The dilemma is not only Navy Pier’s, but also mine. I’ve put off writing this for a while, partially to let some of the feelings I had about leaving Navy Pier to dissipate. You should know I believe in Navy Pier or at least the possibility of it. The pier does have some problems. At the moment, it is at best mediocre with some good days. It could be great.
One of the problems is that Navy Pier has an identity problem. There is too little retail to be a mall. There is too little convention space to be a convention hall. There is too little entertainment to be an entertainment venue. The management at the pier doesn’t seem to want to decide what the focus should be, thus it’s individual parts add up to less that the whole. If the pier had focus, such as entertainment, the other parts would be plus extras.
One of the great fears of the management at Navy Pier is being thought of as a carnival. Remember what is at Navy Pier. There is miniature golf, a Ferris wheel, carousel, swing ride, Cirque Shanghai, fireworks, boat rides, and a beer garden. And they don’t want to be thought of as a carnival. They hire (although less and less) jugglers, magicians, contortionists, stilt walkers, and clowns. Not a carnival. They have in-house performers, who perform on stage and walk around. The theme of the in-house performers is a dated pirate motif. Not a carnival.
There are other problems besides perception. The budget for entertainment has been cut repeatedly. Money from that budget has been spent poorly. Big money is going to a sound guy to run sound on the main pavilion stage, not needed. Even before the economy took a dive, Navy Pier was in trouble. Despite what they proclaim on their website, Navy Pier has not seen 8 million people a year in many years.
The first step to a solution is to embrace the idea that Navy Pier is an entertainment venue. The entertainment brings people in the door. I know from observing the pier for the last 13 years. If we fear the carnival tag, let’s call it a festival mall.
Chicago does festivals pretty well. This is something we know.
My feeling is that the pier should foster the feeling of the Columbian Exposition or some modern equivalent. I want something wonderful around every corner. Remember, the vast majority of people that go to Navy Pier are not from Chicago. They are looking for something special, unique, and Chicago.
So how do we do this?
The pier does need a face-lift. Repainting. A change in facades. Let’s lose the generic mall feel to the place. Add some character, perhaps change the flooring in the Family pavilion to Chicago bricks like the streets used to be paved with. Change the lighting to old Chicago street lamps. Add famous street signs. There are many ways to “Chicago up” the place.
Now how do we add entertainment without breaking our budget?
First, hire real pros. Let the professionals do what they do best. One of the things Navy Pier has done is lock all the performers onto stages. I was always really against this. When the performers walked around, spontaneous shows occurred. This is a special thing for our guests. You never knew what corner you might turn and find fun. Good surprises like this create a feeling of excitement. These spontaneous rather than the structured shows create a feeling of uniqueness. When a guest sees something that seems like a once in a lifetime experience, it becomes an often told story.
I mentioned in a previous entry that when the entertainment ends the people leave. I saw that while working many nights at the shop. The pier closes at 10 P. M. weekdays and Midnight on weekends. The entertainment would spot at 7 P. M. and the sound man would pack up. The people thinking things were over, went for the exits. The few who stayed were looking for something to fill their interest. Idle crowds are trouble. The moral is when the pier is open there should be entertainment. I will give a couple of hours in the morning when entertainment isn’t needed because people are just coming in, but after that, get to entertaining.
Years ago, John Mills and Jim Ellis, of Mills productions, wanted to host a street performers festival at the pier. This, at least in Mills’ and my heads, was a perfect marriage. Quick name a world-class city…Madrid? London? New York? Miami? LA? Dublin? Any world-class city you can name has a rich cultural life including a tradition of street performers.
Chicago, a pretender to the world-class tile, does not have this tradition. Chicago’s boss mayor and big brother aldermen want to treat street performers as beggars and a public nuisance. Sad. Some of the best performers in the world are street performers. Performers such as Robin Williams and Harry Anderson have come from the streets.
Let’s fix this situation. Here's where we need "stage areas." Navy Pier can audition street performers to ensure only the best performers work. The pier can schedule times and places to perform their street shows. The better performers can get the better slots and beginners can get the lesser ones until they improve. The performers can gather the crowds and pass the hat. Navy Pier has quality control. The performers have their freedom to earn. The spectators have the illusion of spontaneity. The pier does not lay out a cent for performers. Chicago can have some great street performers and they can perform at a great venue.
This addition alone would probably solve most of the pier’s entertainment problems, at least during the summer. Winter is another story. But not yet.
Chicago has a rich theatrical life. If Navy Pier wants to lock performers to their family pavilion stage, they should reach out to the many local theater groups. These groups could perform on stage and promote themselves in the process. Again, they add additional variety and novelty to a rich entertainment fabric.
The other opportunity to reach out would be the various ethnic communities in Chicago. The pier does reach out to Polish, Chinese, and Mexican communities. The also do events for Black history month. What about our other ethnic neighbors? I imagine a series of weekends during the winter celebrating the entirety of Chicago’s ethnic diversity. Food, music, art and culture would be a learning experience as well.
Some other ideas I have are: Do an indoor winter mini Taste of Chicago. Remember the cows, during the winter have the pier grounds lined with snowmen decorated by the many local artists in Chicago. In summer, invite chalk artists to create murals along the pier promenade.
You see there are opportunities for more fun at the pier. You just have to embrace it. The pier would be more than just a festival mall.
Navy Pier would be an event mall.
Every day would be a once in a lifetime experience.