The Iroquois Theatre

Billed as “absolutely fireproof,” it went up in flames less than six weeks after opening.

The Iroquois Theatre

Chicago Daily News, December 30, 1903. Image courtesy of Anthony P. Hatch.

As 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 effects.

In hindsight, 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.

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