Emanuel jokes about fire festival mishap, but vows to try again

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel joked Wednesday that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and a lantern — once blamed for the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 — might have spared the Great Chicago Fire Festival from an embarrassment that one alderman called the “fiasco on the Chicago River.”

Ald. Edward Burke (14th), chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee, has condemned the event bankrolled by $1.35 million in public money because the fire feature fizzled.

Redmoon Theater Company had promised to culminate months of neighborhood arts programming by setting fire to three Victorian mansions floating down the river — and commemorating the rebuilding of Chicago after the 1871 fire by revealing the city’s inner strength in the form of the city flag, a Chicago skyscraper and a ladder used by firefighters.

Instead, two of the three fires fizzled.

At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, the 143rd anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire was remembered with descendants of Catherine O’Leary in attendance. Years ago, the City Council exonerated Mrs. O’Leary and her cow.

But that didn’t stop Emanuel from using the myth as a punch-line for the festival embarrassment.

“Over the weekend, we could have borrowed Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, as well as the lantern. That would have been helpful to us,” the mayor said.

Photo gallery: Chicago Fire Festival houses float down Chicago River

Later, Emanuel made it clear that the Great Chicago Fire Festival would be repeated, in spite of the fire mishap.

“There’ll be an after-action report: What didn’t work. What worked. What do we need to do different,” the mayor said.

“We will continue to go forward, but clearly, we’re gonna make changes and adaptations.”

The mayor noted that 30,000 to 40,000 people showed up on a cold and rainy Saturday night. He called that showing a “clear sign that what the event was about touched a spirit” in Chicago.

He also reminded reporters that thousands of kids worked through the summer to “build and participate in constructing” some of the materials on display during the first annual Great Chicago Fire Festival.

“I don’t want to lose that…. That spirit is what we want to keep holding up and embracing and strengthening…. Don’t forget what happened this summer. Don’t forget the learning that our kids had — the summer jobs, people in different neighborhoods participating in something,” the mayor said.

“I do believe this is something we want to continue to do. We’ll look at different ways to do it, but not just throw in the towel. That’s now how we’re gonna do things. But, we’ll make the changes necessary.”

The city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events 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.

Burke has ridiculed the event, questioned the public contribution, and scoffed at the proposal for an encore.

“What’s the old adage? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me,” the aldermen said earlier this week.

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