Colonial Theatre

24 W. Randolph Street,
Chicago, IL 60601

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Result of the tragic fire of 1903, post card view

Viewing: Photo | Street View

Opened in November 1903, the Iroquois Theatre was designed by Benjamin Howard Marshall, who also designed the Illinois Theatre, and would later design the Blackstone Theatre (today the Merle Reskin Theatre) with future partner Charles Eli Fox. It, like most of the legitimate houses of the day, was designed in the Beaux-Arts style, made popular by the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago a decade earlier. The interior was advertised in newspapers as "a temple of beauty" as well as being "absolutely fireproof", with an asbestos fire curtain.

On December 30, 1903, a month and a half after the Iroquois Theatre opened, comedian Eddie Foy was appearing onstage in the smash musical comedy "Mr. Bluebeard" to a standing-room only crowd of almost 1,900. Painted canvas backdrops backstage placed too close to a spotlight caught on fire, quickly spreading to the stage area itself just as Foy was starting the second act. In a panic, those on stage rushed out the stage door, letting in a blast of air, which only fed the fire more, causing it to jump into the auditorium itself, quickly reaching to the balconies.

The asbestos curtain somehow jammed halfway down, leaving the theatre to the mercy of the blaze. Despite Foy’s pleas to the panicked crowd to stay calm and that the situation was under control, patrons ran to the exits in throngs only to find the doors opened inwards, and many were bolted shut from the outside.

Many people were trampled to death, as well as leaping to their deaths from the balconies or from fire escapes three or four floors above W. Randolph Street.

By the time it was all over, more than 600 men, women and children had perished in the blaze, making it the worst disaster in Chicago’s history, inflicting a greater death toll than the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, in which about 250 died.

Though the auditorium was heavily damaged by the fire, the Iroquois Theatre was structurally sound, and was rebuilt and reopened less than a year later, as Hyde and Behman’s Music Hall, which presented vaudeville. In 1905, the theatre became the Colonial Theatre, which was, like the Iroquois Theatre, a legitimate playhouse.

In 1913, the Colonial Theatre was acquired from the Klaw & Erlanger theatrical circuit by the Jones, Linick, & Schaefer circuit, which operated it as a vaudeville and movie theatre.

The Colonial Theatre was razed in May 1924 to make way for the United Masonic Temple building, which also housed the Oriental Theatre, which, after a long period of inactivity, is once again open, as a live theatrical venue.

Contributed by Bryan Krefft

Recent comments (view all 37 comments)

DavidZornig on December 21, 2008 at 2:27 pm

The Laurier Palace Thearte in Montreal, was the theatre that a 1927 fire apparently impacted laws for over 40 years regarding children attending cinemas. If you Wikipedia “Laurier Palace Theatre Fire”, it gives the entire story. The subsequent laws seemed even more complex than just a reaction to that fire.
Expo `67 is also mentioned in the article, and that is when we were in Montreal.

CT only has a “Le Laurier” Theatre in Montreal listed. I will post about the Wiki story there as well.

DavidZornig on April 14, 2009 at 10:32 pm

Reactivate Notification Status.

Broan on February 10, 2011 at 5:02 pm

View link Here is a picture from its brief tenure as Hyde & Behman’s

Broan on December 18, 2013 at 7:16 pm

Review of a play about the Iroquois fire

DavidZornig on December 30, 2016 at 10:45 am

Expandable link from Calumet 412, with additional pics not in the Photo Section. Eerie that the finale of the show that night was “Then Away We Go”.

DavidZornig on January 4, 2017 at 7:38 am

Extensive 9 page Marquee Magazine link about the Iroquois with more photos, in pdf format. Via the Chicago Theatre Preservation Alliance Facebook page.

Mister_Comics on September 26, 2017 at 2:59 pm

I see that the Blackstone Theatre is mentioned above. But I can’t seem to find the Blackstone Theatre in Cinema Treasures. Didn’t it show movies?

Broan on September 26, 2017 at 3:29 pm

Never on a regular basis. But last I checked, cinema treasures accepted submissions of such theaters anyway.

Ken Roe
Ken Roe on September 27, 2017 at 4:26 am

The former Blackstone Theatre (now Merle Reskin Theatre) has been added to Cinema Treasures.

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