Here's a little mental exercise for you.  Picture yourself standing at the front door of your house or apartment preparing to go outside.  How do you open the door?  Chances are you reach out, grasp the door knob or handle, turn it, and pull the door in towards you.  Now picture yourself standing at the door of a business, school, or other public building.  What's different?  If you answered that the door swings out, give yourself a gold star.

If you know what the Iroquois Theater had to do with this difference, give yourself a big gold star.

If you know the late author Kurt Vonnegut's connection to the Iroquois Theater, you've earned a giant gold star.

And if you know all that, and know what any of this had to do with the late comedian Bob Hope, we've got a freaking big-ass humongous gold star for you!

And if you don't, you know where to find out.  To the flip.

When I was a child and small towns like mine still had movie theaters, the town merchants (when we still had town merchants and not just a row of antique shops alternating with abandoned storefronts) would get together at holiday time and finance a few weekends of free Saturday kiddie matinées between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Now, this was not an altogether altruistic gesture on the merchants' part.  With us kiddies safely ensconced at the theater, Mom was free to go spend her afternoon shopping at the local merchants' businesses -- instead of, say, paying a babysitter and heading to the nearby big city with her Christmas cash.

One of the movies I remember seeing at those kiddie matinées in the mid-fifties was a little song-and-dance flick titled The Seven Little Foys.  The movie starred Bob Hope as a vaudeville comedian named Eddie Foy.  It's been a long time since I've seen it (in fact, I think that was the only time I've ever seen it) but there is a scene in the movie in which the theater where Eddie Foy is performing catches fire and Eddie, as I recall, saves the day by going on stage and entertaining and calming the panicked crowd, and he becomes a hero for it.

Now, there really was an Eddie Foy, and he really was a vaudeville comedian.  And he really did perform at a theater that caught fire, and he really did get up on stage and try to calm the crowd.  And he really did become a hero because of it.

But as far as saving the day, some days are just bigger than any one person can save.


Chicago, according to Sandburg, is Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads, the Nation's Freight Handler, the City of the Big Shoulders.   If you were to ask a fireman, on the other hand, he might tell you it's the City of Fires.  From the smaller city fires of 1839, 1849, and 1857 that preceded the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, to the fire at the Columbian Exposition in 1893, to the Stockyards fires in 1910 and 1934, to the La Salle Hotel in 1946, to Our Lady of the Angels in 1958, to the McCormick Place fire in 1967, no major city in America has been more shaped by the consequences of fire than Chicago.  And after each one, the city enacted laws and regulations to make the city and its citizens safer.

  The brand-new Iroquois Theater on the north side of Randolph between State and Dearborn, fashioned after the Opera Cominque in Paris, advertised itself as the latest in state-of-the-art "fireproof" construction.  Designed with the latest in fire-safety technology, it had 27 exits and bragged its 1,700-seat audience could empty the theater in less than five minutes.  But as with so many things in those days (like, say, ocean liners), when the chips were down the Iroquois had trouble living up to its press.

I work in a construction-related industry, and if there's one given in the construction business, it's that schedules never go as planned.  The Iroquois' owners anticipated opening the new theater in time to cash in on the holiday season in 1903, but the work, already scheduled at a break-neck pace, was behind and the theater still under construction as Thanksgiving approached.  Impatient owners opened the unfinished theater anyway on November 23, 1903 and continued finishing work as the theater operated through the holiday season.  On-going painting and varnishing gave off volatile fumes and many of the theater's advertised fire-protection features had yet to be installed.

On December 30, with school out for the Christmas holiday, an over-capacity, standing-room-only crowd of 1,900 to 2,000 theater-goers comprised largely of mothers and children packed the theater to see Eddie Foy in the comedy Mr. Bluebeard.  At the beginning of the second act an arc lamp lighting the stage sputtered and dropped a spark onto a drape where it ignited a strip of paint-saturated muslin.  As the actors and stagehands -- accustomed to the occasional random outbreak of minor fires during the course of a season of performances -- tried to put out the fire, flames raced up the drapery and spread across the curtains above the stage,  then began raining scraps of burning fabric down on  the actors below.  

The actors and audience alike began to scream and flee the fire.  Accounts differ as to whether Eddie Foy was on stage or heard the commotion in his dressing room and came out to see what was happening, but sizing up the situation,  he took to the stage and implored crowd to remain seated and directed the orchestra to play to calm the panicked audience.  As the flames continued to spread, stagehands tried to lower an asbestos curtain, part of the theater's state-of-the-art fire-protection, designed to seal off the audience from a stage fire, but the curtain snagged on an out-of-position stage light and jammed partway down, leaving a large gap between the curtain and the stage floor.

As the fire continued to spread through freshly-painted scenery flats suspended above the stage area, the actors panicked and threw open double equipment doors behind the stage in order to escape.  The sudden influx of bitterly cold air ignited a fireball that billowed under the fire curtain and, according to accounts, a subsequent gust of in-rushing air blasted the fire like a blowtorch into the balconies.  Everything combustible in its path -- which was still considerable despite the theater's supposed fireproof construction -- ignited instantly.  The audience immediately stampeded for the exits.

Some of the exits were hidden behind drapes and not marked.  Others were locked to foil gate crashers.  Some were latched with Bascule locks, common in European theaters but virtually unknown in America, which required the operation of a small, inconspicuous lever to open.  And, as was the practice at the time, all of the exit doors opened inwards.


Firemen arriving at the theater at first thought they were responding to a false alarm.  The fire had burned for almost fifteen minutes before the first smoke became visible outside the theater.  A ventilation system that would have vented smoke and fumes to the outside was incomplete and the smoke hatches on the roof nailed shut.  Firemen entering the theater were met with an eerie silence.  They found doors jammed shut by the crush of bodies on the other side.  Firemen struggled to pull bodies, stacked ten high in places, out of the doorways to gain access to the inside of the theater.  One fire marshal shouted over and over, "Is there any living person here?"  No one answered.

It had all been over in those first fifteen minutes.  When firemen arrived they extinguished what remained of the fire in less than half an hour, so much of the combustible material had already been consumed.  Inside, they found a horrifying scene.  

Masses of bodies were piled at the exits.  Hundreds of people had clawed and clambered over each other trying to reach the doors, jammed shut by the weight of the crowds of people pressed against them.  People were trampled and crushed.  In the tangles of bodies at the exits firemen found those on the outside burned, while those in the middle were untouched by the flames, suffocated by the crush or dead of smoke inhalation.  Some theater-goers made their way to fire escape doors on the upper floors only to discover the exterior fire escape ladders had not yet been installed.  People jumped or fell from upper floor windows into the alley beside the theater, dying when they hit the pavement below.  Over a hundred bodies were found in the alley, eventually saving the lives of later jumpers whose falls were broken by the corpses of the dead.

In a stairwell leading from the balconies, nearly 200 people were found, piled seven feet deep where they died, blocked by locked iron gates that  prevented balcony patrons from sneaking down into the more expensive main floor seats where the city's wealthy elite were seated.  Workers at the Northwestern University dental school next door rigged a makeshift catwalk with a ladder and some boards between the buildings' roofs over which perhaps a dozen people were able to escape, but half that many fell to their deaths.

Five hundred seventy-five people died in the fire and at least another 27 of injuries and burns over the coming days, a total of 602 known fatalities.  212  were children.  It remains, 105 years later, the second-deadliest fire in United States history and forth worst in the world.  In the U.S., only the October 8, 1871 Peshtigo firestorm that consumed Peshtigo, Wisconsin (ironically, the same day as the Great Chicago Fire) claimed more lives.  One of every three theater-goers in the Iroquois Theater audience that afternoon perished in the fire.

Mayor Carter Harrison shut down all 170 of Chicago's theaters, as city inspectors embarked on a month-long re-inspection before the theaters were allowed to re-open.  Harrison was later indicted, along with fire inspectors, code enforcement personnel, and theater owners as investigations revealed wide-spread bribery and corruption in the fire-safety inspection process, but all charges were ultimately dismissed on technicalities.  No city official served any jail time or paid any fines.  The theater owners declared bankruptcy; neither the victims injured in the fire nor the relatives of those who perished ever collected a dime for their losses.

In the aftermath of the fire, Chicago enacted new regulations to protect patrons from being trapped in public buildings during a fire.  As has so often happened over the years, the regulations adopted by the City of Chicago became a model for the rest of the nation, and their impact, revolutionary at the time, is now taken for granted.  Those ubiquitous "EXIT" signs that mark the path to safety and doors you push, not pull, are just two of the safety features that share a direct line of descent from the charred interior of the Iroquois Theater.

And I'll mention one more thing we owe to the tragedy of the Iroquois.  A salesman from an Indianapolis hardware store named Carl Prinzler was supposed to be in the audience that day, but as sometimes happens, plans went awry and Prinzler missed the performance.  Haunted by the horrific loss of life of which he, save for a twist of fate, might have been a part, Prinzler vowed to try to do something about it.  Teaming up with an engineer neighbor,  Henry DuPont, and with the support of Prinzler's employer, he set about to try to create a door mechanism that would prevent people from being trapped inside a burning building, even when a door was locked.  Five years later, in 1908, the team perfected a style of door hardware known as the panic release bar, anti-panic device, or simply the panic bar.  The hardware store where Prinzler worked had a manufacturing branch that produced the device and marketed it under the name Von Duprin -- a brand name that still exists today as a division of Ingersoll-Rand -- taking the name from the principals in the venture, "prin" from Carl Prinzler, "Du" from Henry DuPont, and "Von" from the owner of the hardware store, Clemens Vonnegut, great-grandfather of  Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who spoke with obvious pride in several interviews of his family's contribution to fire safety.

(The Von Duprin model 88 Panic Release Bar.)

The shell of the Iroquois sustained only minor structural damage and was repaired and operated as the Colonial Theater until the mid-nineteen-twenties when it was torn down and the Oriental Theater built in its place.  The restored Oriental, long a fixture of Chicago's Theater District, is now the Ford Center for the Performing Arts.


And that, dear Kossacks, is where regulation comes from -- not from some bored bureaucrat sitting in an office in Washington trying to think up ways to make life miserable and expensive for some innocent and unsuspecting businessman, but from real human suffering and tragedy brought about, all too often, by people who shirk what should be obvious responsibilities, who neglect basic diligence, who sacrifice safety for profit.  They bring suffering on those who trust them and their products, and society adopts measures to make sure it never happens again.  We have to force them, through regulation, to behave as they should have been behaving all along.  That's how Regulations come to be.

The Chicago Tribune: The Iroquois Theater Fire
The Eastland Memorial Society: Iroquois Theater fire
Wikipedia: The Iroquois Theater Fire
Chicagology: Iroquois Theater fire
Weird Chicago: The Show Did Not Go On: History & Hauntings of the Iroquois Theater Fire
The Iroquois Theatre Disaster (anonymous contemporary account)

UPDATE:  Okay, one more thing.  From ARS in the comments:

 As a touring stagehand I've taken several shows.. (1+ / 0-)

...into a number of different venues in Chicago.

I've always been impressed with the attention that the local crews pay to fire safety, in all the venues in that city.

A few years ago I took a big show into the Ford Center, which I did not realize was standing on the footprint of the Iroquois. One of the local stagehands gave me this book which kept me up all night reading it.

I used to wonder why in Chicago, before the house opens to the public, all the ushers go to their assigned exit, open the door and practice yelling "This way out!". After reading this book, I now wonder why that only happens in Chicago.

"It's never too late to have a happy childhood" - Tom Robbins

by ARS on Tue Feb 24, 2009 at 08:52:48 AM PST

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And thanks to everyone who stopped in, read, rec'ed, and especially commented.  And thanks to the Louisiana 1976 and the Rescue Rangers for the second go-round.  Much appreciated>

Originally posted to dsteffen on Sun Feb 22, 2009 at 03:18 PM PST.

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