Chicago emerged from its devastating Great Fire on October 10, 1871, after a two-day conflagration that destroyed 17,500 buildings over four square miles, left 90,000 of the city’s 300,000 inhabitants homeless and killed an impossible-to-quantify-accurately 200–300 people.
And the city immediately began rebuilding.
Thirty-two years and two months later, after rising both literally and proverbially from its ashes to reclaim its place as one of America’s most populous and vital cities, Chicago was devastated by another fire … this time in the month-old, state-of-the-art, “fireproof” Iroquois Theatre.
When it opened on November 23, 1903, the Iroquois Theatre was hailed as an architectural masterpiece and a jewel in the crown of Chicago’s theater scene. Designed in the highly ornate French baroque style, it featured grand staircases, gilded ornamentation, lush velvet curtains and a 6,300-square-foot domed auditorium with a dropped stage to improve the sightlines from every seat in the house. And though it was billed confidently as “absolutely fireproof,” the Iroquois contained almost no fire-safety features. No fire alarm. No backstage telephone. No labeled fire exits (most exits were hidden behind velvet curtains anyway). Even its supposedly fireproof asbestos curtain was made of a highly flammable wood pulp. (Less than ten years later, the “unsinkable” Titanic would succumb to a similarly overconfident hubris.)
The theater’s opening production was a touring musical pastiche called Mr. Bluebeard, which featured a 400-person cast and starred popular Vaudeville comedian Eddie Foy. It had enjoyed critical and popular success for over a month when its December 30 audience filed in on a freezing Wednesday afternoon during the break between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Since the theater’s opening had been delayed repeatedly, its owners were desperate to make up for lost revenue, so they habitually oversold the house, seating extra patrons up and down the aisles in the orchestra and balconies.
The fire started at the top of Act II when an overhead light shorted and sent sparks leaping to a nearby curtain. As the fire spread through the flylines and burning bits of scenery rained down on the stage, the actors continued soldiering through their performance, confident in their understanding that the theater was fireproof. A handful of people in the audience got nervous enough to leave, but many chose to stay in their seats (or aisles) until it became obvious the fire was not going to be contained.
And then panic set in.
The ensuing stampede up overcrowded aisles through an unfamiliar theater with hidden exits left trampled bodies everywhere. And since most of the Iroquois exit doors opened inward, the bodies piled up in front of the doors, leaving no hope of escape.
The actors, too, created their own stampede to find exits. And when they finally pried open the giant freight door on the north end of the stage, the arctic winter blast that blew into the building combined with the fiery gases above the stage to create a superheated fireball that exploded into the auditorium and incinerated everything in its path, including hundreds of people still in their seats.
Many of the people who did manage to get out of the building found themselves trapped high in the air on unfinished fire escapes. As these fire escapes got more and more crowded, people begin to fall (or jump) to their deaths in the alley below. By the time the fire was over, bodies were piled 10 deep in what is still called to this day Death Alley.
Though it was contained to one building and it burned less than an hour, the fire killed over 600 people (twice the number killed in the two-day Great Fire of 1871), shut down theaters around the world out of fire-safety concerns (leaving thousands of actors and theater employees unemployed), generated worldwide outpourings of sympathy, exposed yet another Chicago corruption scandal in the years of ensuing lawsuits, and ultimately brought about great changes in the way we respond to massive disasters and catalogue and identify disaster victims. It even inspired an Indianapolis hardware salesman named Carl Prinzler, who randomly had to miss the deadly performance, to invent what he called the Self Releasing Fire Exit Bolt once he learned that a disproportionate number of victims had died in desperate piles in front of the inward-opening exit doors with confusing European-style bascule locks. Known today as the “panic bar,” his invention—along with outward-opening exit doors—are perhaps the biggest public-safety legacy of the Iroquois disaster.
Today, the stunning Asian-baroque Oriental Theatre sits pretty much on the exact footprint of the Iroquois Theatre. A thriving part of the Broadway in Chicago theater collective, it features touring productions that play year-round to thousands upon thousands of theater patrons who largely have no idea that they’re sitting on a historic graveyard of sorts. To my knowledge there isn’t even a memorial on the property commemorating the fire.
There is a memorial about three blocks away, in Chicago’s classical-revival City Hall building. Designed by Chicago sculptor Laredo Taft, the bas-relief plaque currently sits above a glass column that houses a revolving door, so it’s both hard to see up close and hard to photograph, especially with an iPhone.
Thankfully, it’s accompanied by an eye-level plaque that explains it context and memorializes the 600 lives lost on December 30, 1903, in one of the worst theater disasters in history.