Theater Journal for Feb. 25, 2003

Forgotten Lessons, Lost Lives

by John Kenrick

The recent deadly nightclub fires in Providence and Chicago are just the latest example of the needless suffering that occurs when we forget the lessons of history. Whoever is ultimately blamed for starting these fires, landlords and public officials must be classed among the murderers – especially in Chicago. There is certainly no excuse for them ignoring what happened a century ago.

On December 30, 1903, the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago – a 1,200 seat  house – was packed with over 1,800 people for a performance of the musical Mr. Bluebeard. It was common practice in those days for managers to over-sell theatres on special occasions. Aside from regular standing room, people took floor space in the aisles, cramming into any nook or cranny that offered a view of the stage. This being a special holiday matinee, most of the audience consisted of women and children out for a post-Christmas treat. The owners of the Iroquois boasted in their advertisements and programs that the theatre was "fireproof," so overcrowding posed no threat to anyone's safety.

Midway through the performance, a canvas backdrop burst into flames – the exact cause was unclear, but it was probably due to some kind of electrical problem. As flames became visible to the audience, Eddie Foy (the star of Mr. Bluebeard) stepped out of character to reassure everyone. "The theatre is fireproof," he announced, "we will have it under control in a few minutes." Then he had the conductor reprise the overture, and ordered that the asbestos safety curtain be lowered. Halfway down, the curtain inexplicably jammed. At that moment, an escaping crew member threw open the stage door. The resulting blast of cold air fed the flames into an inferno, causing skylights over the stage to shatter. Smoke poured into the auditorium, and the audience stampeded the doors. Up in the balcony, most of the fire exits were locked – to prevent anyone from sneaking non-paying friends in during performances. Those who could reach the main stairway found it already jammed by those exiting the lower floors. Many were crushed and trampled in the ensuing panic.

The Iroquois Theatre fire was over within fifteen minutes. More than 600 people were dead, over half of them children. Bodies were piled in the stairways and locked doorways. No legal blame or damages were ever assessed, no fine was ever levied, and no one went to jail. However, public outrage soon led to the theatrical fire codes that remain in effect today. All theatres must have ample exit doors clearly marked by electrical signs – and all must be kept unlocked and fully accessible at all times. That is why most theatres practically surround the audience with glowing "Exit" signs. Thanks to the assiduous efforts of theatre owners and public officials to enforce these fire codes, there has never been another deadly fire in a professional theatre. When fires have broken out – as one did during a performance at New York's Palace Theatre in 1932 – audiences have been able to evacuate swiftly and safely.

With the centennial of the Iroquois disaster upon us, there is no excuse for landlords and local officials allowing the overcrowding of any public facility, including nightclubs. Don't kid yourself – landlords know damn well what is going on in their commercial properties. And if local officials don't know what is going on, why the hell not? Some of the deadliest fires of the last century took place in nightclubs – overcrowding and insufficient exits are always sited, and everyone claims they had no idea what was going on. This is not news – its just a public disgrace that has been allowed to fester for years! Whether the landlords and public officials of Providence and Chicago are merely indifferent or plain old asleep at the wheel, they are as responsible as anyone for the lives lost in these tragic club fires. Murderers should be treated like murderers. I'm not saying that the club owners and those still unnamed people who set off the fires should not be held accountable for negligence – but when property owners and legal authorities fail to enforce the law, they must be held accountable for their negligence too.

Its also important for the general public – including you and me – to show some common sense. While so many are urging us to stay "aware" of terrorist threats, we would do well to pay equal attention to more mundane issues like where the nearest exit is in any crowded public place. If a bar, shopping mall, club or restaurant does not offer you clear, safe, accessible options, do yourself a favor and take your business somewhere else.

Bodies piled in doorways, billowing smoke and flames, needless massacres – it has all been seen before. Thanks to idiots ignoring the lessons of history, we are facing these old nightmares again. This time, let's keep the lessons in mind, so the future can be spared more pointless repeats of these senseless tragedies.

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