On December 30, 1903 there occurred the worst disaster in theatre history, and the largest single building fire in American history, Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre Fire.
The Iroquois had only been open for five weeks on the day of the disaster, and was full to capacity with over 2,100 audience members, most of them women and children, who’d come for a matinee performance of Mr. Bluebeard featuring Eddie Foy. Halfway through the show, an arc light ignited a muslin curtain. Flames rapidly spread to the top of the stage. Then, the opening of backstage freight doors caused an inrush of air, and a giant fireball engulfed the audience.
A combination of factors hindered effective escape. There was only one staircase from the upper galleries of the theatre. Many exits were blocked or locked or unmarked. Some apparent exits were dead ends. Exit doors opened inward, and had unusual opening mechanisms. Outdoor fire escapes were unfinished. The building had no sprinklers. And these were only some of the factors. There were over 602 fatalities (around a quarter of the people in the building). The real number will never be known, as some bodies were removed prior to an official count. Those who weren’t burned were asphyxiated, or crushed in the panic, or jumped or fell from the upper stories.
A couple of cast members were among the dead. Eddie Foy remained as long as possible, standing on the stage with burning scenery falling all around him, urging the audience to remain calm. The moment is dramatized in the 1957 movie The Seven Little Foys, starring Bob Hope. Foy emerged as a national hero as a result of his actions. It essentially made his career.
Theatre fires used to be commonplace. It was just a sad fact of life. Before the Iroquois fire, the worst had been the Brooklyn Theatre Fire of 1876, in which 278 perished. But the scale of the Iroquois Theatre Fire was a wake-up call. Theatres across the country instantly closed while owners upgraded their fire safety features. Local fire codes across the country were upgraded, and perhaps more importantly, began to be enforced. (The Iroquois’s vulnerability to fire was known prior to its opening; it was allowed to open anyway). Today, theares have numerous, clearly marked exits, and doors that open outwards, outfitted with panic bars. And we all get that speech at the top of shows, letting us know what to do in case of fire. The habitual theatre goer has a tendency to roll his eyes during this ritual. But it’s there for a reason.