Sunday, July 27, 2003

Tragic theater tale
shows hubris in
dramatic way

Concerns about fires in nightclubs and theaters have ebbed in the months since 99 people died in a Rhode Island nightclub fire in February, but this account of a much larger tragedy, the Iroquois Theatre disaster of 1903, remains a quick, topical and disturbing read. Almost 600 people died -- most of them women and children -- when a malfunctioning spotlight ignited a piece of scenery during the matinee performance of "Mr. Bluebeard" on Dec. 30, 1903. It was the worst single disaster in the history of the American stage, and perhaps the deadliest single-building fire in U.S. history.


"Tinder Box,"
by Anthony P. Hatch
(Academy Chicago Publishers,
250 pages, $25)

The author, Anthony P. Hatch, who began researching the circumstances of the fire in 1961, tells the story with such skill that "Tinder Box" is a worthy companion to "A Night to Remember," Walter Lord's landmark account of the sinking of the Titanic. The heroes and villains of the Iroquois disaster, and the social milieu they inhabited a century ago, are all thoroughly scrutinized in compelling style.

To tell the story in a single sentence: Everything that could possibly have gone wrong did go wrong on that terrible afternoon. Most of the cast and stage crew was able to escape, but a series of preventable and foreseeable events resulted in hundreds of people being trampled to death, asphyxiated or burned alive.

When the smoke cleared, there were many people who shared the moral responsibility for the disaster.

For instance, the owners of the Iroquois Theatre and the entertainment "syndicate" they were affiliated with opened the theater before construction was complete to take advantage of the lucrative Christmas season. Among the amenities that remained unfinished were the fire alarm boxes, exterior fire escapes and the ventilation system that would have directed the heat from a stage fire up through vents in the roof.

The city inspector responsible for confirming that the theater had the required firefighting equipment present had certified it as ready to open even though the equipment had not even been delivered, much less installed; a second inspector who had tagged along testified later that he would not have allowed the theater to open, but didn't report the missing equipment he observed because he hadn't been there in an official capacity.

Members of the Chicago Fire Department had also expressed concerns about the state of the building, but no one took action or suggested that the theater not be allowed to open until the deficiencies were corrected.

AN ADDITIONAL list of errors and omissions compounded the death toll: The ushers had locked the exits from the upper levels so that people in the cheap seats couldn't sneak downstairs after the show started. The young, socially connected architect who designed the theater had hidden some of the emergency exits behind draperies. Exit signs required by law to be clearly visible had not been put up when the theater opened; they were still not up when the disaster took place five weeks later.

A fireproof asbestos "drop" was required by law so a fire backstage could be contained there and not endanger the audience. Tests later determined that someone had cut building costs by installing a drop made largely of second-rate materials and which lacked enough asbestos to be fireproof. If that wasn't enough, when the "drop" was belatedly lowered several minutes after the fire started, one end got caught on another piece of equipment. The "drop" remained stuck just long enough to catch on fire before it collapsed to the stage.

The stage crew and ushers received no training on how to handle a fire in the theater because the design was said to be "absolutely fireproof." As author Hatch points out, there were numerous eerie parallels between the Iroquois Theatre and the Titanic disaster -- a "fireproof" luxury theater and a "unsinkable" luxury liner, economic pressures that resulted in prestige and public image taking precedence over safety, and a fatal lack of preparation for dealing with the "impossible."

ENTIRE FAMILIES died in the inferno. In other cases, only a father who had been at work that afternoon, or infants too young to attend the show, survived.

There were immediate calls to punish those responsible for building and opening the theater, and also to punish those city officials who should have reported the deficiencies but failed to do so.

However, despite the public outrage, few of the survivors, and few of the victims' families, ever received any meaningful compensation. The city officials were able to evade assuming any personal responsibility. The theater "syndicate" had the financial resources to hire a very ambitious and astute lawyer who succeeded in delaying action on the case until the outrage had faded and the fire had been eclipsed by later tragedies.

Several years passed. Eventually the defense was able to successfully argue under the case law of the era that no one defendant was to blame and therefore no one was liable. The insurance companies then stepped forward to announce that they weren't responsible to pay out much of anything to the survivors, either. In the end, most of the survivors and the victims' families got nothing.

The Iroquois Theatre was rebuilt, later renamed and finally torn down and replaced with another building. Plans to build a memorial for the victims were postponed and then scaled down. One small memorial disappeared later entirely; Hatch reports that another, a bronze bas relief, is apparently now on display with no explanation of what it commemorates.

Hatch's final chapter is the most troubling. He writes that 100 years after the Iroquois Theatre burned, there are still dangerous deficiencies in the area of theater safety. Hatch says that variables in fire code enforcement, lack of adequate training for theater staff, inadequate access to exits, substandard older facilities that have been "grandfathered in" and the widespread attitude that "it won't happen to me" combine to make some American theaters potential death traps a full 100 years after the Chicago tragedy.

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