The Iroquois Theatre
Billed as “absolutely fireproof,” it went up in flames less than six weeks after opening.
Written by Filed under History
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 be lowered.
Meanwhile, the star of the show, Eddie Foy—in his dressing room preparing for his next scene—heard 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 your time.”
Before long 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.
Eventually, 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.”