Great Chicago Fire Festival Returns After Disastrous Display Last Year

Redmoon Theater rolls out a scaled-back version of the fest Saturday

Above: Images from last year's Great Chicago Fire Festival

Despite last year’s fizzling, the city-sponsored Great Chicago Fire Festival will attempt a leap back to life for another go – this time with half the budget and a focus on Chicago communities.

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Complicated by rain and cold, last year's inaugural fest along the Chicago River was considered a bust, with many structures failing to light on fire and more than 30,000 attendees forced to endure the delays – and lack of communication from organizers – outdoors, with temperatures in the 40s.

Saturday’s fest will be scaled back: Overall funding was slashed from last year’s $2 million in production costs with the city of Chicago this year contributing only $100,000 (vs. $350,000 last year) and Redmoon resorting to a Kickstarter campaign for additional costs (it was just over 50-percent funded at 6 p.m. Monday). Additionally, attendance will be capped at 10,000 and the fest has been relocated – from last year’s more centralized spot along the Chicago River at Wacker and Columbus drives – to its new lakeside home at Northerly Island.

Following complications at the inaugural festival, Ald. Edward Burke (14th Ward) deemed the event "the fiasco on the river." Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones wrote about the disappointing prominence of politicians and officials in a festival aimed at uniting the city’s community.

Several months after the debacle, Redmoon founder and co-artistic director Jim Lasko wrote an editorial for the Tribune, owning the fest’s technical failures but simultaneously highlighting pre-fest outreach done by Redmoon on the city’s South and West Sides.

This time, Lasko said, the company’s going to get it right via a spectacle grounded on land.  

“This year we really have one location that we’re focusing all our attention towards so that has made it easier to do cheaper, but the biggest thing has been that being on land is just a whole lot easier,” he said.

According to Lasko, part of last year’s issue involved the city’s tight restrictions with regard to the quantity and quality of fuels Redmoon could use while maintaining a controlled fire along the Chicago River.

“There were a lot of things impinging on our capacity to run what we would have considered the ideal systems. That’s not at all to excuse that – we promised a thing we didn’t ultimately deliver on,”Lasko said.

Saturday should prove to be a sunny, 75-degree day, but just in case, Lasko said Redmoon has devised a “rigorous” plan against poor weather conditions, including bagging all materials intended to be burned in plastic prior to the festival’s start.   

Attendees are encouraged to RSVP for the free, public event, scheduled to run from 5-9 p.m. Saturday at Northerly Island, 1521 S. Linn White Drive.

Above, watch "Chicago Tonight" reporter Paris Schutz break down last year's Great Chicago Fire Festival.

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