History Of Thunder

What started as a better-than-average fireworks display has become the pinnacle of pyrotechnics. It is the nation’s largest annual fireworks event. It also is one of the top five air shows in the country. Thunder Over Louisville has made a lot of people happy, garnered international attention, entertained millions and given Greater Louisvillians something else to brag about. Thanks to the generous sponsorship of civic-minded companies like Caesars Indiana, Ford, UPS and Yum! Brands – Thunder continues to be THE special event that brings the community together like no other celebration.

Here’s how it all got started…

Meet Dan Mangeot. The late CEO who took the Kentucky Derby Festival from a nice local celebration to a world class special event. Forever looking at ways to take the Festival to the next level, Dan was quick to grab the brass ring and run with it when something exciting came along. His mind clocked in at warp speed when he got a phone call suggesting that one of the companies involved in Festival would like to put together some kind of opening ceremonies as their sponsorship. Wow! He had come to that conclusion several times, but the circumstances had not been just right. It was about to be right!

Meet Kroger. This very civic minded company employed lots of creative people and one of them was Ben Harper who also volunteered on the Derby Festival Board of Directors. Early in 1988, Kroger wanted to sponsor something that hadn’t been done, something special. They thought maybe a civic event as large as Derby Festival deserved some kind of public opening ceremonies. Mangeot was ecstatic and suggested noon at the Chow Wagon downtown (an outdoor food and beer garden). It was a deal. It was not yet named Thunder, but it was the beginning.

Meet Wayne Hettinger. Creative genius, multimedia producer, owner of Visual Presentations. Even before his now signature event, Hettinger was no stranger to Kroger or Derby Festival. Long a producer of slide shows and special projects for Festival, it was Hettinger’s connection to both Mangeot and Kroger that would serve as a catalyst for this show we now know as “Thunder.” Wayne’s inspiration was Walt Disney. And he yearned for a chance to show his hometown a great show. Little did they know what was in store when Wayne’s mind started spinning. He was about to create the first Thunder Over Louisville.

Before Thunder, Wayne was asked to use his considerable talents to theatrically produce the They’re Off! Luncheon (the Festival’s traditional kick-off luncheon) opening sequence at the Galt House. Kroger had sponsored the opening segment of the Luncheon to introduce the festival theme song for several years. Since the 1960′s, the corporate community had gathered at this businesslike start to the Festival. Hettinger represented Kroger in grand style. The earliest production had three projectors, then six, then live singers, then full choreography, confetti cannons and lights. It grew each year until it filled up the ballroom at the Galt House East. Hettinger remembers telling them that they were simply out of room. And each year, he noticed a little wider gleam in Dan’s eyes.

It was the summer of 1988 and a state park in Western Kentucky housed the Kentucky Derby Festival Board and Staff for an annual planning workshop. It was already decided to have an opening ceremony. Current Festival President Mike Berry recalls breaking into groups to work on various events. One group, led by WAVE 3 TV General Manager Guy Hempel, was charged with breaking new ground with new events. Kroger was in this group. It was here that the shape of the first opening ceremonies began to form. It wasn’t yet Thunder, but it was the very first Opening Ceremonies of Derby Festival. Hettinger put together a live stage show to introduce the Festival theme song, a balloon release of about 20,000 multi-colored balloons, and daytime fireworks shells. It was held at Chow Wagon on the river. Hempel committed WAVE 3 TV to airing it live and broadcasting it live to the They’re Off! Luncheon crowd at the same time. About 10,000 folks showed up. The Kroger folks looked at Mangeot as the fireworks were going off and asked if it could be done at night. “Absolutely! I’ll get back to you,” he replied. The rest is history.

1990 would be the year it all came together. Mangeot secured Cardinal Stadium for April 17, 1990. The daytime fireworks had been nice, but not exactly Olympian. Now, with a huge stadium to fill and the fairgrounds, it was decided to bill the opening ceremonies as “Twice as large as any fireworks show in the history of Louisville.” The Redbirds (Louisville’s AAA Baseball team now knows as the Riverbats) were scheduled to play a double-header at 5:30 and they made it a free game. Hettinger would produce a post-game show.

It would be the first night time Opening Ceremonies of the Derby Festival. Janie Frickie performed a free concert and Hettinger debuted the 1990 Festival theme song with a fireworks and a laser and lights show. Hettinger was quoted at the time as saying, “I think we’re going to rock Louisville…it ‘s going to be quite a show.” The crowd was enormous. The stadium filled early, then the parking lot of the fairgrounds, and finally, the interstates came to a halt. The show was aired live on WLKY-TV and thus a television audience and a packed stadium witnessed the birth of Thunder Over Louisville.

Hettinger recalls that with a slight wind drift of some of the pyrotechnic effects across I-65, it was evident that the show could not be performed again at the stadium. Mangeot said, “Great Show! but we can’t do it here. I’ll get back to you.” Mangeot concluded that the river was the only place that could hold it. While Mangeot worked with the city to secure the river site, Hettinger visited Cincinnati’s RiverFest show. He checked out the logistics of handling 500,000 people and climbed all over the fireworks barges. He actually watched the show with the fireworks company from the middle of the bridge.

He came back realizing that a huge organizational task lay a head and much coordination with the cities on both sides of the river. He also realized that they needed a “hook”, a “handle”, a “moniker.” It was the year after the movie “Days of Thunder” and that sparked an idea. They would call it “Thunder Over Louisville!” and split the show on both sides of the Second Street Bridge. The title “Thunder Over Louisville” was used only for the fireworks portion of the show because at that time the air show consisted of only three paid aerobatic acts and the Aerial All-stars skydiving team. The downtown waterfront was ablaze with fireworks and lights that were not quite what they are today, but was enough to “blow away” a hometown crowd in its first year as Thunder.

They established two simple rules that are still followed today. Rule One: Make every sequence a finale of sorts. Rule Two: Don’t drag it out. They know the show is not about length. It’s about raw fire power. For this reason, the show never runs more than thirty minutes. The success of Thunder has been the combination of quality and quantity of shells and length of time to fire them. The result…a thirty-minute grand finale that erupts over the city, giving even the concrete a pulse.

Says Mike Berry, “With Wayne’s creative powers and Kroger’s civic mindedness and willingness to bring other civic minded companies on board, this show was destined to happen”. Adds Berry, “Without Dan, this could have been a really great Fourth of July show. But with Dan, it got the chance to become the incredible attraction it is today. He believed so much in a public opening for the Festival, he was willing to take the risk.” Mangeot pleaded with city officials in the beginning to let the Festival experiment with the show. It was a lot to ask. The Festival already relied on the police and nearly every public agency to stage a parade and 70 other events. In 1991, inviting 300,000 to 400,000 people downtown for an open-air event to explode 10,000 shells of fireworks was more than an imposition.

Fortunately for the public, city officials on both sides of the Ohio River have accepted the event over the years. Says Festival VP of Events Matt Gibson, “We try to be a good neighbor with Thunder, but let’s face it, our event puts huge demands on Louisville and Southern Indiana. We are extremely lucky to have the cooperation we do with the police and city agencies. When you really want to thank someone for ensuring this event happens every year, look to them. Without their support, Thunder simply would not exist.”

What started as a better-than-average fireworks display has become the pinnacle of pyrotechnics. It is the nation’s largest annual fireworks event. It also is one of the top five air shows in the country. It has made a lot of people happy, garnered international attention, entertained millions and given Louisvillians something else to brag about. After Kroger’s sponsorship ended after 10 years, The legacy that Kroger’s ten-year sponsorship created was ensured to continue in 2000 by Blue Chip Broadcasting, Brown & Williamson, Caesars Indiana, Ford and UPS. It is such an enormous operational and financial undertaking, that it is difficult for the not-for-profit Festival to stage each year without the commitment of corporate support.

Hettinger has been overheard on several occasions musing, “We used to run this show and now it runs us. Circumstances beyond our control have dictated it’s growth. The Festival and its sponsors have given this community something to be the best at and the people of this city, to whom we all answer, keep it number one. It belongs to this community. They took ownership a long time ago.”

Mike Berry insists, “In most places, folks ask family and friends, “Are you coming home for Christmas? In this town, add Derby Festival to the list…and in over the last decade, add Thunder!”