Chicagoans burn as fire festival fizzles

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Where was Mrs. O’Leary’s cow when Chicago really needed her?

OK, historians agree that it wasn’t Cate O’Leary’s cow knocking over a lantern in the barn at 137 DeKoven Street that touched off the Great Chicago Fire on Oct. 8, 1871, leveling much of the place and setting the stage for the city we see today.

But somebody needed to show better skill in the setting-things-ablaze department than was shown by the Redmoon Theater Saturday night, as its first Great Chicago Fire Festival turned into an epic fail and embarrassing fizzle for all involved, particularly Mayor Rahm Emanuel, on hand to personally witness his latest setback.

Some 30,000 people came downtown on an unusually cold and rainy early October evening. But in a town used to putting 60,000 hardy souls in Soldier Field on a single-digit day in December, bracing unpleasant elements is nothing unusual, and as darkness fell, the pre-flop mood around the river was boisterous by all reports.

The procession of barges — Victorian mansion-shaped floats — made their appearance. Flame was put to them. Only the things wouldn’t burn.

Minutes passed. The crowd started chanting: “We want fire! We want fire!”

The Twitterverse had no trouble igniting in a firestorm of scorn.

“Is anyone downtown at the Fire Fest?” WGN’s Dean Richards tweeted. “54 min late . . . nothing happening at State Street!!”

“‘It’s cold, I’m hungry, nothing’s on fire.’ Common refrain I’m hearing right now at Chicago Fire Fest” tweeted WTTW broadcaster Paris Schutz.

To be clear: I wasn’t there. I had contemplated going, the way you muse you really should get up on a ladder and clean those gutters. I raised the subject as we broke our Yom Kippur fast at a Korean barbecue joint late Saturday afternoon (close enough; though if you’re looking for a cosmic reason to explain the Great Chicago Fire Festival Fiasco of 2014, consider its scheduling on Judaism’s holiest day: Always a bad idea to give the finger to the God of Deuteronomy).

But the temperature was a paltry 42, a penetrating cold due to the drizzle, and my wife said there was no way she was heading downtown. She made a counter suggestion: gelato and a movie at home instead. I wasn’t about to argue that one.

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