TBT: Fire at the Iroquois

Iroquois Theater, 1903
In the days before television and the many opportunities Americans have for entertainment in the modern age, an afternoon or an evening at the theater was a prime diversion for many. Whether it was a lecture by a famed orator, an orchestra concert or a theatrical presentation, an audience could find a few hours amusement at the theater.

But over the centuries, theaters also were the scene of their share of problems. From the middle ages on, theaters were a prime source of disease outbreaks, and were often among the first facilities closed during the frequent epidemics of the Elizabethan age and onward. More recently; especially as theaters became larger and more complex; they were the scenes of terrible disasters caused by fires and large, panicked crowds rushing for the exits. Nowhere was this combination of factors more deadly than near the corner of Dearborn and Randolph in Chicago just a few days after Christmas in 1903.

The Iroquois Theatre had opened a month before, at the heart of a burgeoning theater district in Chicago which local boosters hoped would rival and even exceed that of New York. The elegant theater, with its marble staircases and rich furnishings had a capacity of around 1600. With the memory of the great Chicago fire still lurking in the not-too-distant past, the theater’s builder and owners promised a safe facility, advertising it as “absolutely fireproof.” They bragged about modern safety features, like an asbestos curtain to smother flames, and 30 exits which would make it possible to evacuate the theater in about five minutes. The architect, Benjamin Marshall, assured patrons that he had studied the causes of numerous theater disasters of the past, and had designed a theater that was safe from all of them.

None of these assurances were true.

Construction of the theater had fallen behind, and in order to make the deadline for opening day that November, many corners were cut, deficient materials were used, inspectors were bribed and safety regulations were ignored. The theater had a single grand staircase from the upper levels down to the main entrance. Vents above the stage meant to allow smoke to escape in the event of fire had been sealed. A fire curtain supposed to be made of asbestos was instead made up of cheaper materials which were actually flammable themselves. There was no fire alarm or sprinkler system.

The scene was set for tragedy a little after 3 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, December 30, 1903. With schools closed for the holidays and shoppers descending on downtown Chicago, the owners of the spectacular new theater adjacent to the Loop shopping district had scheduled a special matinee of the family play “Mr. Bluebeard” that day. They had welcomed many parents and children from more than a dozen states throughout the Midwest into the auditorium for the show.

Seats sold out, but that did not stop hundreds more guests from crowding in. When the seats in the three-level theater filled up, patrons sat in the aisles or stood in the back of the balcony. Finally, to stop those who would try to sneak in without a ticket, the owners bolted outside doors closed, and put in place gates inside the theater to prevent those with cheaper tickets from moving into seats closer to the stage. According to some accounts at least 2100 people had crammed into the theater, blocking aisles and exits.

As Act II began in the jammed theater, a single arc light shone above the stage, simulating the moonlight for the scene. A spark popped from the lamp and struck a curtain, igniting it. Fire spread quickly above the stage while dancers continued to perform. The star of the show emerged onto the stage and called for calm. Meanwhile, the theater employee responsible for fire safety went into action, ordering the asbestos curtain dropped and the fire alarm pulled. But unbeknownst to him, the curtain was substandard and the fire alarm non-existent.

Now panic spread as fast as the fire. Patrons, many of them small children, rushed toward the exits. But in the darkness, the exits were nearly impossible to find, as theater architects had declined to place lighted exit signs, thinking them a distraction. Those who did find doors discovered they were locked or opened inward and were impossible to use as the panicked crowd pushed against them. Gates between sections of the theater trapped more people as the smoke and fire spread. Some supposed exits turned out to be decorative rather than actual doors, and more people found themselves trapped in paths to nowhere, while others were trampled.

An artists depiction of theatergoers escaping along a ladder 
Around this time, the fire curtain was finally lowered, but it snagged on a piece of equipment. Soon it too was in flames. Backstage, escaping cast and crew members forced open a large stage door, which let in a gust of cold wind. The fresh air hit the flames and caused a fireball which exploded into the crowd, killing many instantly, some still in their seats. Those who made it to the exits from the balcony found the fire escape did not reach them. Some jumped or fell to the alley below. A few survived. Others crawled to safety on the roof of a neighboring Northwestern University building when students rigged a crude ladder to span the gap over the alley.

Outside, the Chicago Fire Department raced to respond. A stagehand ran to the nearby Engine Company 13 firehouse to summon help. The firefighters rushed to the theater, activating a call box to alert other firefighters to report to the scene. These first responders were confronted by mobs of people escaping into the street, and found their path to the fire blocked. Firefighting efforts took a backseat to rescue and recovery. Once the flames were extinguished, the scene was horrific. Dozens of bodies, then hundreds, were brought out. Tragically, many of them were children who had only moments before been enjoying a cheerful musical.

The next morning’s Chicago Tribune carried on its front page seven columns of names of “the known dead,” a still-incomplete list that already numbered over 500. Firefighters told of finding bodies stacked ten high at locked exit doors. When the counting was done, an official death toll of 602 was reported, though speculation ran that the real number was even higher. Even with just the official toll; which was double the loss of life from the 1871 Chicago fire; the Iroquois Theatre fire was the deadliest theater fire in the United States and the deadliest single-building fire in American history.

In the aftermath, there was plenty of blame to go around. The theater’s owners and operators, city officials and even Mayor Carter Harrison shared some of the blame in the public eye. Theater owners tried to blame the manufacturer of the ineffective fire retardant chemical kept backstage, and when that didn’t work they sought to blame the audience for not heeding the initial call to remain calm. When everything was said and done, however, after three years of legal maneuvering, manslaughter prosecutions were unsuccessful and nobody went to jail. A judge, seeming to throw up his hands in futility, supposedly said that none of them could be held responsible for the placement of the light which had started the fire. The light is now part of the collection of the Chicago History Museum.

Marshall, the architect, later weakly conceded that in the future he would not include so much wood in the designs of his theaters.

The Iroquois was repaired and re-opened the next year as the Colonial Theatre. It was demolished in the 1920s to make way for a new theater, the Oriental, which still stands on the site. The city held a memorial service every year after the disaster until the last survivor passed away. A memorial to the victims of the fire, sculpted by Lorado Taft, stands at the LaSalle Street entrance to Chicago City Hall. The plaque was described in the Chicago Tribune in 1911 as depicting, “the Motherhood of the World protecting the children of the universe, the body of a child borne on a litter by herculean male figures, with a bereaved mother bending over it.”

Panorama of the Iroquois Theater after the fire

After the fire, city and state regulators made changes to building codes and safety laws to prevent the sort of disaster which had claimed so many lives at the Iroquois. Theaters around the nation immediately eliminated or reduced their standing room sections. In Europe and North America theaters closed their doors to be retrofitted with improved safety features. To prevent the deadly crush of people against inward-opening exit doors, all exits from theaters and other public buildings are now required to open outward. Lighted exit signs and “panic bars” are required for emergency exits.

Those reformed laws and procedures have likely prevented countless fatalities in the century since the Iroquois Theatre disaster, but they came too late for more than 600 people, mostly women and children, who sought an afternoon’s entertainment in a Chicago theater billed as “absolutely fireproof.”