Great Chicago Fire Festival moves signature event to Northerly Island

SHARE Great Chicago Fire Festival moves signature event to Northerly Island
SHARE Great Chicago Fire Festival moves signature event to Northerly Island

The Great Chicago Fire Festival, which ended in what its organizer described Friday as a “marquee failure” when structures floating down the Chicago River failed to ignite for the premier celebration, will be moved to dry land — on Northerly Island — this year.

The finale of the festival, which celebrates months of artistic work by young people involved in city parks and civic group programs, takes place Sept. 26.

Jim Lasko, co-artistic director of the Redmoon Theater performance group that puts on the festival’s ending show, said Friday that the lawn of Northerly Island’s concert venue will ensure easier visibility, higher profiles for neighborhood participants and half the expense — $1.2 million this year compared with the $2.4 million cost of last year’s fiasco on the river. The lessened expenses include the cost of liability insurance.

“We’re most interested in creating a festival for Chicago’s neighborhoods,” Lasko said. “That’s going to be much easier for us to do on land.”

“We can put in bleachers and arena seating and take other steps to provide much more visual access,” he said, noting that last year’s crowd of 30,000 was much larger than anticipated.

Redmoon also is working with a team of experts who have set up special effects for movies and for TV shows such as “Chicago Fire” to make sure this year’s house burns “quite safely,” Lasko said.

This year, the single structure to be burned down will be covered with paper “shingles” on which young people from throughout the city have written the obstacles they hope to or have overcome in their lives. The fire will be a ceremonial burning away of those obstacles, Lasko said. The shingle-writing has been part of programs hosted by the city park district, the Boys & Girls Clubs and After School Matters, he said.

This year’s celebration will feature local dancers, acrobats, musicians and other performers on five stages located throughout the Northerly Island grounds, Lasko said.

It will also feature a “neighborhood portrait” composed of stories and digitally manipulated photos young people have created to highlight personal and geographical landmarks. The work stems from a park district program that pairs young people with professional artists, Lasko said.

Lasko said the new location will let people walk easily from one stage to the next. Last year, the artwork, performances and kiosks for neighborhood groups that sell hand-made goods had to be scattered among sites such as Pioneer Court, upper Wacker Drive and the American Medical Association Plaza because of lack of space and liability issues.

“It dispersed the energy of the audience,” he said.

This year, anyone who wants to participate in the celebratory spectacle may come to Northerly Island and rehearse on the afternoon of the finale, Lasko said.

That’s in keeping with what Lasko sees as a “hunger” for such an event.

“We learned (last year) that there is a high demand for an unproven, unprecedented cultural event,” he said.

Lasko said that city officials “scrutinized our plan for Northerly Island very carefully before approving the move.”

No one from the city could be reached immediately, but city officials were believed to have wanted to continue the festival on the river to highlight the new Riverwalk.

However, “in the end, I think everyone was persuaded that this was the way to ensure the best audience experience,” Lasko said.

The official Fire Festival kickoff is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, July 9, at La Villita Park, 2800 S. Sacramento Ave.

Last year, Redmoon had promised to culminate months of neighborhood arts programming by setting fire to three Victorian mansions floating down the river. It was supposed to commemorate 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; the houses had been soaked by several days of rain before the October event.

Lasko said last year’s failure resulted from a “perfect storm” of bad timing. The previous few days prior to the festival had record cold temperatures; it rained the day of the event, and at the moment of ignition, the wind gusted.

“We didn’t have redundancy built into the ignition system,” he said. “That was a difficult lesson.”

The debacle prompted Mayor Rahm Emanuel to joke that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and a lantern — once blamed for the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 — might have spared Chicago from the embarrassment.

Ald. Edward Burke (14th), chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee, condemned the “fiasco on the Chicago River” bankrolled by $1.35 million in public money and demanded that it be the last.

“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,” Burke said then.

But earlier this year, Special Events and Cultural Affairs Commissioner Michelle Boone made it clear that the show will go on again this fall with another $100,000 in city funds and changes to avoid another disappointing dud.

Redmoon and city officials had better hope for nice weather this year. The Northerly Island concert lawn was criticized as a mud bath with poor sight lines in 2013 after it was used as an expanded space for Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band.

Contributing: Fran Spielman

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