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
rehearsal was in progress when the fire broke
out. The few people in the building escaped. There
were a few injuries, none requiring hospitalization.
of those who escaped was the assistant treasurer,
Thomas Noonan - 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,
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 its usefulness."
six story structure was built in 1880 by
Jack Haverly and 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 Haverly. For it's 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 Theater (that
burned in 1893). During
that 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
Hayman managed the theater after 1886 and in 1890
persuaded his brother,
Al Hayman, and Will Davis to
sign a lease and make the theater part of the
Columbia was the second of three Davis-managed
theaters that burned.
Iroquois Theater fire in 1903 Davis would cite the
1900 Columbia Theater as an example of why sprinklers are
not effective, stating that they did not work at the
Columbia. There weren't Pinocchio's for
false statements back then so he got away with it. Today social media
would run a few searches and point out, "Hey, dude, that sprinklered theater
stage was on the ground floor, fire started on the sixth floor, all five
upper floors pancaked into the theater auditorium. Did you think sprinklers on the stage would put
out a fire on the sixth floor?" Clippings below describe the
sprinkler system at the Columbia Theater, what
happened when it burned, and Iroquois manager Will
J. Davis's pronouncement about sprinklers...after
one of his characteristic jaunts through the land of
self pity. He was the only one who suffered
from the Iroquois Theater fire. While he
whined, three days after the fire, there were
hundreds funerals going on all over Chicago and
several adjoining states. Nuts? Craven?
Narcissistic to the max.
Davis's prior experience with theater management had
been as a clerk at the
Adelphi Theater when managed by
Leonard Grover. Coincidentally the Adelphi
was across the street from the Columbia and
eventually became owned by Haverly.
If you have additional
info about an Iroquois victim, or find an error, I would like to
hear from you. Chaos and communication limitations of 1903
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