Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Iroquois Theatre Fire (or: How Bad WAS "Mr. Blue Beard?" )

The Iroquois Theatre fire is the subject of a fantastic new play, Burning Bluebeard, now running at the Neo-Futurist Theatre.  The fire in question took place on Dec 30, 1903, during a matinee performance of a spectacle known as Mr. Blue Beard.  It just now occurs to me that, while I've written here about the ghosts associated with the fire, I've never put up a proper post about the fire that occurred only five weeks after the theatre was opened, during an over-crowded performance of a children's show about a guy who murders his wives featuring a song about "The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous."

In the new play by the Neo Futurists, many jokes are made out of just how dumb, inappropriate, and racist Mr. Blue Beard was. And it was all of these, all right. One paper wrote that, despite a new book and songs written for its American run (it had previously played in London), the show had never shed its "British stupidity."

Though reviews were known to go on and on about just how beautiful and spectacular the show was - with its cast of three or four hundred, its sparkling set-pieces and aerial ballet - and how gorgeous the theatre was. The Tribune wrote that only a few theaters in the country could possibly compare to the splendor of the Iroquois.

But as for the show itself, featuring such immortal classics as "Come and Buy Our Luscious Fruits, "Oriental Slaves Are We," and "A Most Unpopular Potentate," the papers struggled to find nice things to say.

Foy himself seems to have been underused. "Of the company," the Trib wrote, " Eddie Foy is the chief and ablest performer. He has little that is amusing to do, but his personality is in itself so good-natured, his humor so infectious, and his cleverness at unmaking so great that he cannot wait to with the tribute of applause." He had two solo numbers, "I'm a Poor Unhappy Maid" and "Hamlet Was a Melancholy Dane."



Eddie Foy as "Sister Ann" in the show. He stayed on stage WAY longer than it was safe for him to do so, and was (rightly) considered a hero.

"Of story," wrote the Trib, "there is little or none - nobody expected there would be any, and nobody cared because there was none. There is the usual loving couple who have hard times getting their love affairs to running smoothly, there is the usual wicked persecutor of the maiden in this enamored couple - in this case he is Mr. Blue Beard - and there is, of course, the regulation good fairy and the magic horn which calls her to the hero's aid....the music of the piece of hopelessly common, save bits here and there which are flinched from the classics."

This was the first show to run at the Iroquois, which, like most theaters at the time, was a freaking death trap. The hallways leading down from the gallery lead to locked doors and accordion gates. The three lower-level fire escapes into the alley were kept locked by a new kind of French locking system no one could figure out in the middle of a panic. The ventilation had been nailed shut. They had saved $56 by using an asbestos fire curtain was actually a blend made mostly from wood pulp (a common trick - wood-pulp based curtains were cheaper and lasted longer than pure asbestos. The only trouble was that they were useless in a fire). There were no sprinkler systems installed. Doors opened inward, toward the lobby (contrary to popular belief, this did not become illegal after the fire - it had already been illegal for a good twenty years). It wouldn't have made a difference if they opened towards the street, though - the manager testified that they were also locked.

Above: a rare shot of the promenade

And fires were a problem from the start - as I understand it, the muslin drapes near the stage had actually caught fire a couple of times during performances when they caught fire again on December 30th. But this time the fire caught on the scenery. And when the backstage door opened, that created a backdraft resulting in a "balloon of fire" that shot out into the audience while Foy frantically (and heroically) tried to keep people calm. Of course, keeping people calm when a fire ball just shot out at them is not really possible.

And, of course, there was the gallery, where at least one of the fire exits was not yet connected to a fire escape. Stories that a teacher directed students out the door one by one are basically nonsense (the sheer idea that anyone would have formed a single-file line in such a riot is just nuts), but in the pushing and shoving, over a hundred people fell to their doom. Some were saved only when the pile of bodies got high enough to break their fall (I didn't believe this angle when I first heard it, but there WERE contemporary reports that described this, as well as a few of people making it into the alley below on the ground level only to be killed by people falling from above).

Above: the "alley of death and mutilation." As the overcrowded (or missing) fire escapes became useless, a ladder was extended from the Northwestern University building (the former Tremont House hotel that had been owned by Ira Couch, now the namesake of the alley) on the other side of the alley. It was useless, but soon replaced by more useful "planks." Only 12 people were saved by these, though. 



Most reports today say that one only one performer, aerialist Nelly Reed, was killed. Exactly how she died is sort of an open question - some reports say she was still suspended in the air when the fire ball shot through, others say she died of burns in the alley. Another says she was afraid to use the elevator that led from her dressing room to the fire escape, and instead ran down a staircase right into the fire.  I haven't seen a testimony from the time talking about her being suspended above the stage, and suspect the less dramatic versions are probably correct. A rather detailed 1904 account said that she was in her sixth-floor dressing room and had collapsed from inhaling too much smoke, and was carried out by an elevator boy named Robert Smith, only to die later.

In reality, though most early reports said that no performer had died, it seems that Reed and two other performers were killed: another aerialist who was either a man named Florine or a woman named Floraline (little is known) and a bit part player named Burr Scott. This, of course, is in addition to the six hundred or so spectators known to have died. A temporary hospital was set up in nearby Marshall Fields, and a morgue was created in a nearby saloon. 

The stage door led into a vacant lot fronted by Dearborn Street - roughly where the McDonald's and the Oliver Typewriter Co. building are now.  Foy was able to get his son out the door with most of the cast and crew before running back INTO the fire to try to hold off a stampede. He yelled for the curtain to be lowered (he had never seen the curtain himself, but assumed that they must have one), even as he felt a "cyclone of fire" building behind him. Exactly what he said onstage is not known (different reports gave different quotes), but by all accounts he begged people to remain seated until the curtain could be lowered, then began asking them to leave the theatre slowly. This is exactly what he should have done, too - the panic killed more people than the fire. To keep people calm, he begged the orchestra leader to play the overture. "Play anything!" he shouted. 

THough most considered him a hero, Foy was very hard on himself. Interviewed only minutes later in his room at the nearby Sherman House hotel, Foy has wracked with guilt and badly shaken as he recounted the story, mentioning that he'd also been in Chicago (his home town) during the great fire in 1871. He truly believed that he had failed the audience. In fact, he probably saved hundreds of lives. 

Lots of people were brought to trial, including the mayor, but none got in trouble. A few "ghouls" reported by the New York Times to have run into the theatre to steal necklaces, rings, and money from the dead may have gotten in trouble, but I've never found a good report about it. The Trib wrote that earrings were torn from women's ears. One story goes that man was eventually arrested for stealing gold fillings from teeth (this is usually said to be Mr. Thompson, who owned the Thompson's Restaurant next door, but this is certainly untrue, though Thompson's WAS used as a morgue and hospital). 

What REALLY started the fire is still a bit of an open question. It's generally believed that the light they were using for the "moonlight" in Act 2, during an octet called "Let Us Swear In the Pale Moon Light,"  arced, sending up sparks that set fire to the drapes. A stagehand, though, said this was impossible, and that the sparks had come from the wiring. 

The theatre was re-opened less than a year later under another name, and then operated as the Colonial Threatre starting in 1905. This lasted until the 1920s, when it was torn down. The Oriental Theatre now stands on the spot (one foundation wall down at the basement level, invisible to the general public) is still original. I've never found out what happened to the time capsule that was placed in the cornerstone.  Interestingly, one of the shows in line to open at the Iroquois was the musical comedy revue version of The Wizard of Oz. Just over a century later, Wicked opened in the same space.

Here's the ill-fated ad, with the infamous bug stating that the theatre was "absolutely fireproof." And it was, for the most part - the building itself was just fine. But the seats, the scenery, the drapery, and everything else IN it was flammable, all right:


Since it's hard to read, here's a transcript describing the whole show:


ACT 1.
Scene 1— The Market Place on the Quay, near Baghdad. (Bruce Smith.)

Mustapha plots to separate Selim and Fatima and sell the beautiful Fatima to the
monster Blue Beard. Blue Beard arrives; purchases slaves. Sister Anne falls in love
with Blue Beard and spurns Irish Patshaw. Blue Beard seizes Fatima and takes her
on board his yacht.

Opening Chorus—

a. "Come, Buy Our Luscious Fruits."

b. " Oriental Slaves Are We."

c. " We Come From Dalmatia."

d. Algerian Slave Song and Chorus.

aa. Grand Entrance Blue Beard's Retinue. Medley Ensemble.

bb. Song—" A Most Unpopular Potentate," Blue Beard and Chorus.
a. "Welcome Fatima."
Song: "I'm As Good As I Ought To Be," Blanche Adams.
Finale: "Then Away We Go."


Scene 2-On Board Blue Beard's Yacht. (Bruce Smith.)
Fatinia with Selim attempts to escape from Blue Beard's yacht, but is prevented.
Selim jumps overboard.

Opening Chorus— "There's Nothing Like The Life We Sailors Lead."
Duet— Miss Rafter and Miss Adams.

Song: "Beautiful World It Would Be." (Harrv Von Tilzer.) Harry Gilfoil.
Song: "I'm a Poor Unhappy Maid." (Jerome and Schwartz.) Eddie Foy.
Finale—" He's Gone."

Scene 3— The Isle of Ferns. (H. Emden.)
Fairy Queen appears to Selim, promises him her aid and the power or the Magic
Fan to reunite him to his loved one and to protect them from evil. 


Scene 4— The Laud of Ferns. (H. Emden.)
Ballet of Ferns- Procession and waving of the Magic Fan, by the Fairies and
Grand Corps de Ballet.

ACT II
Scene 1—The Terrace
Fatima believes Selim dead and agrees to marry Blue Beard. She gets
the Castle from Blue Beard, who enjoins her not to open the Blue Chamber.

Opening Chorus—" Davlight is Dawning."

Song: "Songbirds of Melody Lane," Beatrice Liddell, Elsie Romaine, and Chorus. (Ed-
wards and Brvan.)

Song: "The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous." (Harry Gilfoil, Bonnie Magmn and
Pony Ballet.

Sister Anne and the Pet Elephant.

"In the Pale Moonlight." (Jerome and Woodward.)

"Ma Honey." (Hoffman.) Bonnie IMaginn and Chori-

Scene 2 — Chamber of Curiosities.
Conquered by curiosity, Fatima opens the Blue Chamber and discovers Blue Beard's
awful secret.

Blue Beard's (dead) wives discovered.

Scene 3— Home of the Old Woman Who Lived In a Shoe. (E Albert, i
The disobedient children.
Song: " Wake Up Mammy," Maude Nugent.
.Song: " Mother Eve." (Schwartz.) Eddie Foy, Pony Ballet, and Chorus. 

Scene 4— Hall in Blue Beard's Palace. (E. Albert.)
Dancing Specialty by Frank Young and Bessie De Voie. Music by C. Herbert Kerr. 

Scene 5— Triumph of the Magic Fan. (H. Emden.)

Tableau 1— The Land of Palms. Tableau 4— Japan.

Tableau 2— Egypt Tableau .5— Parisian Rose Garden.

Tableau 3— India Tableau


ACT III
Nellie Reed, Premiere, and Grand Corps de Ballet.

Scene 1— Hall of Pleasure in Blue Beard's Palace. (E. Albert,)

Scenes of revelry in Blue Beard's absence. 

Opening Chorus— "Let Us Be Jolly As Long As We Can."

Song: "Spoony Mooney Night." (Gus Edwards.) Bonnie Maginn and Chorus.

Pony Ballet Specialty. Music by Jean Schwartz.

Song: " Julie." (Wm. Jerome and Jean Schwartz.) Herbert Cawthorne and Chorus.

Blue Beard returns unexpectedly.

Sister Anne gives evidence of temporary insanity. Imagines herself Ophelia.
Song- "Hamlet Was a Melancholy Dane," Eddie Foy. (Wm. Jerome and John Schwartz.)

Blue Beard discovers that Fatima has disobeyed him and threatens her and her
friends with death.

Scene 3— Below the Ramparts. (Hicks and Brooks.)

Blue Beard gives Fatima one hour in which to accept his offer of marriage or perish with her friends. Selim summons Fairies' aid. Attack on the castle by the Fairy Army. Fatima and friends in peril . . .

Scene 3— The Fairy Palace.

Blue Beard is overthrown and the lovers are reunited.

Entrance and triumph of the Fairy Queen.

Grand Transformation Scene. 

-------

That the theatre site and alley are said to be haunted probably goes without saying. I've never spoken to an actual witness of the famous ghost of a woman in a white tutu (presumably that of Nellie Reed), but several employees of the Oriental (speaking on condition of anonymity) have described seeing odd black forms zipping through the theatre at night, from roughly where the stage would have been in the direction of the exits. A little girl is often heard giggling (sometimes in conjunction with flushing a backstage toilet). One employee describes hearing a solitary scream in the middle of the night. Several strange audio recordings have been made, including some thought be from BEFORE the Iroquois (a decade or two earlier, that section of Randolph Street was known as "hair-trigger block," the area where shell-shocked Civil War vets would come to drink, gamble and shoot at each other. On a rather unrelated note, lip-prints left on the wall by a vaudeville dancing troupe in the 1930s were recently discovered in the organ room. 

As for the alley, we've recently had a spate of odd photographs there (odd shadow pictures have gotten particularly common). Camera batteries often go from fully-charged to drained in the few minutes that we're out there on tours. 

One interesting side note: in an article I read just this morning, one of the survivors was listed as living at address instantly recognizable as that of the H.H. Holmes "Murder Castle."

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