DOWN THE HOUSE
IROQUOIS THEATRE ADVERTISED ITSELF AS "ABSOLUTELY FIREPROOF."
IT WENT UP IN FLAMES SIX WEEKS AFTER OPENING
by Jason Zasky
ticket holders entered Chicago's Iroquois Theatre for a matinee
performance of Mr. Bluebeard on December 30, 1903, they were
handed playbills with the words "Absolutely Fireproof" in capital
letters at the top right-hand corner of the cover. In all likelihood,
it's an inscription that few noticed, as for most patrons it was
their first time inside the new theatre, a house that had been praised
far and wide for its beauty and opulence. For the city, the Iroquois
was not just a new venue, it was an attraction that positioned Chicago
to surpass New York as the center of the theatre universe. Mixing
the best of the Old World with the latest innovations in lighting
and design, the Iroquois was, as they say, "the talk of the town."
When a fire broke out above the stage during that afternoon's show,
many attendees simply assumed the red glow was one of the special
Daily News, December 30, 1903, image courtesy of Anthony P.
it's easy to compare the "fireproof" Iroquois with the "unsinkable"
Titanic. "Both were considered the epitome of 20th century
technology, comfort, and above all, safety," says Anthony P. Hatch,
author of the new book Tinder Box (Academy Chicago)an
exhaustive account of the catastrophe that draws much of its insight
from a handful of first-person accounts recorded by Hatch in the
early 1960s. Ignoring warning signs of potential disaster the operators
of the Iroquois rushed to open the theatre while it was dangerously
incomplete, with unfinished ventilators and fire escapes, and conspicuously
absent exit signs. In the end, upwards of 600 people perished in
the blaze, and today it remains on the records of the National Fire
Protection Association (NFPA) as the deadliest single-building disaster
in U.S. history.
The dedicatory performance at the Iroquois took place on November
23, 1903, an occasion ownership commemorated with a self-congratulatory
souvenir program that highlighted the handiwork of the principal
developers. At the top of this list was a 29-year-old architect,
Benjamin H. Marshall, who had boldly proclaimed to the media that
in order to avoid design errors, he had studied every theatre disaster
in history. What he neglected to mention was that the builders had
cut corners; the construction phase took just six months and several
important safety features were compromised. Among other things,
the theatre lacked a backstage phone or fire alarm system, and the
fire fighting equipment (six canisters of Kilfyre, a dry chemical
product) was embarrassingly inadequate.
To make matters
worse, Marshall, who ostensibly knew better, had in fact deliberately
sacrificed safety for appearance, obscuring exits with heavy drapes
and using an inordinate amount of wood trim. "[Afterwards] he said
to reporters he would never again design a theatre with as much
wood in the interior," notes Hatch, "but he admitted, amazingly,
that one of the main reasons the theatre didn't have exit signs
was that he thought they would spoil the look."
30 an overflow crowd of 1,840 peoplemostly women and children
enjoying the Christmas breakpoured into the Iroquois, easily
surpassing its capacity of 1,602 seats. "The theatre was illegally
overcrowded. There were people in the aisles and people four-deep
behind the last row of seats," notes Hatch.
As the show
began, the pre-teen and teenage ushers (there were no child labor
laws at the time) locked the doors to the auditorium, standard operating
procedure at the Iroquois. "Management was afraid that people would
sneak down and take the empty seats. Although that day there were
no empty seats whatsoever," reminds Hatch.
The performance was uneventful until the second act was well underway,
when flames ignited the drapery above the stage during an ensemble
musical number. The source of the fire (according to eyewitnesses
and later the fire examiner) was a spotlight that had short-circuited.
Stagehands immediately noticed the sparks, but without fire fighting
materials they were reduced to patting the flames with their hands.
At this point,
the audience was still mostly oblivious, but panic soon set in among
cast, crew and orchestra, who gamely stayed in character until it
became obvious the fire would not be contained. Looking up at the
flames from the stage several cast members wondered why the fire
curtain was not being deployed. What they didn't know was that the
stagehand normally responsible for the curtain was hospitalized
that day, and his substitute could not determine which drop should
star of the show, Eddie Foyin his dressing room preparing
for his next sceneheard the commotion and came out to investigate.
After making his way to the stage he urged the audience to stay
in their seats. But as the scenery began burning he changed his
tune, saying, "Don't be frightened, go slow, walk out calmly. Take
most of the audience was in a state of pandemonium, scrambling to
find exits, only to find themselves locked in, soon to be trampled
by those following. "The doors leading away from the gallery and
balcony, where the greatest loss of life occurred, those doors were
locked and bolted," notes Hatch. Since all the doors were designed
to open inward even the few that were unsecured hindered the crowd's
ability to exit quickly.
the crew began lowering the fire curtain, but it quickly became
stuck, never reaching the floor on either side. The remaining cast
and crew then escaped through the huge double scenery doors, saving
their lives, but sealing the fate of those still in the auditorium.
"The construction company, in rushing to complete the theatre, had
left the ventilators over the stage nailed shut and the ventilators
over the auditorium open," says Hatch. In effect, they created a
natural chimney, causing a backdraft when the scenery doors were
forced open. "It became a huge flamethrower," continues Hatch. "It
just whirled up into the balcony and the gallery. Those who decided
to hold back and not get involved in the human rush [towards the
exits], those people were incinerated where they sat."
Many of the
people who managed to get out of the theatre did not escape with
their lives. One portion of the audience forced its way out onto
a fire escape high above the alley behind the theatre. However,
with the fire escape still unfinished they found themselves on an
isolated platform without a ladder to the ground, flames licking
at them from behind. "People were being pushed off, or jumping if
their clothing was on fire," relates Hatch.
Some of those
out on the fire escape were saved when students from the Northwestern
University building across the alley came to their rescue. At first,
the students tried to bridge the gap between buildings with a ladder,
but the first man across lost his balance when the ladder slipped
on the ice that ringed the rooftop. He fell to the cobblestone street
below, taking the ladder down with him. The students then put boards
across the divide, which allowed for a safe, albeit dizzying crossing.
Meanwhile, firemen arrived on the scene with nets and began encouraging
people to jump. That tactic met with mixed results, as in the increasingly
thick black smoke many jumpers missed the nets. "There were at least
125 bodies picked up from the Couch Place alley that afternoon,"
says Hatch. The next day's newspapers referred to the scene as "Death
In the aftermath of the fire there was a rush to assign blame. The
Iroquois' owners fired the first shot in the blame war, citing the
ineffectiveness of the Kilfyre. But no one was safe from finger
pointing. The theatre owners, the mayor of Chicago, the city administration,
the leaders of the Chicago fire department and the construction
company took the brunt of the criticism, but the fire curtain and
the highly combustible scenery were also identified as contributing
factors. The owners even pointed a finger at the audience. "They
said if the audience had listened to Foyto remain calm and
keep their seats and walk out slowlythey would have been able
to get out," says an incredulous Hatch. In the end, only the firemen
and police officers that responded to the scene were immune from
criticism, as they conducted daring rescues and managed to save
the building's superstructure. For his part, Foy became an international
hero for his efforts to stop the panic.
the ripple effects of the disaster were immediately felt across
the live entertainment industry. "In New York City on New Year's
Eve some theatres eliminated standing room. And theatres were closed
for retrofitting all around the country and in some cities in Europe,"
Just eight days
after the fire, the coroner's inquest began, with a six-man panel
taking testimony from 200 witnesses. The inquest revealed lapses
in oversight by the leadership of the city, buildings department
and fire department, among others. Arrest warrants on involuntary
manslaughter charges were issued for the theatre's co-owners, the
city's building commissioner, and carpenters involved in the construction
process, as well as a number of stagehands. Not surprisingly, it
wasn't long before lawsuits were being filed against the various
law firm hired by the owners did its best to delay the trial and
find loopholes in the city's building and safety ordinances. Three-and-a-half
years later, theatre co-owner and manager Will Davis was found not
guilty, nor was anyone else found criminally liable. "Since the
ordinances were proven to be invalid that ended the State of Illinois'
attempt to bring manslaughter charges against the defendants," says
many felt justice was not done. "The case was very much criticized
in the pages of the Illinois Law Review in 1907, which claimed that
the delays and the manipulation that was going on really fought
against justice," says Hatch. In the end, only 30 families of the
victims were financially compensated for their loss, receiving a
settlement of $750 each.
however, did not die in vain. Among other changes, building and
fire codes were subsequently reformed, and posted floor plans now
make exits more easily identifiable. Yet, accidents still happen,
as evidenced by the deadly fire at The Station in West Warwick,
Rhode Island this past February during a performance by the rock
band Great White.
In the Windy City it seems most people have forgotten the Iroqouis
fire. "When people who were involved in the tragedy were [still]
alive Chicago held an annual service at City Hall," reports Hatch.
"But the city no longer has any commemorative service, and this
year, on the 100th anniversary, has nothing planned. I do believe
there is still great sensitivity in Chicago about this disaster.
That may explain why the city does not plan to have any commemoration,"
It might also
explain why the lone memorial to the victimsa bronze bas-relief
by sculptor Laredo Taftnow sits without any identifying markings
inside the LaSalle Street entrance to City Hall, and why the Chicago
Historical Society is unwilling to display the spotlight that reportedly
started the fire. According to Hatch, an examination of the spotlight
by a trained expert might reveal exactly what caused it to spark.
"Someone could look at that spotlight and say, based upon this scorched
metal that the fire started with these wires or whatever," notes
Hatch. "But it remains in the vaults of the Historical Society."
At the moment,
Hatch is in the process of organizing (in conjunction with the Chicago
Fire Museum), a memorial service that will be held in early December
at St. Gabriel's Roman Catholic Church in Chicago. Hatch says the
inspiration came from a man who lost his mother and two sisters
in the fire, and contacted him in an effort to locate the cemetery
where his relatives were buried. "Afterwards, I received a very
moving e-mail from him saying, 'You've found them. You've helped
fill a partial void in my life.' It moved me to the extent that
we're going to try to do something and invite people who may have
lost loved ones in the disaster," he reports.
But Hatch also
hopes the memory of the Iroquois Theatre will encourage government
officials and the public to become more vigilant about fire safety.
Otherwise, complacency and a lack of accountability might lead history
to repeat itself. "That's another reason why I think Chicago would
like to forget about this story," says Hatch. "There was a lot of
blame, but when all was said and done nobody was found guilty of
BUY THE BOOK
Box: The Iroquois Theatre Disaster 1903," by Anthony P. Hatch,