On March 30, 1900, a fire started in the roof of the
Columbia Theater on Monroe street in Chicago. In
thirty minutes, it was gutted, the upper floors
having pancaked into the stores and theater on the
ground floor. Fire
chief Swenie said
it had been a recognized fire trap for some time. In
an odd coincidence, one of the upper floors was the
meeting place for the Iroquois Club.
A rehearsal was in progress when the fire broke out.
The few people in the building escaped. There were a
few injuries, none requiring hospitalization.
One of those who escaped was the assistant
who later became the business manager at the
Iroquois Theater and was the senior manager when the
Iroquois fire took place. Another Columbia employee
who would in four years be at the Iroquois Theater
was chief electrician, Archibald
Theater manager Will
Davis remarked, "Thank
God there was no matinee on. I shudder to
contemplate the consequences of such a case. I have
feared such a catastrophe. The house had outlived
The six-story structure was built in 1880 by Jack
Col. John B. Carson (1835-1892), a wealthy railroad
executive from Quincy, IL. In 1881 during one of
Haverly's innumerable financial troubles, he sold
his half to Carson, who then leased it back to
For its first three years, it was named Haverly's
Theater. On behalf of Haverly's creditors, in 1883,
Charles H. McConnell (1841-1916), publisher
(National Printing Company) turned theater man
(later turned druggist), took charge of the Columbia
and two other Haverly theaters. He called Will J.
Davis in from the road to manage the theater. It was
Will's first theater management experience.* He
co-managed the theater for three years before
heading off to build the Haymarket
burned in 1893). During those three years, Henry
Irving and Ellen Terry were performing at the
theater when management decided to change the name
from Haverly's Theater to the Columbia. Ellen Terry
did the christening. John Carson was a recognized
enthusiast of Henry Irving.
Alf Hayman managed the theater after 1886 and in
1890, persuaded his brother, Al
and Will Davis to sign a lease and make the theater
part of the syndicate.
No. two of three
The Columbia was the second of three Davis-managed
theaters that burned. In Davis' assessment
years after his acquittal in the Iroquois fire,
newspapers had unfairly targeted him in Iroquois
Theater coverage. By today's standards their
criticism was amazingly reserved. Left out of
1903-1907 newspapers, for example, was any mention
of his past history with theater fires.