Planning the Grand Illumination

Tim Sutphin has the daunting task of overseeing details for Colonial Williamsburg&s Grand Illumination held the first Sunday in December.


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on  We’re on location today with “Behind the Scenes” where you will meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Tim Sutphin who is in charge of Grand Illumination at Colonial Williamsburg – and about 16 other things I just learned. You’re manager of Historic Area events, you run the Magazine…well that would fit in with Grand Illumination.

Tim Sutphin:  Right. It does…and also Fifes and Drums.

Lloyd:  Fifes and Drums.  Okay, now, how did you get to be in charge of Grand Illumination? 

Tim:   I was actually working for Bill White, who was the keeper of the torch for Grand Illumination for many years, and for a couple of years he had me shadowing him, and then one year he said, “it’s yours,” so that’s how I kind of fell into it.

Lloyd: Or, he sort of fell out of it…  

Tim:  (Laughs) …or he fell out of it, yes.

Lloyd:  That would be a job…I am not good with explosives and things that go boom in the night. I would not particularly like that. Does it bother you?

Tim: It doesn’t. You know, I don’t have to touch the stuff. We do have companies coming in that handle the fireworks…and things like that, and it’s really just pulling all the pieces together, that’s what I do.     

Lloyd:   Yeah, but if it goes wrong, guess who they’re going to come for…

Tim:   Yes, but luckily that hasn’t happened yet.

Lloyd:  How long does it take to set that up?

Tim:   We usually start…actually we’re starting right now – three or four weeks out.  The   speakers for all of the stages are going up now. The stages will be going up soon, and the physical stuff takes about a day. We start at 8:00 am on Sunday morning; fireworks company comes in. They start setting up the Magazine, and then they move to the Capitol, and then in the afternoon, they all converge on the Palace, because the Palace and the Capitol are open and the front door to the Palace is blocked when we put fireworks there.  

Lloyd: Do you have any idea how much of what they use? I have seen it once, and it really was kind of impressive, I hate to admit it, but it was neat.

Tim: I don’t know exactly how much fireworks explosives they use; it is enough for a 20-minute program, and it’s all simultaneous, four locations.  You’ve got the Palace – in the front of the Palace – the Magazine, then the south side of the Capitol, and the north side of the Capitol.    

Lloyd:   So, the Grand Illumination is, in fact, four different grand illuminations.  

Tim:  Exactly, exactly.  

Lloyd:  How many people do you think watch that? Anybody ever count ’em?
Tim:  We try to shy away from that because there is just no way to count how many people are there. The Duke of Gloucester Street is full shoulder-to-shoulder bodies from the Capitol down to the foot of Palace Green and then up Palace Green. So, you’ve got a lot of folks in town for that one day.

Lloyd:  That would be a lot…that is really a good show, and I hate to tell you this but I once watched it from about two miles away on top of a hill, and it’s still a good show.

Tim: Well, I know there are a lot of folks in the local area that will actually go up on the     parking garage that is several blocks off the Historic Area and sit there and have their own little Grand Illumination party and watch the fireworks, and then hop in their car and head home and get out before the crowds. 

Lloyd:  Has it ever rained?

Tim: It has rained, and it has snowed, which is kind of unusual for Williamsburg at that time of year, but the show goes on.  

Lloyd:  Well, I guess if you know how to do pyrotechnics, rain would not really be a problem, or snow.

Tim:  It’s the wind. The wind is the deciding factor. If the wind speeds are fairly high, then you’ve got fireworks and the stuff that goes up with it showering down on the crowds, so that’s the concern is the wind.

Lloyd:  So that’s what you sit all day and worry about?

Tim:  That’s exactly right, yes.

Lloyd:   If they forecast bad enough winds, would you just say “not this year?” 

Tim:  No, we’d keep going.

Lloyd: You’d keep going no matter what…

Tim:  Keep going no matter what, typically at sunset, winds will die down, so we’ll call it at the very last minute if we have to, and “knock on wood” we’ve never had to do that.

Lloyd:  What do you worry about most?

Tim:  I worry about people getting hurt. You’ve got so many people in the town; you’ve got just wall-to-wall folks. They’re all having a great time. If someone gets hurt, it’s very hard to find them in the dark and get emergency services folks to them. That’s my biggest worry.

Lloyd:  Do you have people around the crowd?

Tim:  We do, we have our own security on bikes. The city has police on bikes and EMTs on bicycles. We have first aid stations on the north and south side of Duke of Gloucester Street, so you can run Francis Street or Nicholson Street, which are a little less crowded, to get to places, but that’s probably the biggest thing. We try to do everything we can…

Lloyd:  That would be worrisome, wouldn’t it…and it’s not necessarily something terribly wrong, a guy gets sick…just no reason for it – he did.

Tim:  Right, exactly – a diabetic not having insulin…

Lloyd:  So I guess when you go to bed that night and nobody’s been hurt…

Tim: …it was a good program, it was a very good program.

Lloyd:  This may be impolitic, too, but so what…

Tim:  Oh go ahead…

Lloyd:  Bill White sort of got you into it without really telling you he was getting you into it, are you working with someone now?

Tim: Oh, my replacement? Not really. There are folks around the Historic Area that could do it just as easily as I do. They know some of the “ins” and “outs,” they just don’t have the full picture. But I really don’t have anyone right now that I’m saying, “this is going to be yours in five years…”

Lloyd:   Would it have to be somebody who had an interest in it?

Tim: I think so; there are a lot of little minute details that get thrown on you. I found out that I was responsible for when the lights are supposed to go on. I don’t have to do it, but I have to tell the Historic Area when the lights are supposed to go on, the white lights for the Christmas season. I don’t know how I inherited that job, but I did. The decorations – when are the decorations supposed to go up? I wind up helping set that date. So there are a lot of little minute details that you’ve got to take care of, and you have to enjoy that sort of thing – kind of organized chaos.

Lloyd: The musical part of it – the fifes and drums – when you are getting started with that, it has to be organized chaos.  

Tim:  It is, very much so.

Lloyd: You probably were the logical person to deal with organized chaos. 

Tim: I probably was, yes.

Lloyd:  I wonder if Bill White knew that when he started.

Tim: Probably, he having come up through the fifes and drums like myself….

Lloyd:  Oh he did, who’s coming up through the fifes and drums?

Tim: That would be Lance Pedigo.

Lloyd:  Oh, I know Lance, I won’t tell him. (Laughs)   

Tim: And hopefully he won’t be listening to this. (Laughs)

Lloyd: Other than the worry of it, and the detail of it, is it a demanding job or can you have some fun with it?

Tim: Oh I can have some fun with it. You know, the best pleasure I get out of doing this program is knowing that I have helped throw a party for those many thousands of people, and they are having a great time. If you walk down the street after the fireworks, and people are talking; and they’re chatting; and they’re laughing, and they’re having a great time – that to me is the reward that I get, and I love it.

Lloyd: Have you ever thought of walking down Duke of Gloucester Street saying, “I did that!”

Tim: NO! No, you do that, and people start offering you suggestions on how to improve it.

Lloyd: Oh, now see I hadn’t thought of that.

I’m trying to think back…the fireworks are not in colors, are they?

Tim: Yes, they are.

Lloyd: They are in colors, okay…

Tim: They are in colors.

Lloyd: The one I remember best was white – the sky was just this big white light. Was that the finale?

Tim: There is a finale for it, and it’s just everything goes up at once just like a traditional 4th of July fireworks, but it is much lower – it’s ground effects fireworks is how it’s described.

Lloyd: Behind the wall when the door is closed, I guess it gets up to roof height. Maybe a little bit more…

Tim: A little bit higher, a little bit higher. They are small shells. A lot of the stuff that the company uses are for indoor shows – concerts, parties, those sorts of things, so a lot of the product that they are using is for indoors, so it’s not very high, and that is why we are doing it in four locations – to help spread the crowd out and make sure that everybody is having a good time.

Lloyd: Actually, I had not thought that there are indeed four locations, and so it spreads it all out. If you did it only at the Palace you couldn’t get that many people in that area to save your life.

Tim: …couldn’t get them on the Palace Green, nope…not at all.

Lloyd:  That’s a big place…but not that big.

Tim: Not that big…

Lloyd:  You’re worried about getting people hurt. You’re happy with it because people have had a good time. Have you ever wondered to yourself “well, is it going to go right this year, or is something going to happen that I haven’t even thought about yet?”

Tim: I think all event organizers like that go through that process. I think you are always worried that you’ve missed something, or you have not thought of it at all, or a situation is going to come up, and you had no plan whatsoever how to deal with it, and you’ve never thought about what that is – I mean good or bad. So, yeah, I always worry about okay what have I missed?

Lloyd: Do you have a check list?

Tim: I have a checklist. 

Lloyd: I’ll bet you do.

Tim:  And I add to it every year.

Lloyd:  That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. Check often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.


  1. Will there be a ball during the 2012 Illumination week? I believe it is called Lady Dunmore’s ball and the public may purchase tickets to attend.

    • Thanks for your question. We will ask the Historic Programming Department and get back to you.

  2. Lady Dunmore’s Ball is Saturday, December 8, 2012. We hope to see you there.

  3. What is the dress code for the Lady Dunmore’s ball?

  4. What do you do in case of rain on Sunday, Dec.8, 2013, for the firework and all the outdoor entertainment? I see it is 80%.

    • Lynda, our fantastic fireworks are expected to be a go. Rain will not interfere. In the event of high winds, updates will be posted on and on Colonial Williamsburg’s Facebook page. In addition, many of the outdoor attractions are sheltered from the rain. Thanks for your question.
      Jane Elizabeth
      Web editor

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