Forty-seven-year-old Eddie Foy
(1856-1928) played the role of Sister Anne in Mr.
Bluebeard, with a contract for $800 a week
(approx $20K today). Born as Edward Fitzgerald in
NYC, he moved to Chicago with his mother and
siblings when his father died. With the family
barely getting by, Foy began performing on the
street to help out, eventually making it to the
stage and headliner status. He was a much-loved Chicago success
In the Iroquois Theater fire
disaster Eddie gained fame that would last
throughout his life. He brought his young son,
Brian Foy, with him to the performance on December
30, 1903, leaving his wife and other sons back at
the Sherman House hotel. He gave Brian a
prestige seat in front of the electrical control
panel on stage, directly below the fly bridge on
which William McMullen operated the arc lamp that
started the fire.
When the fire broke out, Eddie
was in his dressing room, preparing for his next
scene. When he heard a commotion on the stage
he first ran to find his son and handed Brian to a
stage hand to be taken outside. Eddie then ran
to the stage and tried to calm the audience.
He advised people to remain in their seats to await
the fire department. As the fire worsened, he
advised them to instead leave the theater quietly.
As flaming shards of curtains and scenery began
falling from the loft, he finally fled. He and
Brian headed back to the Sherman House, running into
his panicked wife and sons on route, coming to find
he and Brian. Word of the fire had spread
quickly in downtown Chicago. Before long,
there would be
seriously injured audience victims at the Sherman
House, intermingled with newspaper reporters.
Eddie Foy's story, universally
described as an act of bravery, appeared in
newspapers around the country and became synonymous
with his name.
I have vacillated on the
question of whether Eddie's directives saved or cost
lives. He was well intended for sure but what
was the result? In court later, audience
survivors, mostly people who were seated on the
first floor, described having followed his
directive, sitting back down in their seats to wait
for the fire department, then deciding at the last
minute that they had to escape the auditorium.
People in the balconies,
however, didn't have turn-around time enough for
that because there were large crowds at the exits
and the fire ball swept upwards into the balconies.
On the other hand, testimony from balcony survivors
suggests that they couldn't hear what Foy was saying
anyway. Some inferred from his hand gestures
that he was urging them to remain calm but, for
most, an unamplified voice on the stage was drowned
out by the volume of people shouting to other
members in their party, shouting at the ushers,
shouting at people at the front of the crowd, and
what many described as the thunder of a thousand
people on their feet, frantically trying to escape
There were audience members
found dead in their seats but there is no way to
know if they had remained seated because of Foy's
instructions or because they thought the crowds at
the exits would clear if they waited. The
number of fatalities found as such is also unknown
because some reports referred to as few as two while
others referenced "dozens."
In 1955 Bob Hope played
Eddie Foy in the Academy nominated film, The Seven
Little Foys." Also staring James Cagney, the film
was a biography of Foy's life, including the years
after his wife's death when his children became part
of his vaudeville act.