INSPECTION OF THEATRES.
AT the time of the burning of the theatre at Exeter, Eng., and the loss of so many lives in consequence of it, we addressed a letter to Robert Grimshaw, president of the Polytechnic Section of the American Institute, calling his attention to the fact that the theatres in this city and vicinity were well known to be unsafe in their construction, and suggesting that a committee from that body, co-operating with the Board of Underwriters, should make an inspection of the various places of amusement, with a view to ascertaining what was necessary to provide for the safety of the audiences that may be assembled within them. Mr. Grimshaw acted promptly upon this suggestion, appointed a committee of scientific gentlemen, members of the Institute, and the Board of Underwriters appointed one of their number to co-operate with this committee. We understand that the committee has already inspected two or three theatres and found the conditions precisely as we intimated they would, dangerous in the extreme and full of perils to the lives of the persons attracted there by the entertainments offered, and to the adjoining property. These reports will doubtless be printed at an early day, and we hope the committee will bear in mind the tender we made them at the outset of the use of our columns for the publication of their reports.
This question of the best means of securing safety of life in places of public entertainment has attracted a great deal of attention, both in this country and in Europe. The various scientific bodies and the technical papers have considered the question in all its phases, while the authorities in Paris have made thorough examinations of all such places, and enforced stringent regulations for their construction. They can do this very well in Paris, where the officers of the government can exercise arbitrary control, but in this country it is very different. Our State legislatures have been very negligent in providing by law for the proper construction of places of amusement, and the officers charged with the supervision of such structures cannot go beyond the law in insisting upon the adoption of measures of safety. D. Adler, a member of the American Institute of Architects, recently read a lengthy paper upon this subject before the convention of that body. While the paper is an able one, and the suggestions of a character to insure safety under the conditions prescribed by him, he fails to meet the problem that is presented. He describes how an ideal theatre and opera-house, capable of seating 3000 persons, should be constructed and what measures should be taken to secure entire safety. That is not what is called for by the conditions of the places of amusement of today. It would be easy enough to build a theatre or other place of amusement in such a manner as to make it practically fireproof, and to secure safety for those assembled within its walls, but what is to be done with the places of amusement already existing? Very few of these were constructed originally as places of amusement, but have been altered over from stores, warehouses, etc., with the sole object in view of attracting people to the performances presented without regard to their safety when they are assembled. To meet the exigencies of their occupancy, they have been changed frequently, walls pierced, galleries and boxes built in, and the stage constructed of the cheapest and most inflammable material, piled up with scenery mounted on wooden frames and covered with inflammable paints and varnishes. They are, in fact, tinder-boxes filled with the most inflammable kind of tinder, ready to burst into flames at a moment’s notice. Instead of suggestions for the construction of an ideal theatre of great capacity, what is wanted are practical suggestions for the securing of safety in the existing death traps that are scattered over the country from one end to the other.
The ordinary theatre is intended to hold from 600 to 2500 persons, and the seats are crowded together in a mass so closely that when a panic occurs from any cause the occupants of the seats, apprehensive from the first that they cannot get out, trample each other under foot in their efforts to escape from the pens in which they are confined. The exits to these places are wholly insufficient as a rule, many of the auditoriums occupying the second, third and even the fourth stories of buildings with but a single stairway from the street leading thereto. ‘These stairways have sharp turns and angles, furnishing precisely the same kind of trap that proved so fatal at Exeter. The majority of these places would, under stringent laws, be absolutely condemned as unsafe and their occupancy for places of amusement prohibited. If they could be closed up now and buildings erected upon the plans of Mr. Adler, we doubt not that the safety of the audiences would be thus secured; but as this is not feasible, the question is what to do to the present structures. We trust that Mr. Grimshaw’s committee, composed of scientific and practical men, will aid in the solution of this problem. Certainly reports upon the condition of all the various theatres from such a source cannot fail to convince the public and the authorities that something should be done to improve them.