Historically, theater fires have been among some of the worst in terms of loss of life and property damage. Improvements in firefighting equipment and building design and construction have fortunately made most of those tragic tales infrequent, relative to the situation in the late 19th and early 20th century. An article on New York City theatre fires in Lapham’s Quarterly during this time period illustrates what significantly increased the hazard and opportunity for loss of life were gross misrepresentations of the safety of theaters coupled with a lack of effort to improve the conditions.
To combat the growing reputation of theaters as death traps, New York City impresarios began to advertise their venues by stressing just how safe they were—without changing the actual structures. In 1901 the top of the Broadway Theater’s playbills, above the production information, read “Safest theater in the world—34 exits.” That same year, the Knickerbocker’s playbills stated that it was “Absolutely Fireproof.” By 1904 the Majestic was billing itself as “New York’s finest—the world’s safest theater—positively fireproof—42 exits,” and by 1906 the Colonial was claiming it was “absolutely fireproof—this theater has the lowest insurance rate issued to any theater in the world.”
…According to Gerhard’s report, as of 1899 New York’s Fifth Avenue Theater could hold 1,400 people but be emptied in 2.5 minutes, while the Abbey Theater could hold 1,450 people and be emptied in 1.5 minutes. The enormous Madison Square Garden, which could hold 17,000 people, apparently required only 4.5 minutes for complete evacuation.
These hypothetically efficient evacuations were impossible to execute, however. Theaters and movie theaters often were illegally packed to standing-room-only capacity, with additional bodies blocking potential routes of egress. Furthermore, Gerhard found that the doors were locked in many of the buildings, and many of the exits first wound through basements or alleyways. Some exits even led to wooden staircases. Families and young children were frequently given permission to be seated in the highest galleries, which made their top-priority exits more difficult.
What is interesting is reading about how much the theater owners and managers resisted safety procedures fearing the optics of making people aware of fire exits would make people consider other diversions. A good number of the bad choices were preserved in the name of maintaining the escapist environment of the theater.
Among the reforms that had been suggested were having firemen walk out on stage at the start of the evening holding placards directing people’s attention to the nearest exits. It was pretty much exactly what flight attendants do on a plane today. When it was brought up in a meeting of theater managers, there was a great deal of push back out of fear of panicking audience members or souring the experience by suggesting the theater was unsafe. According to the article, actors would see a fire but would continue performing in order to maintain the facade they had constructed. In at least one case, opening a door caused a cross draft sending the fire the actors were observing flaring into the seating area.
It is something to think about as live performances try to compete with digital forms of entertainment. What lengths are people willing to go in order to provide the immersive experience they believe is required. What corners will be cut? I have already seen hints of this where occasionally contracts request/require no pre-show announcements or stipulate they occur so early only half the audience sees them. I don’t imagine any of this would expose current audiences to the dangers looming silently over 19th & early 20th century audiences, but the lessons of those times bear consideration.
Subscribe via Email
Enter your email address to subscribe to Butts In The Seats and receive notifications of new posts by email.