Great Chicago Fire Festival struggles to ignite

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At a crucial moment Saturday night, the producers of Redmoon’s inaugural edition of “The Great Chicago Fire Festival” might well have been tempted to belt out a line from that Doors classic: “Come on baby, light my fire.”

Only one of the three structures floating at crucial points along the Chicago River ignited on cue to suggest the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. And attempts to switch from electrical ignition to the old-fashioned manual technique in order to get a roaring blaze going were only fitfully successful. The conflagration never fully happened. But just when all seemed lost, a celebratory fireworks show briefly brought the event to a conclusion.

Too bad, because by the time the event began at around 8 p.m., several bridges, and all levels of Wacker Drive along the Chicago River were jam-packed (the crowd was estimated at 30,000 but appeared to be much larger), and despite the chill, there was a real sense of occasion and high expectation. And things got off to a good start for the $2 million project that was designed to turn a section of the Chicago River into a stage for water-born theatrics and sophisticated pyrotechnics designed to conjure the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and the remarkable rebirth of this city that occurred almost as soon as the flames were extinguished.

My cabdriver, a man from Senegal, even rejoiced: “It’s good to have something to make the people happy and they will come downtown to spend more and take my taxi. It has been really busy since 5 p.m.”

Wrapped in winter coats, the crowds took their place along the river between Columbus Drive and State Street. And they might well have been chanting those words from Robert Frost’s poem, “Some say the world will end in fire; Some say in ice. From what I’ve tasted of desire I hold with those who favor fire.”

And yes, the show did seem to fire up people’s imaginations as fiery cauldrons were lowered from a bridge, hundreds of kayakers pulled flaming buoys along the river and colorful little steam engines — suggesting Chicago’s industrial roots — darted past. Those three massive, bright blue floating structures representing the sort of homes that went up in flames back in that conflagration of 1871 were guarded by firefighters discreetly stationed on the water.

The idea was that out of the ashes of a great historical disaster, Chicago was quickly reborn. But without a successful “staged destruction” there could be no transformation — no skyscrapers rising from the river and no glass sculpture emerging as the city’s flag.

“It looks kind of like a sad bonfire,” said Luther Walls, 20, a University of Chicago student who was at the event with a group of his college friends who live at the university’s Talbot House.

Walls said the cold and the waiting didn’t add up to a satisfying experience.

“We’re a little disappointed,” he said. “I could have found a different way to spend my Saturday night.”

“The concept is nice, the concept is cool . . . but honestly it was a let down,” said Arturo Carmona, 29, of Woodridge. “We were expecting to see big flames and they just didn’t seem to catch.”

“It was disappointing to say the least,” said Jane Kollmer, 31, of Uptown, who watched the festival from the 14th floor of the Wrigley Building. “It would really have been a cool event if it had gone as planned. It definitely wasn’t as dazzling as we were expecting as far as the intensity of the flames. It did seem like there were technical problems.”

Did the rains of recent days saturate the three wooden structures, or damage their electrical connections as they sat on the river leading up to Saturday’s spectacle? A possibility.

Surely Redmoon and the city will have many lessons to learn from this first performance. Creating more of a procession or parade on the river might work better than having three isolated views (no one could see everything). So would a better choice of music. And fewer promotional credits at the start would definitely have enhanced the magic.

The best way to think of this year’s effort is as a dress rehearsal. Thought also should be given to finding a date in early September, which would certainly improve the odds for better weather.

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