Colors and lights dance to Christmas songs over the pier every second Sunday in December because of Pete Moffett. The former restaurant owner founded and has produced the annual Manhattan Beach Holiday Fireworks Show since 1989.
But the event was only half his idea.
Pete's wife, Gwen, wanted her hometown, Manhattan Beach, to bring back the Fourth of July fireworks show that she loved as a child. Determined to grant her wish, Pete asked City Council to bring back the Independence Day event.
But, the city rejected that request to avoid too many outside attendees. So, Pete said he suggested making the event local—not publicized outside of Manhattan Beach—and of course, during Christmastime.
Pete told council: "Let's do it in the Christmas holiday season when everybody's letting down and getting in a good mood."
The city agreed.
"I just love Christmas season," Pete said. "This thing is designed for memories for children, and some of the best memories of my life are predicated around being a child at Christmastime."
"Part of the magic of this event is that it's off-season," Pete said.
The timing, he said, means Manhattan Beach gets undivided attention from the best pyrotechnic teams.
Frances Marquez, head pyrotechnician for Disney Resorts, directs the shows; John Noonan, retired fireworks show director for Disney, choreographs the music with the fireworks. Both work with Fireworks America, the event's fireworks vendor for 20 years, to spark the shells, Pete said.
Pete moved from Houston to Manhattan Beach in 1984 and opened Manhattan Coolers, he said. He closed the bar and restaurant 10 to 12 years ago.
The event was initially Pete's way of giving back to Manhattan Beach's business community after a successful four years at his restaurant, he said.
Fellow restaurateurs from the Manhattan Beach Restaurant and Tavern Association, which Pete also started, funded the inaugural holiday fireworks show along with Pete's own money.
Now bigger companies reach out to him to sponsor the event which receives no funding from the city, Pete said. Skechers, for example, contributes every year as a title sponsor. And, small local businesses such as The Kettle, the show's first sponsor, still have hands in the event.
Year one drew about 5,000 people, Pete said. "Enough to get the ball rolling."
City Councilmember Richard Montgomery, who is also in charge of fundraising for the fireworks, compared the spectacle to the fountain show at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. Last year, about 40,000 people attended, Montgomery said. That's nearly the beach town's current population.
"When you (hear) the music orchestrated with the shells, that's really special," Pete said. "You can see the event all the way up and down The Strand, but I always say get as close as you can to feel the energy of the crowd and see the shells synchronized with the sound system."
"From downtown, the sky looks completely full of fireworks. Some years I feel like I'm 3-feet off the ground after the show," Pete said.
"We branded it (for the city) so it's not just some rip roaring festival—it's a family community event," Pete said. We set the mood and tone for this when it was small, he added. That intimacy carried over now that the show is much larger.
After three decades, Pete counts each year's fireworks show as the best one yet. "It's not our job to make it as big as we can make it—that's not a goal," Pete said. The point is "to make an experience and it just happens to mean a lot to a lot of people."
The 31st Annual Holiday Fireworks Show is from 4 to 8 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8 at the pier, 2 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Manhattan Beach. Kids can sled and make snowmen in the snow park until 6:30 p.m., take pictures with Santa until 7 p.m. and jump in the holiday bounce park from 3 to 8 p.m. Get in line early: Pete said people queue around the block to get into the snow park.
Pampers and Amazon are bringing free diapers and mobile changing rooms; surrounding businesses' bathrooms get maxed out during the event. Free ice cream will be given out near the bounce park while supplies last.
Settle in the street on your blanket or lawn chair and watch the sky light up over the pier at 7 p.m. "As soon as the street's closed off, everyone just runs with their blankets," Gwen said. Spectators can start grabbing spots at about 2:30 or 3 p.m.
As a rain-or-shine event, wind is the only weather threat, Pete said. He's never cancelled a show; in 2015 Pete started 10 minutes early to beat high onshore winds instead of telling the 25,000 revelers to go home after sitting four hours in the rain.
- 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., Manhattan Beach Boulevard from the pier to Manhattan Avenue;
- 1 to 11 p.m., Manhattan Beach Boulevard from Manhattan Avenue to Valley Drive;
- 1 to 11 p.m., Ocean Drive from 8th Place to 15th Street;
- 2 to 11 p.m., Manhattan Avenue from 9th Street to 15th Street;
- 2 to 11 p.m., Highland Avenue from 9th Street to 15th Street and
- 2 to 11 p.m. Local traffic on downtown streets west of Valley Drive, from 9th Street and 15th Street.
City staff starts to set up at 6 a.m., Pete said, and by midnight, the streets look like nothing ever happened.