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The day was Monday, November 27, 1903, when a brand new “absolutely fireproof” theatre opened in Chicago at 24-28 Randolph (between State and Dearborn streets). On Wednesday, December 30th, the hit musical, “Mr. Bluebeard” starring Eddie Foy was enjoying its sixth week of a successful run as the Iroquois Theatre’s first production. Pictured on the bottom is the cover of the Programme. Slated to begin on January 11th, was a stupendous adaptation of “Ben Hur” complete with a chariot race calling for sixteen horses on stage.
That Wednesday’s matinee performance of “Mr. Bluebeard” played to a standing-room only crowd of nearly 1,900 people, comprised mostly of women and children. Only two thirds of this audience would be able to talk about it afterwards.
At 3:15 pm, in the middle of the second act, a moonlight scene with the chorus performing a dreamy dance, a spark from a stage light ignited the flimsey scenery. A stage hand, equipped only with two tubes of the patent powder, Kilfyre, was unable to extinguish the flames. The fire spread instantly beyond his control and a call for help was placed to the fire department. Eddie Foy, still on stage and in costume as Sister Anne, pleaded for the audience to remain calm and exhorted the orchestra to “play – play – play anything, but for God’s sake don’t stop – play on!” The musicians played while burning scenery fell about them and flames began to roar overhead.
A stage hand tried to lower the asbestos fireproof curtain, but it caught on a bracket and remained stuck three to four feet above the stage floor. At the rear of the stage, someone opened a door. The strong December wind swept in, carrying the flames from the stage in a deadly wave out over the orchestra pit and beyond into the body of the theatre itself.
The audience, already panicky, gave way completely to terror, and rushed to search for the exits from all parts of the house.
The exits were not marked by lights and were not visible through the smoke and confusion. Many exit doors were locked and the iron fencing installed across the stairways meant to prevent patrons from going into sections other than those accessible to ticketholders were padlocked. Some doors out of the theatre opened inwards rather than outwards making it impossible for the crowds of people rushing toward them to get through.
Against these locked doors and before these iron barriers, women and children crowded, helpless. Those in front were crushed down and trampled upon. Those in the rear climbed upon them. Scores were smothered to death, untouched by the flames, while those in the rear were burned.
When the firemen arrived they found bodies piled in a seemingly solid mass of flesh, ten feet deep, and so densely packed that they could scarcely be pulled apart. In one narrow passageway, where the crowds from two balconies fought to get into the open air, two hundred dead were found.
All injuries and deaths occured within the first fifteen minutes of the fire, which was extinguished by the fire department within thirty minutes. The photo was taken on the day of the fire at about 4:00 pm. Six hundred and three people died in this incident. Of the 150 performers and backstage personnel, only a tightrope artist died, trapped above the stage on her rope.
Yet some good came out of this tragedy. Lax enforcement of fire regulations became a thing of the past. All Chicago theatres were closed until they passed inspection. The effect spread beyond Chicago to every city in the country, where new ordinances were enacted and old ones enforced, so that theatres have never again been the menace they were before.
In the aftermath of the disaster, Williams was later charged and convicted of misfeasance. Chicago’s mayor was also indicted, though the charges didn’t stick. The theater owner was convicted of manslaughter due to the poor safety provisions; the conviction was later appealed and reversed (1907). In fact, the only person to serve any jail time in relation to this disaster was a nearby saloon owner who had robbed the dead bodies while his establishment served as a makeshift morgue following the fire.
The “absolutely fireproof” building survived with minimal damage and was reopened about a year later as the Colonial Theater. The building was torn down in 1924 to make way for the Oriental Theatre. The theatre has been renamed the Ford Center for the Performing Arts.
A 1910 programme from the Colonial Theatre, which the Iroquois was renamed a year after the fire.
On 23 November 1903, the day the theater opened, a special commemorative programme was printed. Here is an excerpt describing the building:
The latest and most noticeable achievements in theatrical construction, not reckoning the cost to secure the finest results, are significant in the recherche New Amsterdam Theatre in New York, the finest concrete example of L’ Art Nouvean in the world: the beautiful Nixon Theatre, now approaching completion in Pittsburg, and last but not least, the Iroquois in Chicago, the finest and most complete of its many modern houses devoted to the drama.
The desirable site chosen for the Iroquois is close to that associated with the very beginning of things theatrical in this municipality nearly sixty years ago. It is located within ” The Loop,” is more readily accessible from traction and railway lines than any other Chicago theatre, and has a frontage on three thoroughfares, with many avenues for exit. The practical part of its promotion as an elegant edifice as well as a perfect theatre show the result of skill added to good judgment in unstinted financial outlay, with a determination to secure the best as befitting such an important artistic adventure. Every penny of the large expenditure represented in the Iroquois was made in the theatrical business. Mr. Will J. Davis and Mr. Harry J. Powers, as the result of ripe experience, understood exactly what was needed. The judicious character of their investment is unquestionable and the artistic addition to the city most advantageous. Associated with the Chicago managers are Messrs. Klaw and Erlanger of New York, and Messrs. Nixon and Zimmerman of Philadelphia, both firms being large producers as well.
The George A. Fuller Company is second to none in handling building enterprises of magnitude, and in carrying them to completion in spite of all obstacles that the uncertain temper of the times may impose. It may be recalled that this corporation carried the Illinois Theatre to completion under conditions that seemed prohibitive, and has been equally successful in completing the Iroquois at a time when other builders have been seriously delayed or entirely abandoned constructions, discouraged by the attitude of labor and contract conditions.
Mr. Benjamin H. Marshall, the architect, has shown admirable capability as a modern theatre builder, and in this instance has again given Chicago its most beautiful temple of the drama. The Illinois Theatre was the first monumental structure of the kind in Chicago, and the Iroquois is a surpassing second, as the entire building is devoted to theatrical purposes.
The Iroquois presents the most imposing and attractive facade to be seen in this city of modern structures, and will impress even the most superficial observer by its beauty and grandeur. The style, architecturally, is French renaissance, which has a strong suggestion of the classic. This mingling of the heroic and lighter lines is artistically adroit, and the result very satisfactory. The Randolph Street front is of Bedford stone deeply recessed (sixty feet wide and eighty feet high), the admirable proportion and architectural treatment making it appear larger than it really is. The central feature is a deep French coved arch thirty-five feet in width and fifty-two feet high, flanked on either side by stone columns four feet in diameter and thirty-eight feet high, weighing thirty-six tons each. Next to these in correct architectural spacing is an engaged pilaster four feet wide that returns back of the columns, acting in double function. The front view gives the impress of double free columns on either side of the arch, adding grace and strength to the uplift of the edifice. These columns and pilasters rest upon a mammoth pedestal of St. Cloud granite sixteen feet square. The width of these bases will serve as bulletins of attractions, for which a space five feet square is recessed and framed in carved leaves of laurel, the top center being a rich cartouche. The columns and pilasters are surmounted by a cornice nine feet high, running across the entire front from pilaster to pilaster, breaking back to the face of the arch at the top of either column. These returns are sustained by elaborately carved massive brackets of French pattern. The upward continuation of the cornice forms a pediment or gable, the apex of which is seventy-five feet above the pavement. Above its crown moulding is a parapet. Surmounting the center as a terminal is a monolith of stone twelve feet wide and fifteen feet high. The massive character of the masonry will be appreciated when it is stated that this upper wall is fourteen feet thick.
The ornamentation of the pediment is emblematic, showing the semi-recumbent figure of a woman heroic in size, representing Tragedy, and the figure of a jester, typifying Comedy. They support a richly carved cartouche as the central ornament.
The sculptors of this large group are Beil and Manch, and the carver, Joseph Dux. The figures are cut out of the solid stone projection, the relief being 3 1/2 feet from the face of the pediment. The size of these sculptures may be judged by the fact that the ornamental head forming the keystone of the arch ten feet below them is 3 1/2 x 4 feet.
Springing up within the arched entrance are a pair of stone pilasters thirty-four feet high, supporting a cornice spanning the arch at the beginning of the curve. The upper members of this gable are cut out as a broken pediment, allowing space for the sculptured bust of a noble Iroquois that Mr. Davis selected as typical from his large library Americana. Back of this arch is an elaborate screen of ornamental iron work (in which the Winslow Brothers have fairly outdone the Germans in their handicraft). This screen is set with heavy plate and jewel glass, giving light and airiness to the inner lobby and outer front. Five pairs of wide mahogany doors with glass panels give entrance to a vestibule 20×40 feet, with an eighteen-foot ceiling beamed and paneled with marble. This is elliptical in shape, allowing room for ticket and other offices on either side, their windows being an attractive feature of the otherwise plain solid construction. At the east end ornamental iron stairs lead to the business offices of the house and to the third floor above, the manager’s private office. A second series of swinging doors admit to a foyer truly palatial (sixty feet wide and eighty feet long), with a colonnade of pavonazzo pillars carrying the ceiling upon groined arches sixty feet above the tessellated floor. It is-by far the most majestic interior in this city or in this country, rivaling many vistas to be seen in the Congressional Library in Washington. In the dignity of its decorative disposition it suggests some kinship with the latter noble structure: but its lines are lighter, its treatment not so severely studied, while its originality is worthy of the highest praise.
A French tabloid’s version of the chaos inside the theater.
Due to a sluggish attendance to Mr. Bluebeard, the owners of the Iroquois were quite excited about the New York hit Ben Hur coming.
Ben Hur opened on 2 September 1901 at the Illinois Theatre