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Great Chicago Fire Festival, riverfront redevelopment plans have slightly familiar ring to residents in Elgin

RedmoTheater performed Elgin's FoxFireFest along banks Fox River August 2007 is planning GreChicago Fire Festival be held along Chicago River

Redmoon Theater performed at Elgin's FoxFireFest along the banks of the Fox River in August, 2007, and is planning the Great Chicago Fire Festival to be held along the Chicago River in October 2014.

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Updated: May 4, 2013 6:10AM

ELGIN — News last week about the city of Chicago putting on a fire festival along its river with Redmoon Theater and plans for creating a downtown riverwalk might have given some Elginites a case of deja vu.

That’s because Redmoon was involved in a similar effort in 2007 at Elgin’s first FoxFireFest, where the troupe was a featured act closing out the second of two nights of the three-day arts and entertainment event held in Festival Park adjacent to the Grand Victoria Casino on the banks of the Fox River.

Redmoon co-artistic director Jim Lasko said Monday, “We loved being a part of the FoxFireFest. It was a wonderful experience. We were honored to have been asked by Elgin to participate. That said, I don’t imagine there will be any common elements between the two events.”

Lasko noted two major and defining differences between the offerings from Redmoon.

“First, the Great Chicago Fire Festival will happen on the river itself; and, second, the Great Chicago Fire Festival will be the result of extended community residencies within Chicago’s neighborhoods. In other words, it is to be created, at least in part, through participatory arts practices that engage communities in making many of the elements that will constitute the spectacle,” he said.

Elgin Special Events & Community Engagement Coordinator Barb Keselica said Elgin actually got the idea for its fire fest after hearing about fire-themed river events in Providence, R.I. In the mid-1990s, that city first hosted an art project called WaterFire, which featured bonfires and torch-lit boats. This has grown into a tourist attraction, with events held March through October that draw hundreds of thousands of spectators.

At the time of the first FoxFireFest, Redmoon had been gaining a reputation for its intriguing performances — influenced by old-school European circus and street theater, with puppetry and pageantry — that included appearances at the grand opening of Chicago’s Millennium Park and Looptopia, an all-night street fest put on by Columbia College in Chicago.

“The Redmoon performance at FoxFireFest included a parade that lasted about 15-20 minutes. The Elgin Children’s Chorus sang from the stage during it, and a fireworks display from Special FX followed,” Keselica said.

There had been talk of including fireballs of some sort floating down the Fox River during the performance, but Rich Dunne, who was the city’s fire marshal at the time, nixed the idea.

According to reports, about 12,000 to 14,000 people showed up over the three days of the FoxFireFest. Keselica said the city paid about $53,000 for the Redmoon show. The following August, a different tack was taken, and money was put toward paying for the band Blues Traveler, which drew about 10,000 people to the park for a Saturday night show.

FoxFireFest, which grew out of the Elgin’s Fine Arts Fest, went on again in 2009 with rock bands and fireworks before being cut from the city’s recession-era budget.

In Chicago, four years after the annual parade of well-lighted boats on Lake Michigan that was Venetian Night sank due to the city’s extensive cost-cutting measures, a new festival along the Chicago River, inspired by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, is being planned with Redmoon.

To be held sometime in October 2014, the Great Chicago Fire Festival will culminate in a procession of illuminated fiberglass sculptures on the main branch of the Chicago River.

Lasko said last week that the theater company plans to use a $100,000 city grant to work with local artists and community groups in at least 15 Chicago neighborhoods to “imagine the thing they most want to be rid of in their lives” and create sculptures symbolizing those impediments.

“It could be anything from drugs and gang violence to greed and laziness. Whatever these things are, that becomes the float that comes down the Chicago River and becomes the major set piece for the fire spectacle itself,” Lasko said.

“We’re gonna burn those and reveal from within them the hope for the community. It’s a huge public ritual. I hope it’s a beautiful, artistic and gratifying event. I hope the city feels its (cathartic) power and that people have the capacity to express and make a difference.”

Lasko said the inspiration for the festival is the Great Chicago Fire, a “seminal historical event” in the history and re-birth of Chicago.

“It was a tragic event. It was terrible. But it also gave us an opportunity to re-envision ourselves. This is 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,” Lasko told the Sun-Times.

Riverfront work

Reports about the Chicago festival came on the heels of news that Chicago recently received a $100 million federal loan it hopes to use to turn a six-block stretch of the downtown riverfront into a San Antonio-style riverwalk.

Elgin, of course, has its own riverfront redevelopment work currently under way. With an $8 million River Edge Redevelopment Grant from the state, the city is in the midst of rehabbing Riverside Drive, creating what it hopes will be its own outdoor downtown destination space, which should be open sometime later this summer or fall.

With Chicago Sun-Times reports

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