is a huge amount of work.

"Well, he kept working — and in 2000, he did it."

The team won its first Jupiter trophy in 2005, with a show called Au Pied du Courant — the theme focused on the geographic location of the competition, on Île Sainte-Hélène.

Masson said that everyone on the BEM team has a family link. He works with his father, uncle, brother and sister. (Marilla Steuter-Martin/CBC)

Capturing the 'fundamental optimism' of the '60s

All great fireworks shows begin with a great theme, said Masson, who works in conception, construction and sales.

"It's basically to tell a story — a little bit like theatre but with fireworks," he said.

The BEM team's theme this year is the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, which coincides with the night of the show.

Masson said he wanted to capture the "fundamental optimism that characterizes that era," drawing on music from the 1960s and clips from John F. Kennedy, whose 1962 speech aimed at persuading Americans to support the Apollo program launched the race to put a man on the moon by the end of that decade.

"That's something great that humanity has achieved," said Masson, calling the show a celebration of discovery and exploration.

Empty shells like this litter the zone where rows upon rows of fresh shells will be set up for the next show. (Marilla Steuter-Martin)

Masson says thousands of fireworks shells are used in BEM's show.

Each shell is a different shape and size, and each contains different chemicals that react to produce the desired colour, light and trajectory.

The shells are attached to a packet of gunpowder that, when lit, shoots the shells into the air and lights an internal delayed charge.

When the shell explodes, the chemicals' reaction creates a flash of coloured light.

This all happens on a specific schedule, choreographed to the millisecond.

Firework shells vary in shape, size and charge, depending on what kind of effect they are designed to produce. (Marilla Steuter-Martin/CBC)

"It needs to dance to the music, really," said Masson.

Despite the fact the team uses gunpowder and volatile chemicals, Masson said it's a relatively safe environment.

In 22 years of running shows, he's never sustained so much as a pair of singed eyebrows.

He did have, however, one close call with a road flare.

"Those basically melt like lava," he joked.

In a fenced-off area behind the amusement park, firework technicians spend days setting up an elaborate 30-minute pyro-musical show. (Marilla Steuter-Martin/CBC)

Teams from across the globe, including Australia, the US, Portugal, Italy and South Korea, are competing in this 35th edition of the fireworks competition.

"Montreal is a bit like the Olympic Games of the fireworks," said Martyne Gagnon, director of the event.

She said the competition is world-renowned as one of the best pyromusical displays on Earth.

The roster of competing countries changes every year, but Gagnon said that there's always a Canadian team in play.

Watch an excerpt of the BEM team's July 20 fireworks show:

BEM Fireworks put together a show at La Ronde themed on the anniversary of the moon landing. 2:20

"We want to give the occasion for them to gain experience, to be able to participate in an international competition," she said.

The high calibre of competition means that "Montrealers have become connoisseurs over the years," she said.

The competition is decided by a panel of judges selected from a pool of about 300 Montrealers who apply to be on the jury every year.

"We select them; we train them, and they decide which company is the best," Gagnon said.

The BEM team's show, A First Walk on the Moon, was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. (Arian Zarrinkoub/CBC)

BEM Fireworks' show A First Walk on the Moon took place at La Ronde on Saturday, July 20 at 10 p.m. L'International des Feux Loto-Québec continues with two more shows July 24 and 27.

About the Author

Marilla Steuter-Martin has been a journalist with CBC Montreal since 2015.


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