Chicago hosts first Great Chicago Fire Festival


The Silverman Group

The Grand Spectacle of the Great Chicago Fire Festival was held at the downtown branch of the Chicago River at 8 p.m. The spectacle featured burning houses, three gifts given to the city and fireworks.

By Assistant Metro Editor

Chicago held its first-ever Great Chicago Fire Festival commemorating the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 throughout the city over this past weekend. 

Redmoon Theatre, a 24-year-old theater company, collaborated with the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events along with the Chicago Park District to organize the  Chicago-wide festival.

“Chicago is distinguished by the determination to innovate, reinvent, to rise from the ashes,” said Jim Lasko, Redmoon’s executive artistic director, in a press release. “From the earliest prairie fires of Wolf Point to the city’s rebirth following the Chicago fire of 1871, Chicago’s history is marked by episodes of destruction and renewal.”

The festival showcased the diverse neighborhoods that have formed since the Great Chicago fire. It also featured a public River Bazaar, which in turn featured 15 designated areas, representing each of the 15 neighborhoods that developed after the fire occurred, according to the press release. On the riverfront between State Street and Michigan Avenue, the bazaar included an area for each community with two kiosks where artisans and neighborhood partners sold crafts, goods and food. 

 “The river will be lined with kids and their families from various parks where Redmoon performed over the summer,” said Michael P. Kelly, general superintendent and CEO of the Chicago Park District, in an emailed statement. “It’s the culmination of those events and a celebration of our city’s history.” 

The Festival finished off its celebration with the Grand Spectacle on the downtown branch of the Chicago River.

From 5:30–8 p.m., two stages featured local performers that led to the Grand Spectacle. One stage, located at Pioneer Court, 435 N. Michigan Ave., featured local musicians and poets. The second was located at the American Medical Association Plaza, 330 N. Wabash Ave., featuring a dance battle in which hip-hop dancers, break dancers and foot-working crews faced off.

At 8 p.m., Jesse Spencer and Taylor Kinney, actors on the NBC television show “Chicago Fire,” kicked off the Grand Spectacle by setting fire to a cauldron that was lowered to a watercraft on the river. A total of 15 cauldrons were set on fire for the main event. 

Along with the cauldrons, three steamboats carried house-like sculptures that were also set on fire. The houses floated to the center of the river and gave a pageant-like spectacle. Each sculpture represented the burning buildings from the fire. The “houses” were eventually set on fire and burned completely to reveal three gifts given to Chicago from the Great Chicago Fire Festival staff, Elyse Agnello, senior designer for the Great Chicago Fire Festival, said.  

“[The first gift was] a collaboration between Redmoon and Ignite Glass [Studios]. The glass that Ignite has custom blown for this sculpture [was] framed up with steel to create the flag of Chicago,” Agnello said. “ [On] the other, there is a skyscraper that was made by a designer and fabricator named Steve Davey. The last barge is two large ladder arms that are almost Dr. Seussian that will rise up.”

The gifts do not have a set place to be displayed yet, but the designers are working to find areas to place them, Agnello said. 

After the spectacle, a firework display designed by Las Vegas- based company Pyrotecnico, closed the performance along with 15 projection screens that floated on boats on the water, which displayed photographs of local community members celebrating their identity of Chicago.

The finale of the festival included 75 kayaks pulling buoys of prairie grass from each end of the river that represented the renewal of the city to its industrial feel after the destruction of the fire, according to the press release.