Monday, October 6, 2014

Chicagoans burn while Great Chicago Fire Festival fizzles

     The city and Redmoon say they're ready to try the (Not So) Great Fire Festival again next year. That's a good idea, though I'm wondering whether the group responsible for the flub are the ones we should entrust with trying it again. In the real world, you do a botch job, you get fired. But that isn't the approach Chicago is taking. Maybe what we also suffered was a failure of imagination, and perhaps the best people to remedy it are the very people whom this festival supposedly celebrates.

     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.
     Still, curiosity had me online at the appointed hour, smiling benevolently at the snafu, which I had foreseen in my Aug. 25 column where I toured Redmoon’s Pilsen headquarters, viewed the floats being built, and saw that, five weeks before the event, they didn’t seem to have their act together.
     “The preview had a hasty, shambolic quality that made me wonder if they’ll pull it off,” I wrote, and happily retweeted Saturday night, a rare moment of prescience.
     Though to be candid, I was more worried about blazing floats getting out of control; the thought that they couldn’t even get the things to light in the first place was so extremely lame as to be beyond imagining.
     What now? Anyone purporting to hold a public event, particularly in Chicago, has to accept the occasional disaster, from the monsoon that washed out what was supposed to be the first night game under lights at Wrigley Field (“8/8/88,” remember?) to that storm forcing Lollapalooza to be evacuated in 2012. As much as I was disappointed by the New Age, twee, self-adoring execution by Redmoon, an organization that lost its soul catering birthday bashes for billionaires, there is a good idea lurking somewhere here, and lame as its debut was, it would be even lamer to drop the idea altogether. Many a cherished tradition crawled slowly out of the blocks. The WOOGMS Parade, a beloved and now extensive Memorial Day celebration that has enlivened Lake View for half a century, began with Al Weisman getting an American flag on a 5-foot-long flagpole and marching down Oakdale Avenue, followed by the neighborhood kids.
     Why not rethink the thing? Redmoon was so wrapped up with artsy-fartsy nonsense that their barges didn’t burn. Have a dozen barges, not three, and allocate each to a neighborhood group or charity — maybe they have to pay for the privilege. Let them construct a big, flammable edifice under the close supervision of somebody who knows what they’re doing. Let the whole thing benefit the Chicago Fire Department or a related charity, like Bucks for Burn Camp. Pry the buttered fingers of Redmoon off the event; send them back to serving canapes to Sam Zell’s friends. If we quit now, the entire effort was a waste. It we declare it a do-over, it might someday be seen to have worth. That’s the true Chicago spirit. We don’t quit.


  1. Having attended 2 of the 3 "occasional disasters" referred to, I can assure you that 8/8/88 was more fun than last night's fiasco. Was that only because of the quantity of beer we consumed in the bleachers at Wrigley? Perhaps, but it was a lot warmer that night, too, and even sitting on a wooden plank is preferable to standing the whole time! The thing that ties them together for me, now that you mention the first night game, were my frequent glances up at the clock on the Wrigley building last night while lamenting the passage of time during which nothing was happening on the river. Though some of the stuff was interesting enough, I don't think I'd disagree with the characterization of "New Age, twee, self-adoring execution," either. That being said, the sense of community was refreshing, though it was mainly communal disappointment. Oh, and the fireworks were pretty cool, especially with the noise magnified by the proximity of the buildings.

    FWIW, we've marched in a couple WOOGMS parades, too. Not a lot of execution required there, back when we participated. ; )

  2. You left out the Venetian Night boat sinkings of years ago.
    Every year at Venetian Night, at least one boat sank in the harbor.
    Only in the last few years of that mess, did they manage to not have anything sink.
    When they stopped the sinkings, they took all the fun out of it.
    No one was hurt, just their feelings & the cost of the boat.

  3. Beyond the "we don't quit" spirit of Chicago, I would add the basic lesson of "we learn from our mistakes." Didin't General "Desert Fox" Rommel once remark that the American soldiers knew less but learned faster than any he'd seen before? I sometimes feel we're too quick to abandon ship - or in this case barge.

    As for "Always a bad idea to give the finger to the God of Deuteronomy" - not what I would expect given this blog's title! If you'll forgive a tangential thought this sparks, I've had the pleasure to know several fundementalist Christians - not the hate-spouting types you see in political contexts but people who take the Bible literally, especially the fall of Lucifer and his sin of wanting to be like the Most High. Ask them about gay rights and they'll be against them sure enough, but they'll also say it's no more sinful than an NFL player working on the sabbath, and to say otherwise would be rewriting Scripture to fit their own preferences. I imagine the same is true with Orthodox Jews - ocassionally you see something unseemly in Israel (people dressed immodestly in the wrong neighborhood attacked, threats against Israeli soldiers who might dare remove an illegal settlement (I mean "illegal" in the context of Israel's own government deeming it illegal, not the broader Geneva Convention sense) but I'll bet you there are legions of quiet devout, ultra-orthodox out there too. And yes, Islam, Hindus, etc. etc. My point isn't to dis everyone else but give a shout-out of respect to these folks.

  4. They will have this festival every October to put people in Rahm's hotels and restaurants to generate tax to make up for Daley's fleecing of the city- failure is 30k not showing next year but instead staying home for gelato and a movie. (What did you see, Neil?)

  5. Oak Park / Evanston ripped on radio by Neil before he goes home to leafy Northbrook

  6. Both places I've lived, so am familiar with the kind of entitlement you feel. Northbrook, frankly, doesn't quite rise to those heights.

    1. Then it's changed, which boggles the mind, from when I was living there 20 yrs ago-your kids must be w right crowd - peace out

  7. It seems that your distaste for Redmoon existed before they forgot how to light a match -- is it solely because of whatever they did with Zell, or is there a larger story I missed that moved the troupe from arty-theatre-spectacle group to lapdog of the undeservedly wealthy? Is doing a private event something that negates their usual artistic output? I only know Redmoon by reputation, but suspect that other artistic groups I know and love would be tarred by the same private-event brush, and hope that if Steppenwolf, Lookingglass, or the Lyric ever do a private event, you don't find out about it!

    1. I saw their "Moby-Dick" years ago. Excruciating. And I hate pretense, and they've got it in droves. It isn't the private parties aspect so much as the combination of trying to be Cirque du Soleil and the Goodman at the same time. I just think their aesthetic sucks.


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