The Iroquois Theatre
Billed as “absolutely fireproof,” it went up in flames less than six weeks after opening.
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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.”
On December 30 an overflow crowd of 1,840 people—mostly women and children enjoying the Christmas break—poured 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.