Iroquois Theatre Disaster Remembered
CHICAGO, IL — On the hundredth anniversary yesterday of the blaze that killed more than 600 people at the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago’s Loop area, a plaque was unveiled by Chicago Fire Commissioner James Joyce and alderman Ed Burke. The plaque memorializes the Iroquois tragedy, which killed more than twice as many as the city’s Great Fire of 1871.
Almost 1800 were packed into the newly-opened theater at Randolph and Dearborn Streets to see a matinee show, “Mr Bluebeard”, when a spotlight over the stage placed to close to a curtain caused the cloth to ignite, and within minutes, the fire was roaring out of control, causing patrons to panic.
A plaque placed inside the building that replaced the Iroquois (later reopened as the Colonial), the Oriental Theatre, was later removed and placed in storage. This plaque was also rededicated yesterday at the ceremony at the Oriental/Ford Center. “The horrible events which unfolded here can never be lost in history,” said Alderman Burke.
More details can be found in a report on the ABC News 7 site.
The Iroquois Theatre fire was a landmark event that caused cities across the nation to institute or increase their theatre safety laws. It was this event with so many glaring failures in design and procedure that caused the designing and making of such safety devices as the AUTOMATIC fire curtain, the Crash Bar opener on exit doors that were thereafter REQUIRED to open outward onto a free space, and the deployment of the Stage Vent (or Smoke Vent) in the tops of stages to open automatically via the then new fusible links, as were the fire curtains. There have been several books written about that theatre’s fire, and the journal of the Theatre Historical Society of America also did a long article about it and other theatre disasters. It was the first issue I received when I joined them in 1976, so it was a rather rude awakening to the dangers in theatres. I was looking for photos of opulent movie palaces, but instead got a crash course in how dangerous theatres can be! They reprinted on their cover the painting of actor Eddie Foy in costume trying to calm the panicking audience as flames swept under the proscenium arch and bean to suffocate the remaining audience. The dramatic painting was reproduced from an “Esquire” magazine of 1946. The society’s “Marquee” magazine of 3rd Qtr. 1976 devoted nine pages to such disasters and included five photos of the Iroquois. The Society (www.HistoricTheatres.org) has the books on the subject, but that issue of “Marquee” is out of print. It is nice that the city chose to memorialize the tragic event and the progress we have made in preventing theatre fires, which are rare these days. There are rumors of a portion of the rebuilt Iroquois (the Colonial)’s stage wall being saved and added to the ORIENTAL now on the site, but no evidence to support that exists, and movie palaces customarily removed all of a preceding structure to allow sinking the heavy foundation needed for the much larger and heavier structures. Therefore, only the gullible will believe the stories of supposed ‘crying’ being heard near the stage wall at night by the supposed ‘ghosts’ of the perished. There are no such things as ‘ghosts’ since there is no such thing as an immortal soul to survive death, hence the deception comes from other sources. The IROQUOIS was a great theatre, but is now remembered as a monument to mans' greed and foolishness. Let us hope that the lesson is forever learned