Author’s Note: The event we will be discussing occurred one-hundred twenty years ago. Record keeping during that time period was sometimes shaky at best. We have endeavored to base our program on facts that we can verify to a reasonable degree. That being said, there are still some accounts that vary wildly. In producing this show, we have made every attempt to be as accurate as possible with records available today.
It’s hard today to imagine lighting our homes with kerosene lamps. After all, how many of us have picked up our phone and turned on the flashlight function just to see our way to the bathroom in the middle of the night? But in 1903, residential electric lighting was still decades away from what we are used to now . So when people would visit Chicago, they viewed the bright electric lights as almost a form of magic.
Theatres were no different, in fact, the brilliance of electric lighting illuminated the colors on all the costumes, scenery, props, and backdrops much netter than oil burning lamps that were the standard up until the late 1800’s. However, since commercial electrical service did not have a set of codes like today, there were still issues with poorly manufactured equipment, circuit design, and a lack of safety features. It is important to note though, even some stage lights used today put off extremely high temperatures. With all the safety protocols developed over the years, even modern stage lights have the capability to ignite flammable materials.
… in 19th century theaters, within 15 years, 40% would have experienced a fire that ultimately closed the theater. A predominant number of those fires were caused by lighting. -Tyler
Back in 1903, theatre worker William McMullen had only been in the position of arc light operator for four months. However, he recognized that the light he was charged with operating was too close to one of the curtains. According to McMullen’s testimony a year after the fire, his warnings went unheeded by theatre management. Continue reading