A bit of a grim story today, though it is perhaps illustrative of the golden age of Vaudeville. Just after Christmas 1903, comedian Eddie Foy was starring in a sold-out matinee performance of a musical comedy, “Mr. Bluebeard,” in Chicago’s prestigious Iroquois Theater. 2000 people, mostly children and their mothers, were crowded into the theatre. During the performance, an overhead spotlight burst into flames, setting fire to the backstage rigging. Workers attempted to beat the fire out with sticks, but this was no help.
When flaming cloth began to fall on stage, panic set in. Foy asked the band to continue playing, but the audience began a mad dash for the exits. These, however, were not properly marked, or were even blocked. In the resultant stampede and inferno, 602 people died, and its a miracle that the toll wasn’t higher.
Stuff You Missed In History Class have an episode about the fire, and the changes in the law that followed, usual provisos about excessive advertising apply.