Changes are in the works to make certain that the second annual Great Chicago Fire Festival is not a repeat of the first: a fizzle-fest that one alderman called a “fiasco on the Chicago River.”
Redmoon Theater Company 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. A crowd of 30,000 that had gathered along the Chicago River on a cold and damp October night left disappointed.
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.
“What’s the old adage? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Maybe that applies,” Burke, the City Council’s resident historian, said then.
“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.”
On Thursday, a City Council committee approved an annual special events ordinance that makes no mention of the Great Chicago Fire Festival.
But 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.
“We’re working to ensure that the houses will ignite in a way that will ignite the imagination for the spectators and also add more support to, kind of the show of the spectacle,” Boone said.
And just what can the city and Redmoon do differently to make certain the floating houses ignite?
“One thing we can probably do is pray to the weather gods that we don’t have like five days of rain soaking the houses in advance. So hopefully the weather and maybe even the storage or the protection of the houses and the frames” should be different, Boone said.
“It was out on the river for days before, subjected to the rain. So the materials were pretty soaked. . . . I don’t know what Redmoon plans to do — if they’ll change the materials or if they’ll keep them stored in a facility or move them out onto the river at a later date closer to the time of the actual event. That’s their call.”
Jim Lasko, executive artistic director of the Redmoon Theater, could not be reached for comment about the changes.
Last fall, Burke was so incensed about the flame-out, he demanded to know how much public money was spent on the event.
Boone subsequently acknowledged that her department had contributed $350,000 over two years for the inaugural festival and that the Chicago Park District had kicked in another $1 million from its “summer programming budget to bankroll Redmoon’s “outreach and community engagement in 15 neighborhoods across the city.
At the time, Boone, Emanuel and Lasko scoffed at the suggestion that the event that included “five hours of programming prior to the spectacle event” was a bust just because two or three Victorian mansions failed to go up in flames, as promised.
They vowed to go back to the drawing board and get it right the second time around.
On Thursday, Boone reiterated the pledge to give artists the opportunity to test their “ambitious and bold” ideas.
“It’s unfortunate that the houses didn’t ignite. But what was really wonderful about the event is we introduced a new platform to Chicago for experiencing cultural events along the riverfront,” she said.
“It was great that 30,000 people came out on a cold October night downtown. That had never happened before. The work that Redmoon had done for months leading up to that event to engage the community was fantastic. The type of people that came downtown to be a part of the festival was really wonderful — the engagement of young people. We’ve created a really unique model for Chicago and I hope to see it continue.”
Slightly charred houses from the first Great Chicago Fire Festival make their way down the river the week after the event fizzled out. |Craig M. Newman/Sun-Times