24 W. Randolph Street,
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Architects: Benjamin Howard Marshall
Previous Names: Iroquois Theatre, Hyde & Behman's Music Hall
- James M. Nederlander Theatre
- Randolph Theatre
- United Artists Theatre
- Woods Theatre
- Gene Siskel Film Center
News About This Theater
- Dec 31, 2003 — Iroquois Theatre Disaster Remembered
- Dec 5, 2003 — Information Sought by Paper on Iroquois Fire for Disaster's Centennial
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 on September 26, 1904 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 the James M. Nederlander Theatre, as a live theatrical venue (it has its own page on Cinema Treasures).
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