History Moment By William “Doc” Halliday

Limelight Disaster

Iriquois-Theater-Fire-600x350When someone is in the limelight they are in in the public eye. If a person desires to be in the limelight she or he wants attention. What is the origination of this term?

Limelight is also known as Drummond Light or calcium light. It is created by directing a oxyhydrogen flame at a cylinder of quicklime or calcium oxide (CaO for the chemists reading this). When quicklime is heated to 4,350 °F, it emits an intense glow. This is what is known as limelight.

The effect was first discovered in the 1820s. On October 3, 1836, the first known use of this lighting to illuminate a public performance occurred at Herne Bay, Kent, England. On the pier there, limelight was used to illuminate the juggling act of Ching Lau Lauro, a magician. The use of limelight quickly spread throughout the theatrical profession. It was used extensively in theatrical productions prior to the invention of electric lighting.

In November of 1903, the Iroquois Theater finally opened for business after numerous delays. The theater was located at 24-28 West Randolph Street near the Loop shopping district in Chicago. The owners thought this location would attract more women as the police patrolled that district. The theater had a total seating capacity of 1,602 on three different levels, but all of the customers used the same entrance. The creators of the building espoused this feature as it allowed everyone to mingle regardless of their ticket price. This common stairway violated the Chicago fire ordinances in effect at that time. That ordinance required separate stairways and exits for each balcony.

The theater had been billed as “Absolutely Fireproof”. An editor of Fireproof Magazine toured the building during construction and noted “the absence of an intake, or stage draft shaft; the exposed reinforcement of the arch; the presence of wood trim on everything and the inadequate provision of exits.” In addition, a Captain in the Chicago Fire Department who made an unofficial tour of the theater days before the official opening noted that there were no sprinklers, alarms, telephones, or water connections. The captain had pointed out the deficiencies to the theater’s fire warden but was told that nothing could be done, as the fire warden would simply be dismissed if he brought the matter up with the syndicate of owners. When the captain reported the matter to his commanding officer, he was again told that nothing could be done, as the theater already had a fire warden.

One hundred and fourteen years ago, on Wednesday, December 30, 1903, there was a matinee performance at the theater. Since its opening, there had been sparse attendance at the theater, but on this day there was a sellout crowd. In addition to the 1,602 seats, another 500-600 tickets were sold to patrons for “standing room only”. Many of the patrons for the matinee performance were children and they sat in the aisles, blocking movement. Eddie Foy the star of the show would later write, “It struck me as I looked out over the crowd during the first act that I had never before seen so many women and children in the audience. Even the gallery was full of mothers and children.”

According to an article in the December 30, 2011 edition of NFPA Today “The investigation showed that the fire was sparked by an arc light which ignited scenery curtains.  An asbestos fire curtain was dropped on the stage, but was snagged on the way down and stopped about 10 feet above the stage, which allowed toxic smoke and flames to flow into the auditorium…

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