Crash and Burn – The Great Chicago Fire Festival

An estimated 30,000 people gathered around the Chicago River on Saturday October 4th for the first ever Great Chicago Fire Festival put on by the Redmoon Theater. The festival was supposed to showcase the grit, greatness, resilience and rebirth of Chicago after the historic and unforgettable Chicago fire of 1871. The idea for the event was imagined back in 2009 when Chicago was in the bidding process for the Olympics.

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On Redmoon Theater’s website, the event was advertised to be a “Grand Spectacle,” with floating caldrons of fire and a parade of wooden houses that were to be lit on fire and reveal modern metal structures symbolizing the rebirth of Chicago. In addition there was a street market with community artists, florists and bakers before the evening festivities.

The Redmoon Theater shared on its website that, “The inaugural Great Chicago Fire Festival will light up the city with a spectacle of fire celebrating the city’s citizens and neighborhoods on the Chicago River.” However, shortly into the production things went wrong. Two of the three wooden houses failed to catch on fire because of electrical problems that were supposedly due to the rain earlier in the day. Instead of roaring flames shooting high into the sky, the audience watched little sparks of fire float down the river. Some spectators commented to the Chicago Tribune reporter, Gregory Pratt, saying that they had been to better bonfires. (Yikes!) After failing to light the wooden Victorian houses on fire, the Redmoon Theater quickly set off their firework finale to keep the thousands of spectators intrigued.

In the beginning, many people watched in awe as the kayakers and small boats pulled buoys of fire and as the caldrons of fire were lowered down into the river after being lit by Chicago Mayor, Rahm Emanuel. The firework spectacular at the end of the production was worth raving about as well.

Time, cost and performance are the three points of the project management triangle. Redmoon Theater had the cost under control, and plenty of time to prepare for the event, but their performance had no fire (literally).

Obviously, with all major productions something is guaranteed to go wrong, especially with outdoor events. Many are considering this year’s event just a “dress rehearsal” for many more Great Chicago Fire Festivals in the future. Was it the weather or just bad management that caused this 2 million dollar production to crash and burn?

What do you think? Was the weather or the project management team to blame? What could have been done to ensure more success for the festival? Word on the street is that the city of Chicago is giving Redmoon Theater a 2nd chance next year and even increasing their budget. Do you think this event is worth trying to put on again?





8 thoughts on “Crash and Burn – The Great Chicago Fire Festival

  1. For me, the problems that occurred had a lot to do with the fact it was the first year of the festival. Next year, the organizers will be better equipped to successfully execute the festival and an increase in the budget will help. 30,000 people seems like a pretty good turnout; it would be interesting to know what their projected attendance was before the event.

  2. I think Redmoon Theater’s second attempt will be a good opportunity for the operations management team to who what they are capable of. Maybe it was the weather that impeded this show to be what it was suppose to be, or maybe it was lack of management work. Either way, the good news is that there will be another opportunity. I think most of Chicago wants the Fire Festival to succeed and it will be interesting to see the layout of next year’s event. As you mentioned, time and cost were on target, but performance lacked. Hopefully next year all three components of the project management triangle meet their expectations.

  3. I actually went to this event. I thought the event overall was a good idea but ran into many first year problems. It started out cool with the small boats but as they ran into problems and the houses not leaving people started to leave. I was disappointed that I left because I heard the fireworks at the end of the night were really awesome. Hopefully next year they have a better operational plan and it goes a lot smoother. The Chicago fire is something that is a memorable things and it would be nice to continue this event.

  4. I am surprised that they are giving them an even higher budget next year, but it might make sense if budget was the reason they couldn’t weather proof the show. It is sad that it failed and I think it will be hard to come back after the first show being such a failure, first impressions can be very costly. However, if they can learn from their mistakes and really hype it up next year and deliver, the project could still survive.

  5. I really wish I would have gone to this event. Despite the couple of failures, I only heard good reviews from my friends who went. I think that the city knew that they would get a big turnout but that just means they should of taken more time to make sure the performance aspect of the event was on point. Like everyone else said, next year will be much better, but I also believe that his year’s event could of, and should of, performed as it was meant to. Of course freak accidents happen that cause things to fail, but the Theater had plenty of time and money to check and double check to make sure everything would go as planned.

  6. Great blog, from one side I wish I knew about this event, I would definitely want to attend, but looking from the other side perhaps this year wasn’t their best performance. With all the projects I have done there I know that there is always something that goes bad. The role of the good project manager is to foresee issues and try to come up with alternative solutions, but the hardest part is to foresee all the issues so I would give them another try and see how it goes. I would definitely go next year.

  7. This is a really interesting topic. I think it was expected that the event would run into some snags because like with everything else the first year is usually when you work out the kinks. That being said, for something with such a large budget more attention should have been paid to the variables that could’ve gone wrong. You mentioned the weather being a factor, admittedly I’m no expert but I think that would be something that would be factored into the planning of the event given the time of year and the city that we live in. But overall it seems like a fun idea for and I’m excited to see how they pull it together next year.

  8. That’s a shame all around. The fact that it cost the city $2 million when it is in high amounts of debt is a little ridicuoulous. The organizational structure tends to answer to whomever is calling the shots though,which leads up the ladder to the man who lit the fire himself- Rahm Emanuel. Rahm could cancel the show next year to save costs but knowing him he probably had a lot of say in the development of the first show so instead of treating it like a sunken cost he will probably try and recuperate something on his investment- even in the sake of more debt for entertainment! We’ll see how it goes, perhaps it will be so spectacular next year it attracts more tourists. 🙂

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