Monday, August 25, 2014

Is Chicago ready for a Great Fire Festival?

     When I first heard that Chicago was creating a funky new folk festival where citizens are asked to ritually burn challenges they hope to overcome, in the form of some grand aquatic celebration of our revitalization after the Great Chicago Fire, I was intrigued. But with the event five weeks away, and few people I know aware of it, well, I'm beginning to have my doubts.

     For a guy who never believed in God, not for a second, not even as a child, I sure am a fan of ritual. I will place two fingers upon the mezuzah on our doorpost and then kiss them, for luck. I put my hands upon my oldest son’s head and blessed him, in Hebrew, before he set out for college in California on Saturday. I’ve always envied the Catholic sign of the cross gesture as being a very useful, nearly perfect gesture to solemnize any moment that calls for it.
     Many people nowadays tend to be flexible when it comes to ritual.
     “Shouldn’t we have some kind of ceremony to mark his leaving?” I said to my wife, busily packing for the boy this week.
Framework for buildings to be burned at festival
     “We’re having Lou Malnati’s,” she replied, an answer I savored for its purity of spirit.
     Which is a long way of saying that I was fertile ground when the city cooked up the idea of a new symbolic civic holiday, “The Great Chicago Fire Festival,” set to debut on the Chicago River Oct. 4 (an auspicious date already, it being Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. I asked one of the publicists ballyhooing the Fire Festival how that happened and she said the date was set years ago, as if Yom Kippur were randomly set each year and determining when it falls in future years is an obvious impossibility).
     Since I doubt I’ll attend the event itself, I slid by Redmoon’s cavernous headquarters at in Pilsen Thursday for an open house and tour of the “Grand Spectacle” preparations.     
     Redmoon is a former puppet company now morphed into producing street parties, corporate blow-outs and birthday bashes for billionaires. It won a $250,000 arts grant last year to put on a party which, in Rahm Emanuel’s words, will mark “the creation of a new large-scale cultural festival that attracts global attention and highlights our city’s cultural assets and heritage.”
     The preview had a hasty, shambolic quality that made me wonder if they’ll pull it off.
     “This is by far the largest thing we’ve ever done,” said Jim Lasko, executive artistic director, said. “We’re cooperating with everyone from the EPA to the Coast Guard, the fire department, police department, mayor’s office, Chicago public school system …”
     What to expect? Think a parade on water. Think floating floats. Think 22 giant buoys of flame bobbing on the river. Think three enormous Victorian homes on barges, burning spectacularly mid-river, after kayaking couriers collect letters of sins to efface or challenges overcome from spectators and convey them to the doomed structures.
    I’m not a fan of fence sitting, but I’m uncertain about all this. On one hand, what’s not to love? Venetian Night was wonderful, with its procession of lighted boats, and this might be a 21st century Venetian Night, with Cirque du Soleil-style massive mechanical whimsy coupled with flame, on the water.
    On the other hand, the thing exudes a certain New Age nuttiness that might not resonate with this especially difficult moment in the life of Chicago. The mayor’s office seems to be drawing away a bit from its baby, since throwing spiritual aquatic flame circuses for those seeking rebirth is not exactly the image Rahm wants to convey.
     “We’re interested in reminding people what it means to work with your hands,” said Frank Maugeri, Redmoon’s producing artistic director. I almost piped up: “A good chunk of the city doesn’t need reminding.”
     Redmoon has cannily — or, to be generous, sincerely — gone into the neighborhoods and quizzed Chicago’s gorgeous racial and ethnic stew about what they would overcome or celebrate, and are going to festoon the riverfront with huge photos of regular folk, silent emissaries from parts of Chicago who might not rush over to the river on a Saturday night to jot “Killings in my neighborhood” on a note to give a kayaking postman who’ll deliver it to be ritualistically burned aboard a purple townhouse.
     “It is an art project, about bringing voice and platform to some of the lesser heard people in the city, that is about celebrating the city, celebrating our spirit of grit and resilience, our capacity to renew and revitalize and change our own story,” Lasko said.
     Bravo. I can imagine it a disaster, with flaming barges drifting off and jamming under bridges, sparking a second Great Chicago Fire. I can also see it becoming a big, beloved fall Mardi Gras on water. I can’t speculate about the future without pointing out that I’m the guy who said a) cellphones were fad and b) “Who is going to haul out to Navy Pier for some tourist pleasure dome?”
      It is something I’d like to see, if I weren’t previously committed. Oh, and should it endure, which it might, Yom Kippur begins the evening of Sept. 22 in 2015, Oct. 11 in 2016. Jews like spectacle as much as anybody.

Postscript: The Fire Festival itself was a disappointing fizzle. 


  1. Yes but what about chocolate sodas?

    1. The guy who shall not be named on page two on the Trib has written a couple of columns about chocolate sodas. Joe could be making a reference to that, but then I could be wrong.

  2. I probably don't believe in God either but somehow think it bad luck to say so aloud. I also envy Catholics their rituals, and, if I was one, would favor going back to the Latin Mass. I suppose I could become a high Anglican. Alan Bennet, who studied for the priesthood before becomming a commedian and playrwright, once wrote, "The Church of England is so constituted that its members can really believe anything. But of course almost none of them do."

  3. Or "...becoming a comedian and playwright...".Haste makes waste.

  4. Rahm doesn't care about Chicago - this was supposed to be a stepping stone - clearly Kelly's suburbanite comment hurt - why else respond so vehemently?


This blog posts comments at the discretion of the proprietor.