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Directing Thunder Over Louisville Is a Family Tradition

On the 24th floor of the Galt House, the Thunder Over Louisville command center is a refashioned hotel room stuffed with computers, control decks and soundboards—all the switches and buttons needed to bring the booms that kick-off the Kentucky Derby Festival.

Standing Thursday in the middle of it all is Thunder Over Louisville director Mandie Clark, who laughed when asked how much power is pumping out of the command center.

"They bring in extra power for us because we can't use the outlets on the wall for grounding issues," she said.

Clark's job is to make sure the show is running smoothly. She coordinates the air show, the music, the lights and fireworks.

The 31-year-old electrical engineer got the job last year, but her years with Thunder stretch back to when she was a small child.

Her father, Tim Creed, along with producer Wayne Hettinger, helped start Thunder 26 years ago, Clark said. He then directed the show for more than 20 years.

"It's a neat transition to see see her take the reigns," said Creed, 57.

For Clark, it's a move that's been a long time coming.

"Growing up, I always said I was going to be director of Thunder," she said.

She remembers Thunder Over Louisville's early days, including when it was held at old Cardinal Stadium—long before it became the largest annual fireworks show in North America.

Then and through the years, she always managed to work her way into the command center to be by her father's side—to enjoy the show from the inside out.

Clark said she attended duPont Manual High School because she wanted to learn about science and technology. She went on to earn a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Kentucky, as well as an MBA.

"I was lucky enough to talk her into coming to work for me when she got out of school," Creed said.

"She's very calm under pressure."

That, he said, is the "main thing" to running a show the size of Thunder Over Louisville, which will span the Ohio River waterfront with six tons of fireworks that will all launch in a half-hour span. That's not even mentioning the air show and other activities held on Thunder day, the official launch party for the Kentucky Derby Festival.

Another important aspect to directing Thunder is to never divulge what changes are being made each year to improve the show, Clark said.

"That's a secret," she said.

Their family members participate, too. While thousands of families gather along the along the waterfront in Louisville and Southern Indiana, a family working behind the scenes will make the show happen.

Clark said her uncles and cousins all help out during Thunder, and her father pulls cables and sets up monitors well before the show starts.

Her 5-year-old son, Dylan, even does his part. Hanging on her director's chair on Thursday was Dylan's official Thunder Over Louisville crew jacket. Embroidered over the heart is his name.

Right below that reads: "Future Director."

"It really is a family thing for us," she said.

Thunder Over Louisville is the only live show Clark runs. Even the family's Fourth of July celebration is "pretty dead," Clark said.

The rest of the year the father and daughter are two-fifths of the Louisville-based company Communications Electronic Design, or CED. They travel the country setting up interactive exhibits for places like the California Science Center, the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee.

"We actually have regular jobs," Creed said, laughing.

Thunder, though, is something special for the two. Clark said the best part of all is hearing the response from thousands of onlookers.

"It's a really cool feeling," Clark said.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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