by Jessica Carreras
For weeks prior to Michigan Pride, the event was being publicized as the first Pride event in the state with an elaborate fireworks show, slated to be put on by Defying Gravity Fireworks, owned by husbands Justin and Michael Matthews. But the fireworks never came.
At 11 a.m. that Saturday morning, Justin Matthews sent out an e-mail announcing the cancellation of the fireworks display due to threats of storms sweeping across mid-Michigan.
The storms never came either, leaving Michigan Pride co-chair Candice Risner to explain to visitors why, with a cloudless sky, the show was cancelled because of the weather.
“We had a lot of families who were really upset,” Risner said. “I tried to just say it was the weather conditions, but they said ‘What weather conditions?'”
But according to Matthews, radar readings showed that the storm sweeping across Wisconsin was headed straight for Lansing. “With the weather being what it was,” he said, “it was just too much of a chance to take.”
The cancellation started explosions of a different kind. E-mails between Matthews and Risner became heated, as well as responses from Donna Brown of Michigan Pride and Matthews’ mentor, Fred Hopper of the Pyrotechnics Guild International.
Risner said she believes that there was more behind the canceled show than just the threat of rain.
Her suspicions began when, according to Risner, Matthews called earlier in the week and canceled the show because of changes in the layout of the festival that left him without the space he needed. After promising to move several rows of booths away from the fireworks area, Matthews agreed to do the show.
But then, said Risner, he showed up the day before Pride with nothing to set up – a move Matthews said was fueled by the possibility of theft. To her, it was a sign that the show wasn’t going to happen. “If he was already mulling the idea (of canceling) over four or five days prior to the event and showed up Friday with nothing in his truck, I had suspicions that he wasn’t going to show up Saturday.”
Still, Matthews maintains that the decision was solely based on safety and the possibility of the rain ruining the fireworks, which he spent over $15,000 on.
Matthews spoke with Lansing Fire Marshall Brad Drury on Friday and Saturday prior to the event. Drury told them that the weather forecast predicted a 65-percent chance of storms and strong hail. “The weather turned out pretty decent, but that’s not what it was being forecasted as,” Drury recalled of that day.
However, Drury left the decision up to Matthews, stating that his decision to cancel the show would not have come until much later in the evening during a routine safety check that always happens before fireworks shows. “If I had showed up at 8:30 and there was lightening and hail, I’d probably call the fireworks,” he said.
But Drury believes that the Matthews’ concerns were genuine. “They informed me that their concern was for public safety,” he said. “They didn’t want to draw people down there with the potential of a storm coming in.”
Matthews echoed the sentiment, saying that if something were to go wrong or if someone were to get hurt, he would be held responsible. An injury, said Matthews, would result in losing his license and facing fines and jail time. “This is really serious stuff,” he insisted.
Risner is still skeptical – and angry. She said that in her experience, a fireworks show would not be called until just before the scheduled performance. Instead, she believes that Matthews would never have been able to pull off the show. “I’m not sure that he could perform the show that he had promised in the articles and to Michigan Pride,” she said.
She also blames the no-show for money lost, though the Matthews were not being paid for their show. “I feel that it did affect money for Michigan Pride,” she said.
And though Risner said that Pride was still a success, the first-time co-chair was appalled that some people blamed her and her crew for the fireworks fallout. “There was speculation that we were advertising a show that we knew we weren’t going to do,” she said. “That’s just awful. We were just as surprised as everyone else.”
For Matthews, who admits to putting hundreds of hours of volunteer time in to prepare for the show, the comments from Risner and others were a hard blow. Though Matthews and his husband own Defying Gravity Fireworks, they each have a full-time job as well. They both traveled to Lansing numerous times to attend meetings, obtain a permit and get the OK from the fire department. “We put everything into this,” he said with tears in his eyes. “For someone to accuse us of being fake – it really wrecked us.”
Matthews hopes to save the fireworks to use at a different LGBT event, such as during LGBT history month. He also has plans in the works to do a show at Motor City Pride next summer. Whatever the case, he won’t be working with Michigan Pride ever again, he said.
“It’s been a complete nightmare.”