Surrounded by a gold matte and purple frame, Paul Jackson’s print of Fire in the Sky’s 50th anniversary hangs in Jerry Sigmund’s den.
“Those are Cosmo colors,” he said.
Just as the colors illustrate, the Columbia Cosmopolitan Luncheon Club has always been a part of Columbia’s Fourth of July fireworks display — until this year.
In 1952, the club started to sponsor a fireworks display in the Cosmopolitan Recreation Area. The members sold barbecue chicken plates during an all-day picnic that also featured games supervised by the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department.
“It wasn’t designed to make or cost money, but provide just enough to pay for the fireworks,” said Sigmund, who is serving his second term as president of the luncheon club.
The Cosmos really were in their element after the sun set. A row of eight metal launching pipes were buried 2 feet into the ground. At each pipe, were two Cosmo volunteers: one loader and one shooter. Beside each mortar was a metal trash can full of fireworks.
“We stored thousands of dollars of fireworks in those trash cans,” Sigmund said.
Sigmund’s launching partner was one-time City Manager Don Allard. Jim Buescher received the title of fireworks chief and led the operation.
“We always tried the choreography to make something exciting happen,” Sigmund said. “We tried to shoot them all at the same time to get an effect, and of course that was really hard to do because they don’t go off at the same time and when one exploded it made people flinch and they couldn’t light the fuse. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.”
The volunteers, referred to as “daredevils” in club records, experimented with timing, learned lessons from years past and improvised when necessary.
“You always wore old clothes because almost every year you’d come home with burn marks and holes in your clothes,” he said.
“They didn’t always go off like they were supposed to. Instantly you knew when it wasn’t going to go very high,” he said. “You’d just turn your back and run because when it came up out of there, it’d pin your shirt to your back. That was a nightmare. But you always had the trash can lids on.”
One year, there was not a trash can for one of the firing stations. A member who owned a Pontiac station wagon volunteered the car as storage for some fireworks.
“Someone left the tailgate open,” Sigmund said. “A firework exploded at treetop level. And fire sprayed into the car. We couldn’t believe it didn’t set anything off. After that, we didn’t use cars anymore.”
Each year the crowds got larger and larger. According to the organization’s records, in 1957, 12,000 people attended the fireworks show. The event moved into Memorial Stadium for the first time in 1976, and brought with it 20,000 people.
According to club records, Cosmo members prepared and sold their barbecue and held their carnival games beneath the stands. Inside the stadium were ground displays on the east sideline and two bands. The aerial fireworks were shot from the end zone.
After artificial turf was installed in 1986, the show moved to the Hearnes Center parking lot, where there was plenty of space for members to set up their games and concession stands.
In 1991, the Cosmos began an alliance with other sponsors such as KMIZ/Channel 17 and Shelter Insurance. The show was moved to Midway Exposition Center for the first and only time.
“We made a parking lot out of I-70 — both directions,” Sigmund said.
And the Cosmos themselves no longer shot the fireworks.
“We’ve missed shooting the fireworks, but the reality is that the show is so much better,” he said.
Tonight, the Fire in the Sky display will move back into Memorial Stadium.
“The University took over concessions, and there’s nothing left for us to do,” Sigmund said. “There are no problems or hostility. It’s just one of those things that’s evolved. For 52 years it was a dynamite opportunity to serve the community. They are doing a super job. I’m just so happy it has a happy ending.”
The club is planning a new community service project to replace the fireworks project. September 25 will be “Cosmo Day in the Park.” It will include a golf tournament at Nickell Golf Course and games for adults and children. The benefits will go toward youth scholarship at the city Activity and Recreation Center. The club has also donated $125,000 toward the recreation center’s construction.