The most devastating theatre fire in history happened on December 30th 1903. Over 600 people died which were mostly woman and children during a matinee performance of Mr. Bluebird. Many Chicagoan’s did not think a fire of such magnitude could ever happen again since many had lived through the Great Chicago fire. This building was built to be fireproof.
However, A Day in History comments that at the same time the fire inspector and Chicago’s building commissioner claims that the Iroquois was fireproof, the editor of Fireproof magazine inspected the theater and wrote an article that there were major fire alarm issues including no alarm and sprinkler system.
The Iroquois opened just shortly before on November 23rd of that year and was located on West Randolph between State and Dearborn. The theatre had a capacity of approximately 1,600 seats with three audience levels that included a main floor with orchestra that offered about 700 seats. The second floor had about 400 seats and the gallery or balcony areas had about 500 seats. The backstage area was extensive with emergency doors that remained locked the day of the fire. The theatre had only one public exit.
The December 30th 1903 matinee performance drew a huge crowd since so many children were out of school celebrating the holidays. It was about 3:15. Strange, how that time was very close to the same time only 50 plus years later when the most historic school fire broke out at Chicago’s Our Lady of Angels School on the south side. A fire, I was alive to see and never forget.
During the second act, sparks from an arc light ignited a curtain. Stagehands tried to put out the fire but it had spread mainly to the fly gallery high above the stage. The stage manager tried to lower a fire curtain on the stage to block the fire from the audience but what they thought a fireproof stage curtain snagged and was flammable. The stage doors had bascule locks which protected people from not entering from the outside but nobody knew how to open them. Many were killed by being trapped especially in the balconies.
There were no exit signs, no emergency lighting, no iron fire escape and locked exit routes that nervous ushers forgot to unlock. The burned out theatre was completely demolished and in the 1920’s, the Ford, Oriental Theatre was built with beautiful art Deco decor design and great access to bathrooms/ emergency doors designed by the firm Rapp and Rapp. Exceptionally different from the interior before and still safely operating today.
However, as elegant as the Oriental is, many ghost experts say that there is a real presence there because it was a site of such tragedy and death including David Cowan author of To Sleep with the Angels and his wife, author and 30-year veteran and paranormal researcher Ursula Bielski who host Chicago haunting tours
Especially behind the theatre, many have called the alley… Death Alley, because it is there that the most haunting s have been sited including a child crying. Other ghost experts claim that there tour groups continually experience sounds and apparitions today. It was also here in the alley during the 1903 fire that the corpses of so many tragically burned victims were piled and arranged to be eventually removed.
Others have felt cold spots and have actually been touched by unseen hands!