THE BOSTON FIRE AND POLICE AUTHORITIES AND THE THEATRES.
The experience of years teaches how rapidly combustion takes place in theatres, and this is not to be wondered at when one considers that every night the material in and around a theatre stage is subjected to a kiln-dried process, rendering it an easy prey to the devouring element. The Park Theatre is another sermon preached to managers and municipal authorities; will it be heeded? If managers of theatres do not perform their duty to the public, the authorities should compel them, and shut up these ovens contrived to bake human lives, if they neglect or refuse to take all possible precaution against fire. The fire appliances at most of our theatres are precisely similar to those with which the New York Park Theatre was supplied. At the critical moment they were useless.
We note with pleasure that the Boston authorities are taking this matter in hand. The granting of licenses to places of amusements in that city is vested in the Board of Police Commissioners. The Fire Commissioners of Boston have from time to time urged theatrical managers in that city to better protect the stage, scenery, etc., in case of fire, but to little effect. On Friday last, at the invitation of the Fire Commissioners, the Board of Police Commissioners visited the various theatres, and inspected the appliances for extinguishing fires, and at a conference subsequently held the Board of Fire Commissioners recommended to the Police Board, and the same was adopted, the following provisions to be complied with by every theatre:
- Automatic sprinklers in all the theatres of the city, including stage, carpenter shop, flies, places under or over the stage where scenery is kept, or in any place where, in the opinion of the Fire Commissioners, they may be needed.
- Such amount of stand pipes, hose, water pails, axes and chemical extinguishers as the Fire Commissioners may from time to time determine.
- One or more automatic skylights over the stage of every theatre.
- All exits marked with the word “ Exit ” in large letters, and so constructed as to be easily opened by the-audience in case of fire.
- The employment of one or more competent Firemen, who shall be approved of by the Board of Fire Commissioners, and who shall have sole charge of all fire appliances during all performances.
- The whole theatre so piped that the gas can be shut off separately from the stage, auditorium or lobbies, without interference one with the other.
On Monday last the Police Commissioners invited the managers of all the theatres in Boston to their office and gave each a copy of the above rules, and informed them that they expected a strict compliance with them. We will watch With interest the result, and from what we know of the unflinching firmness of the Board of Police Commissioners of Boston, we have no doubt that a withdrawal of ifs license will follow the non-compliance of any theatre with the foregoing provisions. This is a good beginning. Cannot other cities follow suit and prevent as far as in them lies holocausts like that of Brooklyn or Vienna. The whole responsibility now rests with the Police Commissioners of Boston, and they are all powerful in the matter and we think equal to the emergency.
The adoption of the automatic sprinklers for every apartment connected with a theatre, we regard as an exceedingly wise precaution. The value of this apparatus in extinguishing fires in New England mills has been abundantly demonstrated. When an alarm is attached which will summon the Firemen at the instant the water is turned on, the objection that they were apt to deluge a building with water unnecessarily is overcome. With human intelligence to control their operation, they become a powerful auxiliary to the Fire Department. Their introduction more generally into ordinary places of business would tend greatly to reduce the fire loss of the country.
The provision in the requirement of the Boston officials, that managers of theatres shall employ competent Firemen to take charge of all fire appliances in theatres is also a wise and equitable one. In New York regular members of the force are detailed to attend each theatre during each performance given, whereby the companies are weakened during their absence, and those remaining are required to do the work of those absent. There is no more reason why the Department should be crippled in this way, and saddled with the cost of keeping Firemen in the theatres, than that they should detail them to watch over printing offices, or other manufacturing establishments. It is the duty of managers of theatres to secure to their patrons immunity from peril while in attendance at performances, and trained Firemen are essential to this end. Such men should be employed and paid by the managers, their selection be ng approved by the Fire Commissioners, and they held subject to the orders of the Commissioners in all matters pertaining to their duty. It is time the public authorities took radical measures to secure safety in all places where large assemblages of citizens congregate, be it in churches or theatres, and the action of the Boston Police Commissioners is timely and to the point.
Steele Mackaye, the well-known dramatist, manager and actor, contributed an interesting paper on “ Safety in Theatres ” to the November number of the North American Magazine. Every newspaper in the land is now editorially discussing the same subject, and most of them find it easy to tell what should be done ; how to do it is quite another matter; and to the solution of this problem Mr. Mackaye’s paper is mainly directed. As formulated by him, the question presents three sides:
- Risks from faulty construction of walls and floors, protection from which should be insured by the integrity of our Building Departments.
- Risks from fire, for security from which we must look to our Fire Departments.
- Risks from foul air, freedom from which ought to be guaranteed by the vigilance of our Health Departments.”
After discussion of each of these points with considerable particularity and generally in a manner to commend itself to the intelligence of all thoughtful readers, Mr. Mackaye closes with what he is pleased to call these “ten commandments of government to amusement managers
- To veneer all the wood work in the scenic department with some fireproof composition sure to protect it from any fire that may occur in that inflammable portion of the house.
- To construct in the roof above the rigging-loft large trap-doors, so weighted that they will fall open of themselves the moment they are unfastened. Their fastenings either to be automatic or easily controlled from the prompter’s box.
- To hang an automatic fireproof curtain in the proscenium arch.
- To provide an air-tight tank with air condensing pump attachment, capable of holding water enough to extinguish any ordinary fire likely to start during a performance, which shall be connected with a plentiful supply of pipes, furnished with automatic sprinklers and hose, on every working or fly floor.
- To keep in working order two’fire extinguishers for every working or fly floor.
- To supply two axes to every working or fly floor.
- To organize all the employees of the house into a fire company, to be drilled at least once a week by a competent fireman detailed to this duty by the Fire Department of the city.
- To adopt a seat that is capable of converting each floor in the auditorium into a series of aisles at any time.
- To provide the best known system of ventilation for the auditorium.
- To allow ten feet of exit room to every two hundred seats on the floor.”
C. John Hexamer, a civil engineer and architect of Philadelphia, read a paper on “ The Prevention of Fires in Theatres,” before the Franklin Institute of that city, on June 21 of the present year. This paper has now been printed. The author gives at the outset an array of figures relating to theatres and theatre fires which show painstaking research. “ Since the beginning of this century,” he says, “estates worth over $100,000,000and thousands of lives have been destroyed by theatre fires, while thousands of others were fortunately saved from the same fate.” Europe contains i486 theatres, and the United States have about 557. In Italy there is one theatre for every 75,000 inhabitants; in the United States, one for every 90,000; Spain, one for every 93,000; France, one for every 110,000; Great Britain, one for every 184,000; Austria, one for every 235,000 ; Russia, one for every 1,360,000 ; Turkey, one for every 2,000,000. Over 150 theatres have been burned within the past one hundred years.
“ Destruction by fire,” says Mr. Hexamer, “ is the natural end of theatres. Theatre fires can have but two eventualities—either the fire is extinguished in the first minute, or the entire theatre is destroyed.” These disasters are exceedingly rare in Italy ; more so than in any other part of the world, because they care more for good music, pure and simple, and less for the spectacular. More than half the theatre fires occur from December until March, a fact that explains itself. It has also been calculated that thirteen per cent of all theatre fires occur in the daytime, before or during rehearsal ; twenty-one per cent during performances ; fortyeight per cent during the two hours following performances, and sixteen per cent later at night. The statement is made that nearly onehalf of all theatre fires occur two hours after the performances have closed.
The larger part of Mr. Hexamcr’s paper is devoted to the technical discussion of details by which the scenery and “flys,” and all the stage belongings, shall be made practically fireproof.
To insure the reasonable safety of their audiences in time of peril, either from fire or panic, theatres should, besides taking the precautions mentioned by Messrs. Mackaye and Hexamer, be bounded by streets on all sides, or else by streets on two sides, and on the other two sides by wide alleys, with ample direct exits on each of the four sides. The parquet floor should be on a level with the streets, with no steps at all. There should be broad and ample stone stairways to the galleries, protected by fireproof walls, isolating them from the rest of the house. Add to these things a set of employees that can be transformed into a well drilled fire company at a second’s notice, and there remains but little for the amusement goer to dread except the bad actors on the stage, against whom no precaution will avail, except the simple expedient of staying at home.