Theatergoers did not know that when they went to see the musical Mr. Bluebeard on December 30, 1903, the Iroquois Theatre would become a deadly Inferno. Over 600 perished from the blaze. The Ruffians present Burning Bluebeard, a holiday show about six clowns who survive and remount the performance.
Located at 24 W Randolph where the Ford Center for the Performing Arts Oriental Theatre now stands, the Iroquois Theater was primed for disaster. Exits were hidden behind drapes. There were no sprinklers or extinguishers. There was no air intake. Fire inspectors may have been bribed to overlook violations. The 1,700 seats sold out for the December 30 show and four-to-five-hundred patrons were allowed in for standing room.
After the second act of Mr. Bluebeard began, an arc light blew and set a muslin curtain on fire. It spread to the painted scenery and the wooden trim that decorated the Iroquois. The fire curtain (made of asbestos and wood pulp) got caught on a light reflector. Many who attempted to flee found dead ends and windows that were painted to look like doors. Some people who were not crushed in the exodus plummeted to their deaths off the unfinished fire escapes. Their bodies cushioned the fall for others. Some 575 people died that day; 30 lingered and succumbed.
Jay Torrence’s Burning Bluebeard debuted in 2011 as a Neo-Futurists production. The Ruffians rise from the ashes to complete Mr. Bluebeard’s intended happy ending with a mix of slapstick, vaudeville, history and whimsy.
Burning Bluebeard runs at Theater Wit at 1229 W Belmont, Chicago, through January 4, 2015. Tickets are available online at https://www.theaterwit.org/tickets/productions/207/performances#top.