"The first intimation that a blaze existed was given to the audience on the canvas in which the moving pictures were being shown. the machine itself caused the fire as the result of the photographic films coming in contact with the carbon flame.
On the canvas was being shown a picture of Dante’s “Inferno.” . . . At first the audience thought the reflection was part of the picture, but the cry of fire brought them to the realization that the picture was near to being real."
I’m fortunate enough never to have been in a theater on fire, and doubly blessed, because I once helped to run a 2672-seat movie palace — the St. George Theatre in Staten Island in 1976 — which failed to go up in flames during our movie-house tenancy. The above-referenced Sparta fire started in what would now be called the theater’s projection booth. Although film wasn’t as flammable in 1976 as it was in ’04, at the St. George we were still running carbon arc projectors, which relied on actual fire as light.
What would we have done? The standpipe system was intimidating, and as a core member of the St. George’s hard-scrabble crew of ardent movie palace entrepreneurs, I can attest to the fact that we were only beginning to learn about crowd control. Here’s an excerpt from my upcoming book, Starts Wednesday: A Year in the Life of a Movie Palace, to make my point:
It was a Saturday in May, a matinee. Between movies, the audience packed the lobby, chatting and eating. Gene was on the door tearing tickets, sitting on a tall metal stool. Paullie was in concession, barely keeping up with orders for hot dogs, Charleston Chews and popcorn.
Who hollered it? We never found out. Gene’s stool sailed in slo-mo, clattering across the foyer. Perhaps three hundred people found themselves on the sidewalk in under twenty seconds. Then someone laughed and folks beneath the marquee all looked at one another. Quickly, amiably, the audience filed back inside to buy popcorn and wait for the second feature.
Part of why I love to tell this story is that is wasn’t a real fire, and, despite the panic, no harm was done. Those are always the best stories from anyone’s life, the disasters that weren’t disasters after all. Fires in theaters have been so common in the past as to have become a well-worn cliche, as in the old (first amendment) saw, “Don’t yell FIRE in a crowded theater” — of which the above is a classic example.
The Sparta description is only one of many theater fire stories. I’ve cribbed it from The Brooklyn Theatre Index, Volume III, Coney Island, by an esteemed colleague, Cezar Del Valle, who ought to be the theater-history laureate of Brooklyn, if he isn’t already. I attended his excellent lecture on Coney Island theaters last Saturday at the Coney Island Museum in Brooklyn. If, BTW, you happen to be in New York and you’ve never been to that museum, or to Coney Island, then you should go! Make sure it’s a summer night, warm enough to enjoy the board walk, a beer, perhaps a Nathan’s hotdog, some clams, and maybe a quarter of Peruvian roast chicken with a side of Platanos. Before eating, if you’re brave enough, you might try some involuntary somersaults on Zenobio — where you can observe the harbor upside-down at a terrific height, or buckle yourself into the moebius-strip called the Thunderbolt. It’s all “carny folk” at Coney Island: the barkers (called “talkers” there by them that know), the lady with the Python.
But I digress. On the subject of theater fires, if you can stand to read about them, there are a number of examples of horrific 19th century conflagrations, dating back to the days of gaslight, a highly volatile way to illuminate a stage, and before fire escapes were part of twentieth-century fire code. The Brooklyn Theatre which burned in 1876, was lit by gaslight and had no fire escapes. The Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago, arguably the worst theater fire in U.S. history, took roughly 602 lives — an exact body count was never reached. That house had only a single common exit and virtually no fire-fighting equipment.
As for the St. George Theatre — the subject of this blog and my upcoming book--our tenancy was plagued by a number of crises involving more-than-occasionally violent audience members and an unfriendly landlord. But I am grateful to say that nothing went up in flames. If, during our year there, a backstage fire had occurred — most theater fires begin in or below the proscenium — well, there was an asbestos theater fire curtain in the fly loft, designed to fall between the audience and the fire, a twentieth-century improvement on theater design, from lessons learned in the 19th. Of course, we also had fire escapes, kept open in our unused balcony during business hours, which served young audience members as a way to sneak in without paying. Such was the life of a mostly-vacant movie palace in 1976.