Saturday, April 11, 2009

Iroquois Theater Disaster

December 30, 1903 was another cold Chicago day, but many city residents were enjoying vacation days between Christmas and New Years, and the streets of the Loop district were bustling with shoppers and pleasure-seekers. Children were out of school for the holidays, and large parties of mothers, aunts, and sisters from throughout the city and suburbs were followed here and there by troupes of rosy-cheeked babes. And what more perfect entertainment for the afternoon than a matinee show at the theater? Nearly two thousand crowded in for a hilarious musical comedy on stage at the city's newest and grandest venue, the fabulous Iroquois. Not one of them expected to be party to the deadliest single-building fire in U.S. history, which would cast a pallor over the jolly new year and reveal the complete incompetence of the city's government, not to mention the theater management.

Before the Great Fire of 1871, Randolph St. had been the home of gamblers; after the fire, it was rebuilt as a theater district, and the Iroquois was designed to offer the grandest stage in the city. The facade of the building was designed in the modern French style of polished granite and Bedford stone, giving the impression of a Roman temple. In those days of few alternate modes of entertainment, room for 1,800 seats filled the grand auditorium, with two full balconies. The decorating of the 60-foot tall foyer was a rich auburn, reflected in the upholstery covering each of the extra-plush seats.

The buliding was scheduled for completion in time for the holiday season, when theater attendance spiked, but a major spat between two unions during the Summer of 1903 delayed the construction efforts of the George A. Fuller Company, in charge of erecting the building. The dispute centered on so-called "false work," pieces of the building used during the construction stage, but which would be dismantled after completion. At the Iroquois work-site, a wooden arch was to be constructed which would hold up the roof until all the concrete columns could be completed and bear the load. Carpenters were hired to build the arch, but the bricklayers who performed most of the work in the building would not let them into the site; consequently, the carpenters walked off the job.

The dispute dragged on for weeks, causing delays insufferable to the owners of the theater, who saw the hopes of meeting their financial goals at Christmas dashed. When the dispute was finally cleared, the order was given to finish the building post-haste, sparing any detail that could be taken up after the new year.

As the building's architect, Benjamin H. Marshall, architect, would later say, "[t]he house was put up hastily, and some things were left undone that should not have been. But we must all learn."

Opening night was November 23, 1903. The first show in the new theater was to be the hit musical comedy, "Mr. Blue Beard," which had played to boffo returns on Broadway earlier in the year at the old Knickerbocker Theater at 38th Street. The show's star, one of the top actors of his generation and a future vaudeville legend, Eddie Foy, was enticed to come with the show to Chicago for the Christmas season.
Chicagoans marveled at the fantastic theater their town now boasted, as grand as any in New York. The Tribune's critic, W. L. Hubbard, wrote the following encomium:
A playhouse so splendid in its every appointment, so beautiful in its every part, so magnificent and yet so comfortable, Chicago has heretofore not been able to call its own....The Iroquois is certainly unrivaled in perfection among the regular amusement places of the West, and it is doubtful if the East can boast more than one or two houses that are its equal. The enterprise which made the erection of the new theater possible has given the Chicago playgoers a virtual temple of beauty - a place where the nobelest and highest in dramatic art could fittingly find a worth home.
Hubbard was particularly enthused about the beautiful curtains in the theater, about which there would later be endless discussion:
A curtain of deep red velour is used between scenes, a brilliantly colored autumn landscape decorates the act drop, and a woodland scene is on the fireproof curtain. All in all, a theater of surpassing beauty, comfort, and completeness.
The show itself was not, apparently, anything to write home about, consisting of fantastical characters and tropes of adventure that tired even 1903 audiences. Again, critic Hubbard summarizes the plot best:
Of story there is little or none - nobody expected there would be any, and nobody cared because there was none. There is the usual loving couple who have hard times getting their love affairs to running smoothly, there is the usual wicked persecutor of the maiden in this enamored couple - in this case, he is Mr. Blue Beard - and there is, of course, the regulation good fairy and the magic horn which comes to the hero's aid when matters get a bit too complicated. The music of the piece is hopelessly common....
The acting, while not inspired, would have been amusing to children and those seeking a few laughs. Eddie Foy who, dressed in drag, played the love interest female lead "Sister Anne", was especially singled out by critics for his comic skills, but all 350 members of the cast were given rave reviews.
(Pictured: Eddie Foy as "Sister Anne" in Mr. Blue Beard)

The combination of the theater's grandness and the charm of the show's actors led to many sell-outs, including the one on December 30. 1,606 seats were sold for the performance, plus another 234 tickets for standing room only, leaving the auditorium absolutely filled, with attendees sitting in the aisles and in doorways, craning their necks to see the stage. With children on vacation from school, it is estimated that around 90% of the audience were women and children.

The matinee show was going well, and everyone was having a good time. At 3:00 came the finale of the first act, the "moonlight" scene, in which an octet sang a loving ballad, "In the pale moonlight." In his dressing room under the stage, Eddie Foy was reapplying his makeup for his appearance in the next scene, which involved an "aerial ballet," in which "fairies" hung on wires would float out over the heads of the audience.

As the octet began to sing, a stage hand, William McMullen, at stage right, spun the spotlight onto the singers, intending to mimic the effect of moonlight intended in the scene. The state of stage lighting was not what it is today, and the old-fashioned calcium light frequently spun off hot carbon flakes. Moreover, there were heavy electrical wires connected in various ways to keep them from hanging down in front of the stage, and one of these wires was loose. One way or another, however, the light came too close to the edge of one of the red velour curtains framing the stage, starting a small fire.

"Put the fire out" McMullen said to his assistant nearby.

The assistant began clapping the curtain between his hands to starve it of oxygen. "Put it out! Put it out!" McMullen demanded.

"I am! I am!" responded the assistant. But he wasn't. He couldn't clap fast enough and the curtains, made of thin and painted material, conducted the fire upwards and away from the beam on which the two stood.

From below, one of the other stage hands noticed the burn: "Look at that fire! Can't you see that you're on fire up there! Put it out!"

"Damn it, I am trying to," said McMullen's assistant. But it was too late, and McMullen knew it. He called out to the stage hand controlling the curtains to drop the fireproof asbestos curtain.
The asbestos curtain, upon which much of the post-fire inquiry would center, was intended to separate the stage, where most of the inflammable materials (wood, paint, scenery) were, from the audience, shielding them from the fire, and allowing for calm, orderly escape.

By this time, the singing on stage had stopped and the audience sat frozen in their seats, not certain what to do. Bits of flame were dropping on the stage and smoke was filling the top of the theater. The fireproof curtain, which was supposed to drop within 60 seconds, began to lower. On stage right, the curtain fell as expected, coming within a few feet of the floor. On the other side, however, the curtain hung up on a lighting apparatus that protruded from the proscenium arch. The apparatus had been used in the previous scene, and was supposed to be withdrawn during the moonlight scene, but the assistant stage manager in charge of its operation, William Plunkett, had failed to do so, only cutting the current to the light. The failure of the curtain to fall completely left an enormous hole between the stage, which was now on fire, and the audience.

Down in his dressing room, Eddie Foy had heard loud noises coming from the stage which he realized were not part of the show. Running up to the stage, he saw the fire and found his 6 year-old boy, Bryan, in the wings. He put Bryan's safety in one of the actors' hands, and walked out to the footlights, where he addressed the increasingly agitated crowd. Women were fainting, and some murmurs of panic were washing over the audience.

"Keep very quiet. It is all right. Don'tget excited and don't stampede. It is all right," Foy announced in measured tones. Then he turned down to the orchestra pit.

"Start an overture! Start anything. For God's sake, play, play, play, and keep on playing." The bandleader sat there, white as a ghost, but kept beating his baton in the air. As the orchestra played, Foy kept reminding the audience, "Go out slowly."

Much of the floor audience obeyed Foy's words, walking back towards the entrance on Randolph where they had entered. Those in the balconies had a more difficult time, with narrow winding staircases and long aisles keeping many stuck in their seats. Panic started to grow as smoke increasingly filtered downward toward the audience.

Back on stage, as Foy continued urging calm, behind him, a theater employee opened the back stage doors into the alley behind the theater. Nearby, wiser stage hands and cast members were aghast: "My God, man, what do you mean by opening those doors? This draft is as strong as a gale and the fire will be on top of the audience in a minute."

An effort was made to close the doors, but in a panic the chorus girls made a mad rush for the exit and crowded the entrance. Opening the stage doors sealed the fates of most of those on the balcony, who by this time were rushing over each other to escape. Some had jumped off the balcony to the main floor. Others had headed for the fire escape doors from the balcony, which were either either difficult to open or locked, and when they did open, there was a three-foot drop from the door to the fire escape. Those who first got through the door missed the drop and fell; the next through the door tripped over them and several fell over the side of the fire escape to the ground sixty feet below.

Others found their way to a fire escape door from which they were able to crawl across into the the old Tremont House, which at the time was the Northwestern University dental school. Painters in the University building placed wooden planks across the gap, and twelve escaped this way, teetering precariously far above the alley below to safety.

With the stage doors open, Foy felt a cold rush of wind at his back. The fire, which was primarily confined to the stage at that point, was pushed by the draft out under the partially-open asbestor curtain into the auditorium. At this point, the fire and smoke should have been drawn up into the ventilators in the roof, but construction on these had not been completed and they were locked shut. Instead, then, an enormous fireball blew up to the balcony, killing hundreds on contact. The lights went out, and at the last possible moment, Eddie Foy rushed out into the alley, possibly one of the last to escape from the theater.

By 3:30, the fire department had arrived on scene, and in an hour had the fire under control. The building itself was little damaged, though the stage was destroyed and much of the upholstery from the seats gone. The gruesome and pitiful scenes that took place in that theater after the lights went out none will ever know, but those who saw the balcony afterwards were speechless.

Bishop Samuel Fallows of St. Paul's Reformed Episcopal church joined in the afternoon volunteer team which helped carry out the dead and injured. He noted, "The sight when I reached the balconies was pitiful beyond description....I saw the great battlefields of the Civil War, but they were as nothing to this."

As police and firemen began removing the dead from the building, news of the disaster spread across the city, and those who believed their loved ones might have been at the show rushed to the scene. A bereaved crowd began to build, and as soon as a wagon pulled up to the entrance to cart away victims, the crowd pressed to the door to see the bodies taken out. The city's fleet of patrol wagons and ambulances was not enough, so private wagons from State street retail shops were pressed into service to carry off the dead. Morgues between North Ave. and 22nd St. were filled up with victims.

Policemen had to use clubs to force their way among hundreds of frenzied, frightened men who had sent wives and children to the theater. One cried incoherently to a policeman as he pushed toward the theater, "Of course they got out. Of course they got out. They got out, didn't they? My wife and daughter. They got out, didn't they?"

"Yes, they got out, there are not many dead" said the tired policeman, shoving the man back.

That was not true. In the space of only 15 minutes between 3:15 and 3:30, 571 had been killed. Another 30 died later of injuries. The Iroquois had become the worst single disaster in U.S. history up to that time, and remains to this day the worst single-building fire.

In the immediate shock from the disaster, other theaters closed (probably no one would have attended anyway), and striking workers made amends with employers. Sunday services across the city filled with mourners looking for solace from the terrible fire. But, as the days past, private introspection turned into public finger-pointing. "Who is to blame?" came the call from all quarters.

The Iroqouis management saw it coming. The day after the fire, a large placard was placed in the hotel where many of the employees were staying, telling them to prepare their trunks to leave town quickly if need be.

City council, the county coroner's office, and a special grand jury all investigated the disaster. What they discovered was a trail of incompentence and criminal negligence that led from the Iroqouis stage all the way up to the Mayor's office.

First, the theater management. The building was rushed to completion and major safety features were neglected. The fireproof curtain, which burned up in the fire, was found to have been made of cheap material. The ventilation system in the roof was incomplete. The exits were not clearly marked, and many were covered with decorative curtains, obscuring them from the panicked crowds. There was no sprinkler system installed, as required by city regulation. No fire drill had been run, and no one had briefed the ushers on what to do if a fire were to start. Too many tickets had been sold, and the theater was overfilled. Many of the exits were either locked or covered by iron bars. Other exits were unlocked, but employed an unusual type of doorknob which was difficult to operate. The fire escapes were not level with the balcony doors. The stairways between the balcony and the main floor were twisted and difficult to navigate.

Next, the city building inspection department. An inspection of the Iroquois not one week before the fire had turned up nothing of note. The inspectors had accepted complimentary tickets to events while acting as public safety administrators. Major defects had been overlooked. Inspectors were underpaid and understaffed.

Then, the theater employees. In their rush to escape, they had opened the stage doors, creating the gust of wind that killed most of those seated in the balcony. The operator of the lighting apparatus on whch the asbestos curtain had hung up was neglected to retract the apparatus, and was not at his post to do so when the fire started. Only the company clown, Eddie Foy, performed nobly.

Finally, city government. Mayor Carter Harrison had received a report in November, a month before the Iroquois fire, that fire regulations in Chicago theaters were going unobeyed. The report stated that not one theater in the city was in compliance. The Mayor was more concerned about the political fallout that would ensure from the theater workers' unions who supported his candidacy if the regulations were enforced, than he was about public safety. Hence, he merely passed the report on to the city council. The Aldermen ignored the report.

Twelve theater employees were arrested for manslaughter due to criminal negligence on the day following the fire, and over time, another thirty, including the theater managers were brought to jail. The city's building inspector, the fire marshal, and even Mayor Harrison were also charged. In the end, however, none were ever prosecuted. Within a few weeks, the public eye had moved on, leaving only the families of the victims to seek retribution, which they never received in any measure.

Two days after the fire, all theaters across the city were closed by order of the Mayor until full inspections could be made. This caused the theater workers' unions to bring pressure on the city government to finish the inquiry and be done with the issue quickly. Actors and stage hands showed up at city council meetings, hissing and booing the Mayor. This added to the political pressure for a "return to normalcy". Demands for new, tougher, regulations (presumably to be enforced by the same incompetent government, though) were satisfied with a new fire code (as had been the case with earlier fires).

The theater building itself had survived the fire, and after the stage was rebuilt, it reopened under new management to vaudeville performances. Renamed the Colonial Theater in 1905, it remained one of the top venues in the city, bringing major Broadway shows including the Ziegfield Follies to town in between vaudeville revues. In 1924, the Colonial was demolished to make way for the United Masonic Temple Building, which included its own theater, the Oriental.
The Oriental played host to top national touring shows between the 1930 and early 1950s. Its last live show was a performance by Gene Autry in 1952. Deterioration in the economic fortunes of the Loop district meant that many of the big theaters fell into disuse, and between the 1950s and 1980s, the Oriental showed primarily movies, with an occasional exception, such as a Stevie Wonder performance in 1971.

By the late 1970s, the Oriental specialized in showing particularly violent films, attended mostly by street toughs. In 1980, after a shooting in front of the theater, police rounded up 75 members of two rival gangs at a subsequent showing. The Oriental was shuttered in 1981, and remained closed until 1998, when the repopulation and gentrification of the Loop was sufficient to bring theater-goers back to the city. The Oriental recently finished a four year run of the hit Broadway production Wicked, and is about to open a revival of A Chorus Line.

After testifying before the various Iroquois investigatory committees and being widely lauded as a hero who saved many more from dying at the theater, Eddie Foy went on to a career as one of the top vaudeville performers, and occasionally performing on Broadway. His vaudville act included his seven children, the "Seven Little Foys." The family story was dramatized in a movie by the same name, in which Bob Hope played Eddie Foy. Several of the Foy children had acting careers on television and film, as well as the legitimate stage. The youngest, Irving, passed on in 2003.


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Outstanding re-account of the 1903 Iroquois disaster.

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