150 Years Ago: The Great Chicago Fire

Once again it is Fire Prevention Week (October 3-9). Those who write about theatre history can’t avoid the topic of conflagrations from time to time; they’re a doleful part of the story. Consequently we have an entire section on fires on Travalanche: it includes articles on the fires that destroyed P.T. Barnum’s Museums, the numerous fires at Coney Island’s amusement parks, the Hartford Circus Fire, the Iroquois Theatre Fire, the Brooklyn Theatre Fire, and several others

This week (October 8) marks the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire (1871). Most of the city was destroyed by that blaze, which was so enormous that it actually leapt across the river. 1/3 of the city’s population of 300,000 were left homeless; 300 people died. Chicago had only been a big city for about 20 years at the time of this tragedy, and it was very early in show business history, so there is only a little overlap with our ordinary content areas, but there’s plenty for us to grab hold of.

For example, there’s how many of us learned about the event in the first place! Many major cities had burned down before, such as Rome (64 A.D.), London (1666), and New York (1776). But only Chicago has an American popular song about it. What’s more, it’s one commonly sung by children, one of those summer camp type songs. That’s how I first heard it: from other kids. “There’s a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” was originally a Tin Pan Alley tune copyrighted by Theodore Metz and Joe Hayden in 1896, and performed by McIntyre and Heath’s minstrels (others claimed to have written the song previously, however). Josephine Sabel was associated with the number, as the sheet music above shows. The original lyrics were not about the fire, as it happens. That came about, apparently due to a parody performed by a singer named Flossie or Flo Nash, in vaudeville around 1898. And then, as often happens, it began to live and grow in the folk culture. NPR did a great story on its history here. Anyway, this is how most or many of learned about Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. Many believe it did in fact start in the O’Leary barn, though there are other theories as well. Perhaps the most bizarre was that of Ignatius Donnelly, who apparently could always be relied on to have a bizarre explanation, even where one wasn’t necessary. He believed it might have been started by a meteorite shower.

Colonel Wood’s Museum was one of the 18,000 buildings destroyed by the far. The first Palmer House was another (the third iteration was the one that contained the famous ballroom that showcased legendary bands and singers during the Jazz Age). Eddie Foy, father of the Seven Little Foys, was just a kid himself at the time of the fire, which destroyed his family home and forced him and his folks to flee for their lives with thousands of other refugees. Fire seemed to chase Foy — later he would become famous as the hero of the Iroquois Theatre disaster. Another little tidbit: the Chicago World’s Fair, i.e. the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, was held in Chicago largely as a demonstration to all and sundry that city had rebounded in a big way. In the 20th century, Chicago would come to be a vaudeville and theatre nexus second only to New York.

Naturally, Hollywood would come to put its stamp on an event this dramatic. In 1938, 20th Century Fox released In Old Chicago, directed by Henry King. This ripping yarn very much follows the template established by MGM’s San Francisco two years earlier, which we wrote about here: a melodrama about charming 19th century corruption and crime in the first half, which then turns into a disaster movie in the second. Give the public what they want: the main characters are actually the O’Leary family, and it actually shows the cow kicking over the lantern! Alice Brady plays Mrs. O’Leary; Tyrone Power and Don Ameche are her Cain-and-Abel sons. Alice Faye became a star as a result of her turn as the ingenue of the film. The colorful cast also includes Andy Devine (as one “Pickles” Bixby), Brian Donlevy (typecast as a seedy Chicago crook), Sidney Blackmer (as General Phil Sheridan), young Gene Reynolds (here still a kid, later he became most famous as producer of M*A*S*H), as well as Rondo Hatton, Francis Ford, Charles Lane, and Russell Hicks.

Lastly, as Beach Boys fans know, the band’s aborted (and later revived) psychedelic Americana masterwork Smile features a track evoking the event entitled “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” .

Don’t play with matches, kids!