Absolutely Fireproof

Have you ever had a sense of dejavu? The whole time I researched today’s topic, I had a constant since that I have researched this before and written this post before. To the point that I went post by post on my blog to make sure I hadn’t written about this location. Even then I felt like “I’ve done this before” and went through my giant binder of notes I have written for all of my previous blogs posts and podcasts. Not only do I have no notes on this location but this location hasn’t appeared on any of my lists for topic ideas. I’m flummoxed. I guess I have just read and watch so many shows that talk about that the history of Nederlander Theatre just seems so familiar to me. 

Located at 24 West Randolph Street in Chicago, Illinois, the glamor of today’s Nederlander Theatre doesn’t show the dark history that belonged to the theater that was there before. In 1903, the Iroquois Theatre opened shortly before the holiday season. It cost over a million dollars to build the elegant theater. The opening was rushed since the business owners and city officials wanted to capitalized on folks coming into Chicago for holiday shopping to increase profits instead of opening in January or February when it is much colder and bleaker in Chicago. Since it was a rushed opening, the inspections usually done were not done to their full extent. The theatre was advertised to be “Absolutely Fireproof” and extremely safe if a fire broke due to the amount of exits available and the amount of fire escapes planned. This advertising would soon prove to be false. 

On December 30, 1903, a large crowd had gathered to watch a comedy- musical called Mr. Bluebeard. The play was about a man who murders his wife. Almost 2,000 tickets were sold to the show despite there only being 1,724 seats available. Those without a seat stood in the wings and sat in the aisleways. Half way through the show, one of the stage lights began to spark. One of these sparks landed on the scenery which quickly caught on fire. The backstage crew tried to put the fire out with powdered extinguishers called Kilfyre. The fire began to spread quickly. The audience became panicked and tried to leave. Vaudeville actor, Eddie Foy, attempted to calm the panicking audience by telling them to exit in a calm and orderly manner. He also tried to sing and dance to distract the audience. The audience though was stuck. They couldn’t locate any of the emergency exits because they weren’t labeled. The business owners didn’t want the signs to distract guests from the plays. Those that were able to find exits couldn’t figure out how to open the doors because the doors had bascule locks that were the norm in European theaters but hadn’t been used in American theaters. 

While the audience tried unsuccessfully to flee, the stage crew tried to lower the asbestos curtain to smother the fire. The curtain, which was made of asbestos and wood pulp, became snagged on some lighting fixtures and wouldn’t come down. With that falling, other crew members tried to open the skylight thinking the flames and smoke would go out of there. The skylight was frozen shut and refused to budge. Finally some of the crew members were able to open a door backstage that let in a blast of freezing cold air. The cold air caused a back draft to occur, sending a giant flaming ball of fire into the audience. 

Those on the upper level of the theater audience found themselves locked in seating area. The doors down to the lobby had been chained shut during the show to keep folks in the cheap seats to go down to the more expensive seating. Those that were able to find fire escapes found the fire escapes were either unfinished or frozen shut. Somehow they managed to find some ladders to use to climb above the back alley to a neighboring building. But not everyone was able to make it across the ladders. Many fell to the alley below. After a while, those falling didn’t have to worry about falling to their death due to the amount of bodies piling up to cushion their fall. 

The fire only lasted thirty minutes but that fire became not only the deadliest theater fire in the United States but also the deadliest single building fire in United States history. Over 600 people died that day due to the fire. That is double the death toll of the Great Chicago Fire. The Iroquois Theatre fire caused both city and national laws to change about aisle-way and exit standards, occupancy limits, and making scenery fireproof. Over the next century, the theater would be theater, a tv and radio showroom, and finally a theater again. 

Since the fire, the theater and the alley way behind it have experienced many paranormal events. In the alley way, people will cold breezes even on hot, summer days. Whispers and crying can be heard in the alley way as well. Inside the theater, the activity varies. Crying and voices can be heard in the seating area and behind the stage. In the seating area, guests as they leave may feel hands on the shoulders pushing them along. Cold spots can be felt. Shadow figures can be see in the balcony area by the actors on the stage. On the backstairs, apparitions in 19th century clothing can be seen. Actress, Ana Gasteyer, said that as she preformed in Wicked, she would see families and children standing in the wings but when she would glance back a few minutes later, they would be gone. Other performers have talked about hearing footsteps running behind the stage when no one is there or hearing children’s voices when there were no children present. 

This fire was devastating. If things had been done differently, the outcome would have been so much different. The sadness and heaviness of that day seems to be ingrained into the bricks of the building. Maybe the spirits that linger there are enjoying the new shows that continue to be preformed there. 

Before I end this post I did want to let y’all know in case you missed the announcement on my social media but yesterday I uploaded part one of the investigation that happened here on Friday with Paranormal MIT. You can check it out here. I will have part two posted later this afternoon. Please be sure to check out part two because there is a part where we are in my office and we get the clearest EVP I have ever heard. Part one is also really interesting because of the results we got with the Estes method they investigators were using. I am really happy with the way the investigation went and I can’t wait for them to come out again. 

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