This time, there was fire at the Great Chicago Fire Festival.
The event, put on by Redmoon Theater Saturday night at Northerly Island, went off without a hitch — a big change from last year, when the inaugural celebration of the 1871 fire that transformed Chicago was a dud.
Last year, only one of the structures that was supposed to be engulfed in flames actually caught on fire. That led one alderman to call the event a “fiasco on the Chicago River.”
But Saturday night, a crowd estimated by fire officials at 10,000 people watched in awe as a structure representing three houses ignited — the smell of smoke wafting through the air as the heat of the flames could be felt by those in the audience.
Derrik Sweeney, a 23-year-old law student, said it was “awesome” and felt “like a tanning bed.”
Sitting near Sweeney were Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his wife, Amy Rule, who snapped pictures of the spectacle of fire, dance and song.
The event began Saturday afternoon with a showcase of Chicago dancers, poets and musicians. But the culminating moment came as the sun went down. Cauldrons of fire were lit, drummers roused the crowd and a stirring choir sang.
Then, an actor in a black suit with white spots — the O’Leary cow, perhaps — put flames to the wooden houses. Propane ignited the fire, a Chicago Fire Department official said at the scene.
Ballet Folklorico Xochitl dances at Northerly Island during Saturday’s Redmoon
Theater Great Chicago Fire Festival. Becky Schlikerman / Sun-times
The houses went up in flames almost immediately, and those in the crowd uttered “Whoa!” and snapped photos. Firefighters then doused the flames with water.
Last October, a bigger crowd — about 30,000 people — gathered along the Chicago River but left disappointed. Redmoon representatives — who suspected rain-soaked wood was the problem — promised to make sure things didn’t fizzle out this time. And they made sure that this year the flames roared.