By Robert Loerzel

The critics were brutal. Headlines called it a “fizzle,” a “fiasco,” and “a total bust.” Some 30,000 people had gathered on the banks of the Chicago River in the city’s downtown on the night of October 4, waiting to see three floating houses set ablaze. They applauded at the first sight of flames, but then the fires flickered out. They waited, and then they waited some more. “We want fire!” some shouted. But the conflagration they’d expected never came.

This was the inaugural Great Chicago Fire Festival. The city-sponsored event, created by Chicago’s Redmoon Theater, was designed to be a dazzling artistic spectacle, filled with imagery celebrating the city’s phoenix-like rebirth after the devastation of the fire that leveled much of the city in 1871. It was hailed by the media and City Hall as the debut of a new civic tradition, an annual festival bringing big crowds to downtown Chicago, including an influx of culture-hungry tourists. Think Mardi Gras crossed with Burning Man.


The Great Chicago Fire Festival [Credit: Robert Loerzel]

“The Great Chicago Fire Festival will be truly unique, an event worthy of our world class city,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel promised in a press release in March 2013, when the city and Redmoon announced their plans. But after the actual festival, the Chicago Business Journal’s Lewis Lazare called it “a half-baked event that spectacularly misfired,” adding, “The hugely disappointing show was an especially public embarrassment for Emanuel, who has been pushing to do more such big events in the city to ramp up Chicago’s image as a tourist mecca.”

The festival was inspired by the most famous catastrophe in Chicago’s often catastrophic history: The Great Chicago Fire, which torched three square miles from the night of October 8 through the morning of October 10 in 1871. Chicago was less than four decades old at the time, but it was already growing quickly, with a population of 300,000. A third of those people lost their homes when the blaze decimated the downtown and whole neighborhoods, snuffing out an estimated 300 lives. This history is familiar — to many Chicago residents, anyway — but it’s worth noting just how apocalyptic this disaster seemed to those people who saw their city burn. A month after she survived the inferno, Anna Higginson wrote a letter describing the fire at the peak of its destructive power:

No words can give an idea of the horrors of that night. The wind, blowing a hurricane, howling like myriads of evil spirits drove the flames before it with a force & fierceness which could never be described or imagined; it was not flame but a solid wall of fire which was hurled against the buildings & the houses did not burn, they were simply destroyed. The flames would dash themselves against the sides of a solid block, in one instant passing out through the other side & the whole just melted away & disappeared. … The air was full of cinders; pieces of blazing shingles & boards & great strips of tarred felt fell in every direction, now on the roofs of houses yet unburned & then on the loads of furniture & bedding which people were trying to save & which they were continually obliged to abandon in the street in order to save themselves.

Such terrors might seem like odd fodder for celebratory festivities, even a century and a half later. But the city’s remarkably rapid rebirth in the fire’s aftermath is a key component of the way it has seen itself ever since. “CHICAGO SHALL RISE AGAIN,” the Tribune famously and correctly prophesied in its very first edition after the disaster. Today, the Chicago Water Tower at Chicago and Michigan Avenues — one of the few buildings to survive inside the fire zone — remains a venerable landmark. One of the city’s hottest hubs for business startups is called 1871, named after the year when Chicago began rebuilding. And the city’s Major League Soccer team? The Chicago Fire.


The Great Chicago Fire Festival [credit: Robert Loerzel]

As Whet Moser chronicled last month on Chicago magazine’s website, the city marked the fire’s 25th anniversary with a parade, envisioned by its organizers as “a festival equal in magnitude to the Mardi Gras and similar gala occasions of other cities.” In 1903, the city simulated the Great Chicago Fire with pyrotechnic flames in iron pans at street corners around the Loop, after abandoning an earlier plan for controlled fires on skyscraper roofs. The fire’s 50th anniversary was celebrated with a flash of flames at Grant Park’s amphitheater and a costume party at the Chicago Historical Society. On the fire’s centennial in 1971, 50,000 people watched a parade of marching bands, baton twirlers, and Shriners.

The Great Chicago Fire “was a tragic event. It was terrible,” Redmoon Theater’s executive artistic director, Jim Lasko, told the Chicago Sun-Times last year. “But it also gave us an opportunity to re-envision ourselves.” The new festival, he said, would be “a symbolic version of that. It’ll be a signature event and a huge public celebration of the city and its unique character. I hope it becomes a beacon in the city, nationally and internationally, that calls people together to celebrate us.”


Founded in 1990, Redmoon Theater is renowned for its outdoor spectacles. The group has performed many plays indoors — including inventive adaptations of Moby-Dick, The Seagull, Frankenstein, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — but it really made its name with events like elaborate Halloween parades. A Redmoon spectacle resembles a scene from a Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton movie: a steampunk carnival populated with puppets and fairytale figures, some of them driving vehicles that look like they were designed by Rube Goldberg. Admission for Redmoon’s outdoor events is typically free.

The Great Chicago Fire Festival isn’t the first time Redmoon has played with fire. A 2004 spectacle in Chinatown called Sink, Sank, Sunk culminated with a funeral procession of flaming boats on the Chicago River’s South Branch, a stirring climax to an evening of wonderful whimsy. Staged in Ping Tom Park, that event was a fine example of how Redmoon uses the urban environment as its performance space, inducing audience members to feel like they’ve randomly stumbled into a curious happening or ceremony involving people from another dimension, oddballs who slipped into your city through a crack in time and space.


Sink, Sank, Sunk [credit: Robert Loerzel]

In January 2014, Mayor Emanuel and other officials announced a “cultural tourism strategy to position Chicago as a premier global cultural destination,” touting the Great Chicago Fire Festival (a “spectacular fire show on the downtown riverfront”) as one of eleven cultural events that would attracts tourists — and their dollars — to the city.

If the festival succeeded, it would give people another reason to visit the Loop, the central business district that sprung up from the ashes of the 1871 fire. For much of the 20th century, an entertainment scene thrived amid the Loop’s skyscrapers. In the 1940s “parks and neighborhood venues were more convenient, but downtown was really the place to be!” Eric Bronsky and Neal Samors wrote in their book Downtown Chicago in Transition. “The movie palaces had elaborate stage shows, and large restaurants and nightclubs featured top popular music artists of the era along with variety and comedy acts.”

But by the end of the 20th century, the Loop had lost much of its luster as a cultural hot spot. And the area just north of the Loop — River North, which includes the so-called Magnificent Mile on North Michigan Avenue, anchored by the old Chicago Water Tower — took over as a focal point for retail. By the 1980s, the Loop was still home to major cultural attractions like the Art Institute of Chicago and the Lyric Opera. Grant Park, the big lakefront park next to the Loop, hosted the Taste of Chicago, concerts by the Grant Park Symphony and free annual festivals of blues, jazz, and gospel music. But in spite of these anchors, the Loop at night was a ghost town, with most concerts, plays, and movies happening in neighborhoods beyond downtown.

Over the last two decades, the Loop has regained some standing as a cultural hub. Refurbished old theaters now host pop concerts and Broadway shows. Millennium Park opened in 2004 and quickly turned into a popular spot for Chicagoans and tourists alike, whether they want to take a photo of “the Bean” sculpture or attend a free concert in the park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion.

Lollapalooza arrived in 2005, taking over Grant Park for one weekend each summer, pulling in 100,000 people a day, including hordes of 20-something suburbanites and out-of-towners. The festival now charges more than $200 for a three-day pass. Whatever you think of Lollapalooza — or the deal between the city and Lollapalooza’s promoters — it’s hard to deny that Chicago’s skyline serves as a spectacular backdrop for the festival. “Lollapalooza is exactly the type of tourism driver we need,” Don Welsh, president and CEO of Choose Chicago, the city’s official tourism agency, recently wrote in a letter to Crain’s Chicago Business. According to Welsh, Lollapalooza generates nearly $140 million annually in spending at hotels, restaurants, and clubs.

In 2007, the Chicago Loop Alliance tried to inject some nightlife into the Loop with a dusk-to-dawn festival called Looptopia, but the annual event lasted just two years. Hordes thronged locations all over the Loop for performances by musicians, actors, and artists, including several miniature shows by Redmoon. Although I had some fun moments at Looptopia in 2007, I also saw the pitfalls of attending performances on crowded sidewalks, streets, and plazas: I couldn’t always see or hear what was going on. The Loop partied all night, but attendees complained about disorganization, long lines, and overwhelmed transit lines. “And Chicago wants to host the Olympics?” one disgruntled Chicagoan asked in a letter to RedEye. At the time, Mayor Richard M. Daley was pushing to bring the 2016 Summer Olympics to Chicago.


Looptopia [credit: Robert Loerzel]

In July 2009, the Chicago Office of Tourism named Redmoon’s Lasko as its first-ever artist-in-residence, announcing that he would “oversee creation of a new large-scale cultural event to take place in 2011, as well as the ongoing development of neighborhood artistic collaborations. This event, equal parts public spectacle and urban festival, will unite the city in a common celebration.” Lasko has also said he talked with city officials about getting local artists involved in opening ceremonies for the Olympics.

But Daley’s Olympic dreams came crashing down in October 2009, when the International Olympic Committee rejected Chicago’s bid. In the coming months, the city dropped the plans for Lasko’s public spectacle, telling him there wasn’t enough money to do it.

And as the Great Recession took a toll on Chicago’s economy, the city axed Venetian Night, an annual summer parade of colorfully decorated yachts on Lake Michigan with fireworks bursting in the sky above, which drew crowds of 500,000. Daley’s father, Mayor Richard J. Daley, had started the event back in 1958, saying it would be (yet again) “Chicago’s answer to the New Orleans Mardi Gras.” In late 2009, Lois Weisberg, who headed the Department of Cultural Affairs at the time, called it a “nice event” but one that “you can live without.”

Weisberg told reporters she’d rather spend the city’s cultural money on smaller events like concerts at Pritzker Pavilion. “I really believe that people, human beings who come here and the people who live here, don’t care that much about the great big, overwhelming things that everybody in the whole country or the whole world is doing,” she said. “One of them is the huge displays of fireworks that cost a great deal of money. We’ve had them for years.” The city’s cuts in cultural spending prompted the Chicagoist website’s headline: “Chicago Gets More Boring One Cut at a Time.”

Cultural spending has inched back upward under Emanuel, who succeeded Daley in 2011. Michelle Boone, Emanuel’s choice to succeed Weisberg, oversaw a $34.1 million budget this year, up from $29.2 million in 2012. And, of course, that’s just one small measure of Chicago’s cultural life. Hundreds of theater companies, live music venues, art galleries, and other cultural spots in town depend more on ticket sales or donations than on city funding.

Venetian Night returned on a smaller scale in 2012, resurrected by the Chicago Yachting Association; it now takes place at Navy Pier. And in 2013, city officials revived the idea of working with Redmoon to create a public spectacle. Like Venetian Night, the Great Chicago Fire Festival would involve boats and fireworks — plus flames. It might just satisfy our apparent primal pyromaniac urge to watch things burn.

The festival’s main event would happen on the main branch of the Chicago River in the downtown near the Michigan Avenue Bridge, with the Loop on one side and the Magnificent Mile on the other. Redmoon’s artists were creating three vessels to resemble houses from Chicago in 1871. As crowds watched from the banks, those floating houses would burst into flames. As the exteriors of these structures burned away, they would reveal images symbolizing the city’s triumph over adversity: the city flag, a skyscraper, and firefighters’ ladders.

That was the plan, anyway.


As October approached, Redmoon gave reporters a sneak peek at the contraptions it was preparing. Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg was skeptical after visiting the theater company’s headquarters in the Pilsen neighborhood. “The preview had a hasty, shambolic quality that made me wonder if they’ll pull it off,” he wrote. He also mused: “The thing exudes a certain New Age nuttiness that might not resonate with this especially difficult moment in the life of Chicago.”

[blocktext align=”left”]But rituals aren’t easy to invent. After all, Mardi Gras did not spring fully formed from a government plan onto the streets of New Orleans.[/blocktext]Redmoon was aiming higher than ever before, attempting to concoct something intended to become a beloved annual tradition. But rituals aren’t easy to invent. After all, Mardi Gras did not spring fully formed from a government plan onto the streets of New Orleans.

Redmoon’s plans for the festival originally included effigies representing the problems that people face in the city’s neighborhoods. Poverty, crime, racism and other afflictions plaguing Chicago would be ceremoniously torched in a cathartic bonfire. Or maybe it wouldn’t be quite that literal. The Chicago Reader’s Deanna Isaacs was skeptical. “It’s not hard to imagine huge effigies of parking meters and crooked pols, drug lords and shameless oligarchs, floating down the river toward a fiery fate as the crowd cheers them on,” she wrote.

Redmoon eventually junked that idea. Instead, the group held barbecues in fifteen neighborhoods, including some of the city’s poorest and most violence-plagued communities. It gave people in those areas a chance to help decorate sculptures for the upcoming spectacle. And it took their photos, asking them to give statements on what they’ve overcome in their lives and what they celebrate. On the day of the main event, those pictures were displayed in a bazaar along Wacker Drive, where people from the featured neighborhoods sold food, crafts, and goods. Musicians, poets, and dancers performed on a corporate-sponsored stage nearby.

“It provided creative opportunities to Chicago’s neighborhood residents and an opportunity for that creativity to be showcased downtown before a massive audience,” Lasko told me afterward, replying to questions by email. “At a time when large portions of our city are regularly discounted as irrevocable sites of violence and poverty, the Great Chicago Fire Festival showcased the talent and grit of those neighborhoods.”

October 4 was unseasonably cold, with temperatures in the low 40s, a chilly Saturday following a rainy week. It felt more like winter than fall. But an estimated 30,000 people turned out anyway. They found spots along the edges of the Chicago River’s Main Branch, an urban canyon amid skyscrapers. (This was also where, on November 2, daredevil Nik Wallenda walked a tightwire stretched across the river, in a stunt televised by the Discovery Channel.)

The city plans to spend $100 million transforming and beautifying this stretch of the river by 2016, extending the Chicago Riverwalk, adding plazas, pedestrian bridges, a performance area, and commercial space. Chicago magazine’s Moser said it will be “the city’s most visible and ambitious new public space after Millennium Park.” And when Neil Steinberg asked Emanuel what he wants his legacy to be, he replied without a pause: “The riverfront.”

But the river isn’t a theater. Some people who showed up for the festival had trouble finding a spot where they could see what was happening. I was lucky. As a member of the press, I had access to a few special viewing areas. I brought my camera and chose a spot on the north bank of the river, near Trump International Hotel and Tower. Those three barges with ready-to-burn houses were floating in the water, and I was standing near the middle one.

But even from this prime position, I couldn’t always tell what was going on. The festivities began with a lighting of cauldrons on the Michigan Avenue Bridge. The emcee, local news anchor Rob Stafford, announced what was happening over a loudspeaker, as various bigwigs including the mayor and several aldermen lit fires. But all I could see were some flickers of light on the bridge. It didn’t feel much like an artistic happening. It was more like a political ribbon-cutting ceremony.

[blocktext align=”right”]Unlike a theater, this was a body of water, where the rhythm of the drama was dictated by the river’s flow and the speed of the vessels.[/blocktext]Kayaks pulled fire buoys in the river. A boat carrying the Chicago Children’s Choir passed by as the kids sang atmospheric music. Three “steamships” designed by local artists came along. One steamship’s pilot cackled maniacally — laughter that was audible for just a few brief moments. All of this had the potential to form an enchanting tableau, except for the fact that it unfolded at a sluggish pace. Unlike a theater, this was a body of water, where the rhythm of the drama was dictated by the river’s flow and the speed of the vessels.

Finally, it was time for the big fire. Flames appeared on the three floating houses. The one near me actually burst into a full-blown fire. For a while. But then it fizzled out. A long pause followed. Was that it? I scrutinized the half-burnt house floating in front of me, struggling to figure out what images had been revealed by the fire. Was that supposed to be a picture of Chicago skyscrapers?

Finally, the emcee announced that the festival was experiencing technical difficulties. He asked us to be patient, promising that the show would resume in a few minutes. Nothing happened for a while. Then the emcee announced that they were going to “manual” to rekindle the fires. There was activity out on the river — people walking around on the barges, a small boat coming up to one house — but it wasn’t clear what was happening. Eventually, there were a few more flames. The houses never burned the way they were supposed to. But even if they had, it’s doubtful the results would have been as spectacular as promised — the set pieces were dwarfed by the massive cityscape surrounding them.

At long last, the emcee announced — rather abruptly — that fireworks were about to commence. Suddenly, pyrotechnics exploded over the river, leaving puffs of smoke floating in the air right next to iconic skyscrapers like the Wrigley Building. It was a pretty spectacular display up close. And then I trudged away, along with most of the crowd — not realizing that the event wasn’t quite over. Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones later praised the final procession of kayaks as one of the evening’s high points, noting that many people missed it. On my way home, I overheard some grumbling. The people of Chicago seemed to give the Great Chicago Fire Festival one giant, collective shrug.

Lasko later explained that rain apparently damaged the electrical connections in the houses. Pilot lights were supposed to release propane through a pipe system, igniting a layer of dry wood. Lasko also recalled what he said as the festival’s workers struggled to get the fires going: “This is an epic failure.”

[blocktext align=”right”]“I mean, yes, it sucked, but it sucked in a very uniquely Chicago way. So few things here these days get to!”[/blocktext]From where I stood, the event did not appear to become a true fiasco, at least in the way This American Life defined the term in 1997. That is to say, the audience didn’t become “hungry for more fiasco,” cheering for the event to fail on an even bigger scale. But writer Anne Elizabeth Moore witnessed some anger in the crowd. “The venom displayed when our house failed to burn fast enough at the Great Chicago Fire Fest was the most Chicago experience of my life,” she tweeted. Later in the night, she added: “I mean, yes, it sucked, but it sucked in a very uniquely Chicago way. So few things here these days get to!”

Redmoon’s spectacles have never been strong on character and plot — subtleties that can get lost in an outdoor setting — but the Great Chicago Fire Festival was almost totally devoid of any clearly visible, audible human beings. The only narrative was a bare-bones summary of the Great Chicago Fire and the city’s subsequent recovery. What could have been an adventurous work of performance art became a failed bonfire and a conventional fireworks show.


The Great Chicago Fire Festival [credit: Robert Loerzel]

In a Chicago Business Journal article, Lewis Lazare asked Lasko if Chicagoans and tourists deserved an apology. “I don’t know if one is owed, but I am more than happy to give one,” Lasko told him in an email. “I am sorry. I am sorry that we did not deliver on a key moment of the culminating Spectacle. I hope that people will take solace, as I do, that so many other things went so very well.”

Boone put a positive spin on it all. “It was amazing to me to see 30,000 people out on the riverfront,” she told aldermen. “It was an awesome fireworks show. I loved being serenaded by the Children’s Choir.”

But one of Chicago’s most powerful aldermen, Finance Committee Chairman Ed Burke, called it “the fiasco on the river.” According to the Tribune, he remarked, “One would think if there’s enough money to spend on something like this that maybe the money would be better spent being contributed to the Greater Chicago Food Depository to help feed people that are going hungry, or to donate to a shelter that takes care of abused women, or many such things.”

The $2 million festival received $350,000 in grant money from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, as well as $1 million from the Chicago Park District for the neighborhoods initiative. Other money came from corporations and foundations.

At a City Council meeting, Emanuel joked, “Over the weekend, we could have borrowed Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, as well as the lantern. That would have been helpful to us.” On a more serious note, the mayor said, “There will be an after-action report: What worked? What didn’t work? What do we need to do different?” Details about next year’s Great Chicago Fire Festival remain sketchy at this point, but on October 23, the city included it on a schedule of festivals coming up in 2015.

“Redmoon will play a similar role in that we are creating a framework and platform for collaboration,” Lasko told me last week. “We intend to create more opportunities and visibility for our neighborhood partners and to invite more cultural organizations to participate alongside. We will also be sure that the technical problems that marred this year’s event do not affect next year’s.”


[blocktext align=”left”]How do you put a dollar figure on what it means to bring some people together in a shared experience?[/blocktext]Arts advocates say cultural events do more than entertain us. They also create jobs and get people to spend money — not only on tickets to the events themselves, but also on things like meals, transportation and lodging. Some studies point out intangible benefits of cultural events. How do you put a dollar figure on what it means to bring some people together in a shared experience?

“Events like the Great Chicago Fire Festival spur tourism and spending; they create a city’s persona and are the source of civic identity. They stimulate investment and relocation,” Lasko told me. “More than that, though, a city is an ecosystem. A healthy and vital city doesn’t choose between a good education system and a functioning transportation infrastructure any more than it chooses between keeping its citizens safe and providing them cultural opportunity. They are all interrelated. Security depends on opportunity.”

Referring to the events Redmoon held in neighborhoods leading up to the final spectacle, Lasko said, “Over the course of the summer, we were repeatedly told by local residents how great it was to feel safe in their parks. People who feel pride of place tend to invest in their environments; they watch over them and make them safer and cleaner. It’s a great investment.”

The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events says its summer events — such as the free music festivals and concerts in Grant Park and Millennium Park — boosted Chicago’s business activity by $246 million in 2012, generating $5.6 million in tax revenue. And the agency says Chicago’s arts sector as a whole contributes $2.2 billion annually to the local economy, providing 60,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in annual household income.

“Support for arts and culture in Chicago … is essential to our city’s future growth and competitiveness,” Jamey Lundblad, the department’s director of marketing and communications, told me. “It’s important to remember that supporting those who dare to dream big is an investment that will pay dividends for generations to come.”

A recent study by the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center ranked Chicago tenth out of thirteen large U.S. cities in per-capita spending on arts grants, finding that the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events’ grants to local arts groups in 2012 equaled $0.44 per capita. Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County spent far more — $12.48 per capita.

When federal and state dollars are added in, Chicago arts organizations received $7.3 million in competitive grants in 2012, while arts groups in the smaller city of Cleveland got $18 million. This year, the Cuyahoga Arts & Culture agency helped fund dozens of groups and projects, using money from a cigarette tax approved by voters.

The results include events like the Cleveland Museum of Art’s annual Solstice, a festival of world music with massive images projected onto the museum’s walls. “It’s a great way to spend a summer night,” one attendee told the Akron Beacon News in June. “Just being able to see the museum being alive. People, music, good weather.” Another remarked, “This is the best party of the summer.” But with ticket prices as high as $60 and a limited capacity of 5,000 people, Solstice isn’t open to everyone in Cleveland in the same way as Redmoon’s free spectacles are open to Chicagoans.

Summer Solstice party at the Cleveland Museum of Art [credit: Roger Zender, via Wikimedia Commons]

Summer Solstice party at the Cleveland Museum of Art [credit: Roger Zender, via Wikimedia Commons]

Cuyahoga Arts & Culture sponsored an impressive array of festivals and events this year. And yet, Cleveland’s cultural offerings still pale in numbers in comparison with Chicago. For the seven days from November 5 to 11, the Cleveland Scene website’s listings included 46 concerts and seven theatrical shows, while the Chicago Reader listed 308 concerts and 95 theatrical shows (211 if you include improv, stand-up, and dance). The sheer quantity and quality of entertainment options is one reason why I live in Chicago, and I suspect that’s true for many people.

That U. of C. study essentially held up Cleveland as an example for what Chicago could do with arts funding. But the the Tribune pointed out that the study showed an incomplete picture of government support for local arts, failing to factor in events produced by the city itself, or the $30 million that 11 museums get annually from the Chicago Park District. If anything, the U. of C. study shows how tricky it is to come up with a simple statistic comparing arts funding in different cities, given all of the variables.

Allen R. Sanderson, a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Chicago, is skeptical of studies touting the economic impact of cultural events. “In general, local events just redistribute local citizens’ time and discretionary spending, they don’t increase it,” he told me via email.

Events that attract more outsiders do help the local economy, but not as much as their boosters usually claim, Sanderson said. “Of course, we do a lot of things that don’t produce a positive economic return,” he said. “So if a city wants to sponsor a cultural event because it’s good for the soul and good for the city, fine by me. But they should think of it more as a party than an investment.”

The problem with that? If you’re going to spend $2 million, it better be one hell of a party.

Robert Loerzel is a freelance journalist in Chicago. He has reported for Playbill, Chicago Public Radio, Crain’s Chicago Business and other publications. His nonfiction book, “Alchemy of Bones: Chicago’s Luetgert Murder Case of 1897,” was published in 2003 by the University of Illinois Press. His website is, and he tweets at @robertloerzel.