BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Peter “Pyro Pete” Cappadocia has no plans of flaming out anytime soon.
Working as a pyrotechnician for the last four decades, Cappadocia has traveled the world with his fireworks and special effects. His sparks and explosions have swept across the stages of bands like the Rolling Stones and Ozzy Osborne to movies like “Domino” with Kiera Knightley. Even illusionist Criss Angel used his skills on the A&E show, “Mindfreak.”
Despite all his success, Cappadocia owes his career to Tom DeWille.
“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be in the business,” Cappadocia said on the phone from his studio at IMAGE SFX in Las Vegas.
In fact, it was on the road where Cappadocia and DeWille first met in the early 1980s when the Plasmatics, the band Cappadocia was on tour with, opened for KISS, who had already been using DeWille’s pyrotechnics for years. It wouldn’t be long before Cappadocia himself would go work for DeWille at his company, Luna Tech, in Owens Cross Roads, located just 20 minutes outside Huntsville.
“I lived in his house,” Cappadocia laughed.
Cappadocia called DeWille “the only game in town for a while” because of the way he innovated the way pyrotechnics could be done onstage, something that a few of the biggest acts in music sought in droves.
“He really changed the face of pyrotechnics,” he said.
On Tuesday, Cappadocia got the call he never thought he would get: DeWille, 76, had been killed. DeWille, along with Rollan Frank Edwards, were found shot and stabbed to death Monday night at a home in the Prospect Mountain community of Cullman County.
Matthew LeWayne Clayton, 30, was later arrested and charged with DeWille and Edwards’ deaths. The details of what let up to their deaths remains a mystery as law enforcement continue to investigate the case.
“He’s the kind of person who deserved to die in his 90s in bed,” Cappadocia said.
Growing up in St. Louis, DeWille’s love of fireworks came early, probably as a result of growing up around his uncle’s fireworks shop, according to former business partner David Milly.
“By the time he was 13, he was already running his own Fourth of July fireworks show,” Milly said.
DeWille’s formal education mostly ended after high school, give or take a few classes at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. After a few years in the Army working on electronics for missiles, DeWille eventually landed in Huntsville, where he worked as a lunar technician at NASA’s Redstone Arsenal.
“On the pay stub, it would say ‘Luna Tech,’” ex-wife and business partner Amanda McLean Nixon said. “That’s how he got the name for the company.”
From the start of Luna Tech in 1972 to his retirement in 2002, DeWille’s work took him around the world, working with artists like KISS and Pink Floyd to Jennifer Lopez and Michael Jackson, even doing the fireworks show for the 1981 Orange Bowl.
DeWille had different patents on pyrotechnic equipment, including the invention of the PYROPAK component system, but to Milly, DeWille’s ultimate contribution to pyrotechnics was the way he made it both safe and entertaining.
“He started something at a time when there were no laws to control anything,” he said. “He got the fire marshals and drew up rules and regulations that could work in the event. Being able to do it for so long, he created an industry that wasn’t there before.”
Nonetheless, DeWille’s thoughts on his own legacy often belied his accomplishments.
“While I’m allegedly responsible for a lot of things in the industry the truth is, I just answered the calls that people had,” DeWille told The Huntsville Times’ Matt Wake in a profile published a few months before his death.
There were plenty of times when DeWille and Luna Tech could’ve moved to where the music scene was happening, between New York City or Los Angeles or, really, anywhere. However, DeWille always wanted to stay in Alabama.
“Tom always said, ‘I want to stay in Hunstville where there are a lot of technical people who can do the things I don’t have the training for,” he said.
To Cappadocia, DeWille’s ultimate contribution was how he brought in and guided the next generation of pyrotechnicians into the fold.
“He really want to teach people,” he said. “He wanted you to succeed and he wanted you to be better.”
Anna Young, co-founder of Martinez Specialties in New York, worked with DeWille from 1998 to 2002 and, like Cappadocia, owes her career to him.
“He gave everyone a chance, no matter what,” Young said. “Everyone in the business loved him.”
While DeWille’s death is tragic, Milly said the way his life was suddenly snuffed out should not be the final word on his story.
“His vision and what he accomplished should be the story,” he said.