TESTING OF THEATRICAL SCENERY*
The question of testing and fireproofing scenery, curtains, drops, etc., for use in theatres, concert and assembly halls, is a matter which, I suppose, in these days and among a body of men such as this, it is not very necessary to insist upon. The flimsy and inflammable nature of the materials and the terrible results of fire in theatres, where in such cases there invariably ensues what is almost worse than fire, a panic, these and the awful experiences of some of our cities in recent years have made all of us, I think, sufficiently alive to the importance and necessity of testing and fireproofing scenery. Some of our experiences along this line here in Cincinnati might be of interest to you. When we first started the systematic testing of scenery several years ago, there were in Cincinnati 19 regular theatres and 69 moving-picture houses. All these, with the exception of a few regular houses, had no fire protection whatever in the way of extinguishers, pike-poles, axes, barrels of water or fire buckets. Fireproofing was unknown to some of the managers and owners of theatres. The work of inspecting, however, proved to a great many of these managers that the sanitary condition improved with the necessary fire protection. For example, dust had accumulated in the rigging lofts of some of the theatres from the time that they had been built. The work of removing all the dust from the rigging lofts and cellar ways was ordered, and all unprotected woodwork in the rigging lofts and cellar ways of all regular theatres and moving-picture houses was ordered fireproofed. The result at the end of the year was that in all these theatres and picture houses there was installed the necessary equipment for fire protection, and they had fireproofed all unprotected woodwork. During the year 14,000 pieces of scenery belonging to shows entering the city for a week’s run were fireproofed and tested. The efficiency of fireproofing was demonstrated on several occasions—once at an evening performance of one of the leading houses when a piece of scenery was charred by crossed electric wires. It was agreed by all who saw this charred piece of scenery that if it were not for the fact that the scenery in the house had been fireproofed that day a serious fire would have resulted. On another occasion at an evening performance in a moving-picture house a piece of defective electric wiring charred the woodwork in a remote part of the cellar, but without starting a blaze, owing to the fact that the woodwork had all been fireproofed ten days previously. Part of the plan we have adopted here is to give theatres a thorough inspection before the season opens, to see that all house scenery is fireproofed and that the fire hose, standpipes and all fire extinguishers are in good working condition. By inspecting we have discovered hundreds of pieces of scenery stored in the fly galleries that had become covered with dust. Ofter the managers have had them taken out of the theatres and stored elsewhere, thus eliminating a serious fire hazard. Our tests of theatrical scenery run from 3,000 to 3,500 pieces per month, about one-third of which stand the ordeal. These have been among the chief results of our work and fairly show the necessity and importance of inspecting and testing. However, the main point which I wish to urge on this Association is the advisability of adopting a uniform and standard test by the fire departments of all our cities for use on scenery, and especially on theatrical scenery and equipment, since theatrical scenery to a much greater extent than that used in concert-halls and moving-picture houses is on the move from place to place, and consequently subject in each place to tests very much in kind and severity. There are two chief methods of testing—the match and the blow-torch. Here in Cincinnati we use a 3-inch gasoline blowtorch and we find it by far the most satisfactory for the reason that it can be applied to flat surfaces and other parts of the scenery, where the mere flame or match test would prove utterly inadequate. Now you can readily see what confusion and trouble are brought about when a set of scenery which has successfully passed a less severe, or at any rate, a different test in another city reaches Cincinnati and is not allowed to go on without refireproofing. We are very fortunate here in Cincinnati in having men at the head of our various theatres who back up the firemen completely in their tests and insist upon a full compliance with our requirements, and in case of refusal on the part of the show manager or advance agent, cause the scenery to be removed from their houses. If this were not so matters would be much worse, but even as it is it frequently happens that the traveling show manager or advance man will become disagreeable when his scenery is not declared O. K. He will argue, perhaps, that his scenery passed the test in Boston, New York or Chicago, or whatever other city he last came from, and naturally he cannot, or will not, be made to see the true state of the case, namely, that a different test was applied in that other city, for instance, or that the fireproofing compound he used had lost its strength or turned to powder and been shaken off in transit. Now many disagreeable features of this business of scenery inspection would be avoided if, especially in our large Eastern cities, whence most of the shows start out, there were some well-understood and agreed-on test; and not only would this have the advantage of doing away with much trouble and unnecessary argument and even in some instances law-suits, but it would tend to greater efficiency in fire prevention and be much more just to the owners and managers of shows by raising up a clear and definite standard of testing to which they might more surely conform, and thus do their part towards the protection of the great public of which the fireman is the particular guardian. One good method, perhaps, would be for the fire chiefs throughout the country to have an official stamp, to be placed on scenery which had successfully stood the blow-torch or some other standard test to be agreed upon—the stamp to show the date and place of testing.
*Abstract of paper read at Convention of International Association of Fire Engineers, Cincinnati, O., Aug. 31-Sept. 3, 1915.