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A matinee to remember

The Iroquois theater fire of 1903, including experiences of a young girl who survived

By Dr. Frank Norbury

The "fireproof Iroquois Theater on the afternoon on December 30, 1903, shortly after the fire that claimed 575 lives broke out.
                            Courtesy the Chicago Historical Society


It was the Christmas holidays, 1903. Eleven-year-old Elson Barnes of Jacksonville, Illinois, and Margery Cooper, her friend from Chapin, were visiting Margerys married sister and her husband, Mr. and Mrs. H.D. Wright of Chicago. Late December in Chicago was cold and icy, and the girls had gone skating in the street. On Wednesday, December 30, Elson sent a penny postcard to her father, Judge Charles A. Barnes of Jacksonville. She wrote, "Mrs. Wright is going to take us to Bluebeard this afternoon."

The play, a musical called Mr. Bluebeard, had premiered at the Drury Lane Theater in London and moved to New York in January 1903, with most of the original cast. Parts of the script and songs were "Americanized," but the painted canvas scenery and lighting were original. The play had toured Cleveland and Indianapolis before arriving in Chicago, as the theater in Chicago was still under construction.

The musical was adapted from Grimms' Fairy Tales. In the Grimm brothers'version, Bluebeard is a French lord who had been married seven times, all of his wives having died mysteriously. His eighth wife, Fatima, is placed in charge of the castle while the lord is away, and given keys to various rooms. Before leaving, Bluebeard instructs Fatima that she can open any of the doors in the castle, except one. Naturally, when Bluebeard leaves, Fatima has an intense desire to open the forbidden door, following the example of her ancestor, Eve, who stole the forbidden fruit.

Fatima opens the door and finds the bodies of Bluebeard's seven previous wives hanging on the walls. In the process she gets blood on the key. When Bluebeard returns he asks for the keys and notices the blood. Fatima confesses to opening the forbidden door, whereupon Bluebeard condemns her to die. She pleads for her life and Bluebeard grants her ten minutes, in which time her brother and his henchman arrive to rescue her. Fatima is saved, Bluebeard is killed, and the seven wives are given a decent Christian burial.

The musical version follows the tale closely, but, in the play, Bluebeard's seven wives are miraculously restored to life. This was a happy ending, suitable for an audience of children.

Like most musicals of the early Twentieth Century, Mr. Bluebeard's plot was thin, merely a device on which to hang a bunch of musical numbers. The songs included such titles as "I'm as Good as I Ought to Be," "Beautiful World It Would Be," and even "The Beer that Made Milwaukee Famous" (perhaps the theater received financial consideration for this one). The production also

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included dancers, aerial acts, comics dressed as elephants, and tableaus representing exotic places in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

The star of the show was Eddie Foy (1857-1928), an immensely popular Irish-American song-and-dance man, about whom a movie, The Seven Little Foys, starring Bob Hope, was made in 1955. In Mr. Bluebeard, Eddie Foy played the part of Sister Anne, which means he appeared in drag for a least part or the play, as he frequently did. Foy also performed solo songs and dances, as well as in company numbers, including one in which he danced with two actors in an elephant costume.

The burned shell of the Iroquois stage, as seen from the balcony after the fire. 
Courtesy Chicago Historical Society

The theater Elson and her friends attended that December afternoon was the Iroquois, Chicago's newest and most lavish playhouse. The owners were in a hurry to get the theater finished for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, and they scheduled Mr. Bluebeard for its opening. After several announcement deadlines passed, the theater finally opened on November 23, 1903.

The Iroquois stood on the north side of Randolph Street near the corner of Dearborn. The building was L-shaped, with the entrance foyer, ticket windows, offices, and facilities for the audience (checkrooms, restrooms, etc.) off of Randolph extending to the north. The stage and seating were in the other arm of the L, extending east and west. On the far north side, a loading ramp for props and two huge doors opened onto an alley called "Couch Place." In the middle of these huge doors was an ordinary-sized door for the cast to enter the theater. Fire escapes were located on the north wall, which led to Couch Place. Another door off the west end of the stage led to a vacant lot.

The Iroquois had three levels of seating: The mainfloor, called the parquet (what we call the orchestra today); the first balcony or dress circle, with two boxes on each side of the regular balcony seats; and the second balcony, or gallery, above. The theater program for the opening describes the Iroquois as absolutely fireproof and, in addition, mentioned that the exists were "far more numerous, the entire north frontage being available for such service in case of emergency." These were the exits leading to Couch Place.

Because it was a holiday matinee, the audience on the afternoon of December 30 was composed mostly of women and children. Eddie Foy, writing years later in his memoirs, recalled that when he looked out on the crowd he saw that he was playing before more women and children than at any time in his career. The theater had seats for about 1,700 and there were about 250 in standing room that afternoon. The cast of Mr. Bluebeard was huge, about 250 players, and there were an additional 250 stagehands, technicians, and ushers in the wings. Thus the theater contained some 2,400 people on that occasion.

Elson, Margery, and Mrs. Wright had good seats in the fourth row of the first balcony on the south side, near a side stairway, which ran behind the boxes and then down the main floor. Early in the second act, there was a number called "In the Pale Moonlight," sung by a double octet. For this song, the house and stage were darkened; a floodlight represented the moon and a spotlight shone on the octet. The floodlight was a carbon arc lamp with a flexible cord. Sparks sputtered from it and ignited a swaying piece of scenery. Stagehands attempted to put out the fire with sticks and a fireman stationed at the stage threw an extinguishing compound called "Kilfyre" on the flames, but failed to put the blaze out. Kilfyre was a powder composed chiefly of bicarbonate of soda and powder, but it did not reach the blazing scenery.

Quickly the blaze spread, fanned by the opening of the stage doors as the cast escaped. There were ventilators over the stage that should have drawn the fire and smoke out of the building, but they had been installed at the last minute and still had bands on them that kept them from opening. Ventilators behind the seats in the two balconies, however, were open, pulling smoke and flames toward the audience.

Alarm bells rang and the stage fire curtain was lowered, but the descending screen caught on a reflector projecting from the north side of the proscenium wall. The reflector had been used in the moonlight scene and should have been pushed back into its wall niche; someone had neglected to do this. In the aftermath of the blaze, investigators discovered that the curtain, which had been consumed in the fire, was made of flimsy materials in a wood frame and may not have contained asbestos.

Elson Barnes described the beginning of the fire in a letter she wrote home that evening. "As some of the chorus were singing, the curtain and some of the wings caught fire and great sheets fell to the floor. I thought it

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was part of the play at first then some of the chorus girls fell in a dead faint and the managers came out and tried to quiet the people and avoid a panic."

All evidence points to the fact that Eddie Foy was a true professional and a hero that day. His young son Bryan was attending the play, watching from the stage area under the light bridge in the first entrance. In his testimony at the coroner's inquest after the disaster, Foy said: "I was in my dressing room, one tier off the stage, when I smelled smoke. The Moonlight Ballet was on and it was three minutes before the time of my entrance.... I looked up and immediately over me, in the left first entrance, I saw sparks and a small cloud of smoke." Foy ordered a stagehand to get Bryan out of the theater and then he said, "in less time than it takes to tell it, the little wreathe of smoke and the tiny sparks had grown in volume. The smoke and some of the sparks had already made their way into the main part of the house, curling up and down and around the lower edge of the proscenium arch.... I tried to appear as calm as possible under the circumstances, realizing what a stampede would mean.

"Just what I said, I cannot for the life of me now recall," Foy continued. "In effect this is about it. Ladies and gentlemen there is no danger. Don't get excited. Walk out calmly." But this time the smoke on the stage grew more intense and the material on stage, what Foy called "flimsy dry linens, parched canvas and paint-coated tapestries and drops," were incinerating.

"The northeast corner of the fly gallery was now a furnace," Foy said. "Just as I made the last appeal to balcony and gallery, a fiercely blazing ember dropped at my feat.... 'Drop the fire curtain,' I shouted again, looking in vain for it to come down."

The lights were still out from the "Moonlight" scene and the switchboard operator had disappeared. To calm the crowd, Foy told the orchestra to play an overture. Some of the musicians had already left in fear, but those who remained followed the leaders baton. Foy said, "The leader only left his post when the flames drove him away from (his) stand. He kept on leading the musicians while at least half the audience on the main floor had left."

Foy's urgent call for restraint seemed to have been effective, at least for the audience on the main floor. Few seated there perished; some were trampled in the rush to get out but were saved from death by police and firefighters at the entrance.

Elson Barnes, who survived the Iroquois fire, went on to have a career in the theater. Courtesy Dr. Frank Norbury.

Those seated in the balcony and gallery were less fortunate. Of the 900 people seated there, few escaped without injury. Elson and her friends were among the fortunate few. In a letter written that day to her parents Elson said: "Well, I grabbed up my things and Margery had hers and was starting to the central stair, but there being a side stairway right next to us and Mrs. Wright went after her while my one object was to get down the side stairway and I don't remember a thing until I reached the first floor. When I reached the central doorway (the main entrance doors on Randolph), there was a stampede and people were on top of each other six feet deep. I then remembered Margery and Mrs. Wright and started back but the mob pushed me down and there were three people on top of me. I cried out and a man jerked me by the arms and pulled me out.

"I jumped up and ran across the street. When I saw Margery and Mrs. Wright I called to them but had to go to them. We went into an office across the street.... We waited from four o'clock till six before we could start home the streets were so crowded... The fire was awful. I can't half tell you about it in a letter. They carried the dead and dying away in express wagons and anything they could get." In an interview 35 years after the fire, Elson said that her party was the only complete group in the first four rows of the balcony to escape from the fire. She later told her parents that the man who "jerked me by the arms" and rescued her was a "trampy looking person with a beard." Some scoffed at this, believing no one looking like that would be in the most fashionable theater in Chicago. But in the 1930s, an author who survived the fire write in a Saturday Evening Post article that "a bum came into the theater from the street when the alarm sounded and rescued many children. The man was never identified.' In Chicago's Deathtrap (SlU-Press, 2003), by Nat Brandt, the author mentions a "threadbare red-nosed 'Weary Willie' street bum named Dan O'Leary" who attempted to help firemen rescue the victims.

Only one cast member died in the fire. Nellie Reed, an aerialist who sailed across the stage to the balcony showering the audience with flower petals during the shows, was trapped on her high wire above the stage. But of the audience of 1,900, 575 or 30 percent were killed, 212 of them children, 76 of whom were age 10 or under. Another 25 died later from burns and injuries.

The loss of life was so great at the Iroquois because of problems with the exits. Although there are plenty of them, the architect had put beauty ahead of safety and draped the walls with heavy curtains. Exit signs had been ordered but had not arrived, even though the theater had been open for more than a month. And many exits were either locked or latched by a complicated fixture that was hard to open, especially in a panic. Stairways from the gallery down were closed off during performances by accordion gates that were padlocked while the show was in progress. In testimony before the coroner's journey, the Iroquois building superintendent said the gates were locked "in order that we could have a system for handling the house," by which he meant to keep the gallery audience from mingling with the audience in more expensive seats in

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the first balcony and parquet.

Iroquois ushers had not been trained in crowd control nor in the procedure for unlocking and opening the doors, of which there were four sets at the main entrance to the theater. They separated the lobby from the five double outer doors on Randolph Street. Only the center two doors were unlocked at the time ot the fire. Theater patrons were packed against each other as they fled the auditorium through the inner doors to the ticket lobby, and were channeled to the two center doors out to the street.

Elson's description of the "stampede" at these two center doors was verified by other survivors' accounts. From the balcony and gallery, the frightened crowd finally broke through the locked fire escape doors and fled that way. The lower and moveable portion of the staircase was frozen and it took considerable effort to get it in place. Unfortunately, when the balcony fire escape doors were open, they blocked the exit for those escaping the gallery. The result was that very few survived via the fire escapes. Some victims jumped, their bodies breaking the fall of those who followed. Adjacent to the theater was the Northwestern University Dental and Law School building, where workmen were making repairs over the holidays. They quickly sized up the problems with the fire escapes next door and extended planks from their building over to the third floor of the Iroquois. Some survivors escaped this way

Within fifteen minutes, fire companies had the blaze under control, but it was too late to rescue many of those trapped in the building. Firefighters described the horror of bringing out large numbers of burned and asphyxiated people, many ot whom were children. The dead and dying were taken to nearby buildings, notably Thompson's restaurant next door to the theater. The scene at Thompson's was described in gory detail in The Great Chicago Theater Disaster, published a few months after the fire.

"John R. Thompson's restaurant at 3 o'clock in the afternoon of the fatal day was an eating-house, decked here and there with late lunchers, at 3:20 it was a hospital with the dead and dying stretched out on the marble eating tables, at 4 o'clock it was a morgue, heaped with the dead, at 7:30 it was again a restaurant, but with chairs turned on top of the tables that had been slabs of death, with aisles cleared of human debris, and the scrub women at work mopping up the relics of human flesh... and sweeping in pans the pieces of skulls that had lain about the mosaic floors, yet damp with the flowing lengths of women's hair."

Elson Barnes concluded her letter home, stating, "I can't tell you how awful it was in a letter. I never want to go into a theater again. Aren't you glad I can write to you. I'm so nervous, I can't write or spell."

Elson Barnes was my mother. Although she wrote on that horrible day that she never wanted to go into a theater again, the theater became her profession. Between her graduation from Smith College and her marriage to my father, she worked in theater in New York and St. Louis. Later, living in Jacksonville, she was called upon many times to help put on plays at Jacksonville High School and Illinois College. I don't recall her ever saying much about the Iroquois fire, but she taught me to always find the nearest exit when I am in a public building, such as a theater or a restaurant. I had not seen the materials from and about her regarding the Iroquois fire until the 1980s. She gave them to my sister, who gave them to me. The originals are now in the Illinois State Historical Library.


What lessons were learned from the Iroquois fire? The coroner's jury called many witnesses and, several people involved in ownership and management of the theater were later indicted by a grand jury. None was convicted of any offense. Several civil damage suits were filed but only one led to compensation. This suit was against the George F. Fuller Company, the contractors who built the theater. The suit was finally settled out of court in January 1909, five years after the fire. Thirty-nine claimants received $750 each.

After the fire, Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison ordered all of the more than 30 theaters in the city closed until they could be inspected and safety issues resolved. Other large public gathering places, such as Marshall Field's Department Store, were also inspected. Fire codes were toughened throughout the city. Information about the disaster spread throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe, where many cities closed their theaters until they could be inspected and deficiencies corrected.

Fire codes were established to: limit the number of occupants in a building; ensure that clearly marked exists were kept open; that fire equipment was required in theaters; and that stage crews and ushers are trained to deal with emergencies.

What happened to the Iroquois theater itself? The interior was restored and the building reopened as the Colonial Theater. It stood until 1925 when it was demolished and replaced by the Oriental Theater, which became one of Chicago's premier vaudeville and motion picture palaces. The Oriental and most of the theaters in the loop fell on bad times in the 1960s and was converted into an x-rated movie house. It has, however, been recently and beautifully restored as a theater and is now also know as the Ford Center for the Performing Arts. Outside is a plaque telling the history of the Oriental Theater and its predecessor, the Iroquois, describing the disastrous fire.

In Montrose Cemetery in Chicago, a cube-shaped monument stands on end, inscribed with these words: "Sacred to the Memory of 600 People Who Perished in the Iroquois Fire, Dec. 30, 1903. Erected by the Iroquois Memorial Association.

Dr. Frank Norbury of Jacksonville practiced medicine in his hometown from 1954 to 1989. He is a member of the Morgan County Historical Society and the Illinois State Historical Society, and presented a paper on the Iroquois Theater Fire at the 2003 Illinois History Symposium.

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