“People wanted things that didn’t exist,” the white-haired man tells me.
“While I’m allegedly responsible for a lot of things in the industry the truth is, I just answered the calls that people had.”
The man is standing outside a Whole Foods grocery in Huntsville, Alabama on a gray day earlier this year.
His mop-toppish haircut gives him the look of some British Invasion musician on a farewell tour and his blue eyes shine through very ’80s eyeglass frames.
His name in Tom DeWille. He lives in nearby town Owens Cross Roads.
Even though he speaks softly, he’s known for helping make loud bangs and spectacular sparkles.
DeWille was a key innovator in the concert pyrotechnics business for work he did in the ’70s with Luna Tech, a company founded in Huntsville. DeWille’s pyro innovations included a two-component system whereby flash powder could be legally and conveniently shipped instead of transported by a placarded truck marked “explosives.” He also developed controllers to reliably and accurately trigger pyro in a concert setting.
Luna Tech and DeWille worked with makeup-wearing rockers Kiss, a band that played a huge role in pioneering theatrical special effects in concerts, for 12 years or so, beginning in the mid/late ’70s. Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, was another of Luna Tech’s longtime clients. Arena-metal kings Bon Jovi, too. During his career, DeWille also worked with classic-rock deities like The Who and Pink Floyd.
Luna Tech also was involved with tragedy and controversy, including a 1999 explosion at the company’s Owens Cross Roads facility that killed one employee and seriously injured another. DeWille received significant burn injuries from another explosion onsite. Today the skin on his hands are two different colors. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, fined Luna Tech for these incidents and DeWille stepped away from the company around 2002. The company was later sold and the name changed to Ultratec, which suffered another deadly explosion in 2015, in which two people were killed and two injured.
Luna Tech may have made the pyro used in rock band Great White’s infamous 2003 Rhode Island nightclub pyro fire, which killed at least 100 people and injured at least 200 more. “We don’t know for sure that it was our product,” DeWille says now. “(Great White) possessed some of our product but we don’t know if that was what was involved in the show.”
DeWille says Luna Tech’s material was involved in the 1992 incident in which Metallica singer/guitarist James Hetfield was badly burned during a Montreal concert coheadlined by Guns N’ Roses that ended in a riot, and DeWille’s “90 percent sure” Luna Tech had someone on that crew too.
“Statistically we had more injuries driving to and from work than we did at the plant,” DeWille says. “And part of the serious accident where we ended up losing somebody, no one involved will say, will admit, what they did that could have caused what happened. But buildings don’t blow up by themselves. Pyrotechnic compositions don’t blow up by themselves, if they’re standard ingredients. There are some things if you mix them, sooner or later they’re going to catch fire by themselves, but those are pretty uncommon reactions.”
Growing up in the St. Louis, Missouri area, DeWille was always interested in electronics and physics. He spent a lot of time with his nose in books. He became interested in fireworks at an early age, initially wanting to design a display for his older sister’s birthday. He says he did his first professional fireworks display at age 13.
In the ’60 he taught missile electronics in the Army and was enlisted for three years including a Korea stint, he says. Eventually he ended up working at Redstone Arsenal in NASA’s lunar technology department. When he started Luna Tech in the ’70s, the company’s name was a spin on how his old NASA ID badge was labeled.
DeWille got into concert lighting after running lights for some ballet recitals, before moving on to local rock shows. He made his own mirror ball. Acquired a few lighting trees. One of the local bands he worked with wanted to add pyro, so DeWille purchased some flash powder and put together a couple of flashpots. There was a mishap while transporting the flash powder. Still the band wanted pyro. “And I said hauling it around mixed is dangerous,” DeWille recalls. “Why don’t we take it apart? Oxidizer and metal, two separate packages, no danger until mixed. The first stuff that I put together I packaged in Seal-a-meal bags.” He says he got this idea from a dynamite-like two-component system used for blasting. “I figured, if they could do it with the explosive I could do it with the mild explosive. It made things a whole lot easier for people on the road.”
DeWille would call his two-component system Pyro Pak.
After a few years at their original downtown Huntsville location, Luna Tech moved to a 16-acre Owens Cross Roads tract. Another 45-acre tract was added later. Their first office out in Owens Cross Roads was a trailer. A pole barn was built as a pyro production facility and lightning equipment storage warehouse.
After taking Pyro Pak and some flashpots to a tradeshow, DeWille discovered there wasn’t a reliable pyro firing system for concerts. The first controller DeWille developed was six-channel and used audio cable and four-pin mic connectors. “In retrospect it was all ridiculously simple,” he says. “But it wasn’t easy getting there.”
After taking he took his controller to another trade show, soon people were ordering three controllers at a time not doing the display model was the only one in existence. “And then it just took off,” DeWille says. Luna Tech eventually made bigger and bigger controllers, 12-channel, 18-channel, etc., and sold in excess of 5,000 of them.
An associate with a sound and production company happened to be promoting a Kiss tour. DeWille says at the time the band’s pyrotechnician was from the movie industry. “If you’re doing a movie you’ve got all day to set up and an infinite number of reshoots if you need them. Reliability is not terribly important. Just getting it eventually done is the deal. You can’t do that when you’ve got 10,000 people in the audience.”
After Kiss’ pyro tech left the tour abruptly, DeWille received a phone call asking if he could help. “They had a disaster of a setup, no coherence,” he says. “I stayed on the tour for two weeks. At the end of two weeks their guy was ready to come back, they told him not to bother because I gave them the first shows they ever had where everything worked.”
With Kiss, the pyro included flashpots, which produces a bright flash of light, and concussion mortars, which makes your chest pop when they go bang. Over time, DeWille added more sparkle and sizzle. Spinning wheel effects. Controlling the metal particle size of a sparkle effect to control how far the sparkle travels. (The larger the particle, the farther it travels in this case.). There were also airbursts, little bags of materials discreetly hung in the air that look like outdoor aerial fireworks when trigged.
Defore shows in a backstage production room, DeWille would make the fake blood Kiss bassist Gene Simmons would spew from his mouth onstage as part of his in-concert antics. “It was your basic white sauce, flour and water and butter, and red food coloring. Lots of red food coloring. I made it every single night just before he went on. I had a hot plate, cooked it up, cooled it afterward and then poured it into a cup and handed it to him. And I prepped and handed him the flammable liquid for his fire-breathing trick.”
About eight or so performances in with Kiss, DeWille says during a show Simmons marched over to where he was stationed offstage and cussed him out. Simmons had perceived DeWille as missing a pyro cue. Later after the concert DeWille was summoned by a chauffer who took him back to the band’s hotel, where DeWille and Simmons watched video footage of the shoe and talked about the show. “Gene and I worked out a thing where, a set of gestures with his guitar whereby I could hit the cue on the beat, which I did most of the time. Sometimes when he was offbeat, I was onbeat. After that we got along very well as two professionals and they were nice people to work for.”
After Luna Tech’s first year with Kiss, for the next Kiss tour, DeWille says he went up to New York and spent about 10 days in rehearsals with the band as they put effects together for the latest show. On the first couple of tour dates, they’d see how those effects played to the audience and adjust from there, DeWille says. “Gene Simmons is not a musician but he is one hell of a showman. And he could look at a setup without an audience and give you a 90 percent accurate prediction of how the audience is going to react to that particular show. I learned a lot from him.”
Kiss’ best known songs include “Rock and Roll All Nite,” “Detroit Rock City” and “Shout It Out Loud.” DeWille says flamboyant Kiss frontman Paul Stanley also contributed a fair number of ideas for the show. Drummer Peter Criss and guitarist Ace Frehley, less so. “Ace was a case of champagne looking for a container. There were times he actually fell down on stage he was so drunk.”
Frehley’s Gibson Les Paul was brought back to Alabama where DeWille worked on modifying the guitar for a rocket-shooting effect for Frehley. Drilling into the body. Inserting tubes. Installing switches. Airbursts hanging overhead would simulate explosions in the lighting rig.
In addition to improving triggering reliability, DeWille’s controller system was extremely quick to teardown. This was a financial boon for a band that was paying many unionized stagehands. When the band initially balked at paying DeWille $2,500 a week after paying the previous pyro tech $650, he says the band’s accountant told the band he was a bargain at that price because of how much money he was saving Kiss.
While DeWille says the Kiss money “was great,” he says the rush of operating pyro for a band rocking arenas was priceless. “When you have 10,0000 or 15,000 people screaming their guts out because of something you just did, you can’t quantify it. But you can sure as hell feel it. And that is the most addictive drug I know of. Speaking of drugs, I learned very early in the game on the Kiss tour that you take the (cocaine) mirror from the guy on the left and pass it to the guy on the right. When they said, ‘Don’t you want to do any?’ I said, ‘Do you want somebody high handling the explosives?’” That said, DeWille readily admits to smoking weed back in his hotel rooms ontour to wind down after shows.
DeWille can’t recall exactly how Luna Tech got connected with Michael Jackson. But he says someone from Jackson’s production team reached out before the singer filmed the 1984 Pepsi commercial during filming of which Jackson suffered burn injuries. “I quoted my price and was told I was way too expensive,” DeWille says. “The next call I got was not asking me how much I cost but when could I be there for the tour.” DeWille says he had relatively little direct interface with Jackson. “There was always a mob of people between him and the world. The poor man didn’t have any concept of what was going on, and the people who were taking care of him were more like taking him. Not much I can do about that except make sure he doesn’t get hurt.”
One of the more interesting effects Luna Tech crafted for Jackson was a set of three jackets with tiny explosive charges built into them. They were fired with an infrared system. The three backing dancers that wore the jackets onstage each had a safety switch which enabled the system first.
Working with Pink Floyd was a highlight for DeWille because he enjoyed the psych-rock band’s music and sonic perfectionism so much. He says he intentionally didn’t get to know musicians he worked with beyond what was necessary for his job to keep things professional and focused.
At some point, besides setting up shows before tours, DeWille moved more into Luna Tech’s industrial side of the business, trade shows, grand openings, etc. while employees handled most tour work.
Due largely to the controllers and Pyro Pak, DeWille says Luna Tech was built into a company with 55 employees (after starting with just three) and at one point was doing $5 million in sales a year. They had 125 distributors worldwide. DeWille says his company was one of FedEx’s largest customers. Luna Tech production buildings were built with Styrofoam walls so in case of an explosion employees inside didn’t have to run for the door, they could just run through a wall.
DeWille says while it would’ve been easier if Luna Tech had been based in New York, Los Angeles or Nashville, “it didn’t matter where we were in terms of shipping. And the Huntsville area was a great area for finding talented people.”
David Milly was a University of Alabama in Huntsville student when he began working with DeWille and Luna Tech in the ’70s.
“I ‘ve said this a lot of times about Tom, he’s not an expert in one thing, he knows a lot about a lot of things,” Milly says. “Some people’s minds work different ways. Some people are always chewing on a problem and trying to solve it, and that’s Tom.”
By the end of the ’70s Luna Tech was making a lot more money with their pyro and fireworks business than their lighting business. Milly says a consultant was hired who made some changes Milly, by then a part owner, left over. He ended up with the lighting side of the business, and Milly built Theatrical Lighting Systems into, he says, an almost $10 million company with offices in Huntsville, Nashville and Jackson, Mississippi. TLS did tours with Lynyrd Skynyrd, Brad Paisley, Johnny Cash and many top Christian music acts. After selling the company, Milly retired to Orange Beach, Alabama.
Milly says in addition to his equipment and chemical innovations, DeWille helped shape fireworks and pyro laws throughout the U.S. and Europe. “He had to invent the industry,” Milly says. In the ’70s with Kiss, DeWille could find himself talking with local fire marshals new to concert pyro who were just as curious about rumors about the band, including the one where members of Kiss would stomp puppies to death onstage using their platform boots.
Both Milly and DeWille credit DeWille’s ex-wife Amanda with playing a huge role in Luna Tech becoming a force in pyro for European tours and experts in navigating different European countries’ fireworks laws. “They built a huge reputation with that,” Milly says. DeMille says he remains friendly with his ex-wife and has spent the last 23 or so years with his now-husband Jody Tudor. Amanda declined to be interviewed for this story.
A car accident years ago left DeWille less mobile. The first time I meet him, at an Asian restaurant in downtown Huntsville he’s using a walker to assist him. The second time, there at Whole Foods, he’s moving around a little better. He’s still interested in technology and enjoys showing me video footage on his smartphone of some of his bigger, waterfall-like fireworks designs. At home he reads about four or so hours daily, often science-fiction. Music-wise, he still listens to Pink Floyd and anthemic stadium-rockers Queen.
DeWille regards the use of propane systems for flame effects as one of the smartest innovations to have come along since he left the business full-time. (He says he’s done some consulting work since exiting Luna Tech.)
Back in the ’70s and ’80s, pyro was often mostly for hard-rock bands. But more recently, those special effects are probably just as likely to be utilized by country, pop and rap acts. This is something DeWille feels he’s partly responsible for. “The original stage pyro was bang, flash. That’s all. I tried to introduce string, not just percussion, things that were pretty not just noisy.”