Alderman condemns fire festival that fizzled as “fiasco”

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Chicago’s most powerful alderman on Monday condemned as a “fiasco on the Chicago River” a “Great Chicago Fire Festival” bankrolled by $1.35 million in public money, even though the fire feature fizzled.

“They couldn’t display what they had promised the viewers they were gonna display,” said Ald. Edward Burke (14th), chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee, who acknowledged that he wasn’t there.

Burke condemned as a Saturday night “fiasco on the Chicago River” an event that was supposed to culminate with three Victorian mansions floating down the river being set on fire to reveal inner strength beneath—in the form of the city flag, a Chicago skyscraper and a ladder used by firefighters.

Instead, two of the three fires fizzled.

“One would think to celebrate the 143rd anniversary of one of the most significant events in Chicago’s history, there ought to be a better way of doing that,” he said.

Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) went so far as to demand a refund from the Redmoon Theater company, which staged the event.

Hours after Burke demanded to know how much public money was spent on the event, Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Michelle Boone acknowledged that her department contributed $350,000 over two years for the inaugural festival.

The Chicago Park District kicked in another $1 million from its “summer programming budget” to bankroll Redmoon’s “outreach and community engagement” in 15 neighborhoods across the city, she said.

Boone scoffed at the suggestion that the event that included “five hours of programming prior to the spectacle event” was a bust just because two of three Victorian mansions failed to burst into flames.

“To try and reduce this all to measuring the success of the event on whether or not three houses burned down—that’s not why we got into this,” Boone said.

“We were compelled to support this project because it was a creative idea that dreamed big and had a plan for activation of the riverfront. We did that.”

In spite of the embarrassing misfire, Boone said the Great Chicago Fire Festival was “a really cool event” that would definitely be repeated.

“It was amazing to me to see 30,000 people out on the riverfront. It was an awesome fireworks show. I loved being serenaded by the Children’s Choir. The three structures were really quite beautiful on the water. And it was great having kiosks from 15 neighborhoods along Wacker Drive,” she said.

“What it demonstrated is that there is a real thirst to have the riverfront activated. I would hope that Chicago is a city that doesn’t turn its back on investing in creativity. That’s what this is about: Supporting an arts organization and hundreds of organizations to be able to dream big and cement Chicago as a creative capital. If we aren’t willing to do that, we’ll never get there.”

Jim Lasko, executive artistic director of the Redmoon Theater, acknowledged that there was a “fiasco around a central element” of the event intended to symbolize the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the rebirth of the city that followed.

But, Lasko categorically denied that the entire festival fizzled to the point where it should not be repeated.

“I fully admit there were things that didn’t go as well as they should have. There was a fiasco around a central element. But, the event was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a fiasco,” Lasko said.

“Over 2,000 artists’ work was seen. Over 30,000 people were down there feeling a sense of community and pride about Chicago. People were lining the riverwalk celebrating and taking in the talent on display. One single, very important part of the spectacle didn’t go right. But many other parts were absolutely beautiful and perfect.”

Although many among the crowd of 30,000 left disappointed, Lasko said he’s grateful that Emanuel and Boone are willing to try again.

“The entire event was meant to celebrate Chicago’s grit, resilience and sense of renewal. And I can’t see anything other than an invitation to step up to that challenge and for us to rise and create a better event next year,” Lasko said.

Burke scoffed at the suggestion of an encore, telling reporters, “What’s the old adage? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Maybe that applies.”

The City Council’s resident historian was just getting started.

“In the law, they say, `Res isva loquitur: The thing speaks for itself,” said Burke, who loves to quote from Latin phrases.

He added, “If there’s enough money to spend on something like this, maybe the money would be better spent being contributed to the Greater Chicago Food depository to try to help feed people who are going hungry or to donate to a shelter that takes care of abused women.”

The Great Chicago Fire Festival was a partnership between the city and the Redmoon theater company.

It featured acrobatics, live music and fireworks and culminated in a “procession of illuminated fiberglass sculptures” on the main branch of the Chicago River.

Redmoon worked with artists and community groups across the city to “imagine the thing they most want to be rid of in their lives” and create floating sculptures symbolizing those impediments that were supposed to be torched in a “huge public ritual” with “cathartic” power.

Instead, only one of the three structures were set on fire as planned. Redmoon blamed the embarassment on Chicago’s rainy weather and acknowledged that the theater company didn’t have a back-up plan.

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