THE BURNING OF THE PARK THEATRE.
The destruction of the Park Theatre in this city by fire on Monday afternoon last was one of those blessings in disguise with which communities are favored but too seldom. The fire was a blessing because it destroyed an old theatre, whose faulty construction and combustible qualities have menaced the lives of its audiences ever since it was erected. It was a blessing because it occurred in the afternoon, when but few persons were in the house, rather than at night, when an audience was within the; building. Mrs. Langtry, the famous English “ professional beauty ” and ambitious actress, was to have made her first appearance that night, and the house would have been packed with our refined and wealthy people. Had the fire been delayed four hours, the audience would have been assembled, and there would inevitably have ensued a frightful loss of life. The terrible scenes witnessed at the burning of the Brooklyn Theatre a few years ago, and at the more recent destruction of the Ring Theatre in Vienna, would have been re-enacted in Broadway. The rapidity with which the fire spread among the stage accessories, driving the workmen employed about the theatre from their work and forcing them to fly for their lives, indicates what would have been the fate of an audience assembled in the evening, with the imperfect exits afforded. As it was, two out of the fifteen persons in the building lost their lives, so sudden was the outburst of the flames, and so rapid their onward march.
The Park Theatre was in no sense a fit place in which to assemble an audience. It was simply a great barn, divided into offices, auditorium and stage by the flimsiest and most combustible material. The boxes were made of pine, the woodwork all through the interior was of the same material, saturated with gaudy paint; the boxes were decorated with drapery and lace curtains; the stage was one mass of pine frames for scenes, painted canvas, ropes, pulleys, etc., all ready to spring into flames at the first breath of fire, as tinder responds to the flaming spark. With all these conditions provided for a sweeping rush of flames through the whole place, the means of exit from the auditorium were wholly insufficient to permit an audience to disperse within a reasonable time. The entrance was from Broadway, but to get to the auditorium it was necessary to turn at a right angle ; half way up the lobby were several stairs. The stairs leading to the balcony were winding and placed in a narrow, confined shaft. All the exits led into one lobby, opening on Broadway. In case of a panic from a fire one-half the people must have been trampled under foot, suffocated and burned. Chief of Battalion Gicquel sometime since reported this as one of the most dangerous places of amusement in the city, a report which compelled the managers to make some slight changes in the theatre, but none that would have insured the safety of an audience. The theatre was well equipped for extinguishing fires. There was a fire alarm connecting with the Fire Department telegraph ; there were standpipes and hose, a chemical tank with hose, buckets, etc. But there were no trained Firemen to take charge of these, and when the fire occurred, no one was present who knew anything about them. The alarm was not even sent from the theatre, but when the flames appeared above the roof” a Fireman, who saw them two blocks away, turned in the alarm at a street box and immediately followed it with second and third calls. All the private fire protection so boastfully paraded was, when the emergency came, utterly useless. From every’ point of view the burning of the Park Theatre in the afternoon was a blessing to the community. There are at least a dozen others in New York that ought to burn under similar circumstances. With their destruction would probably come a better class of buildings for amusement purposes. Heretofore any old rattletrap of a building has been deemed good enough to convert into a theatre, when, considering the necessarily inflammable nature of their contents, theatres should be made as nearly fireproof as possible, and only such material used as is of a slow burning character.
The fire is supposed to have originated through a curtain in one of the boxes coming in contact with a light used by workmen who were adjusting the drapery. The flames mounted to the drapery instantaneously, caught the scenery upon the stage, and. forthwith, the theatre was beyond salvation. Experiments publicly made in this city but a short time since by a noted dramatist and manager, demonstrated that theatrical scenery, dresses, etc., can be so prepared with chemicals that they become non-inflammable. Why managers have not adopted this inexpensive plan can only be accounted for by their utter indifference to the safety of their patrons. It is a well known fact that every attempt made by the authorities to compel managers of theatres to adopt additional precautions against fires and panics, have been met with stubborn resistance, and not even the courts have been able to compel them to adopt the prescribed means for protecting life. Of all the theatres in New York, Booth’s, Wallack’s and the Grand Opera House are about the only ones wherein an audience has any assurance of safety. Fires are liable to occur in either of these, but the means of escape are so ample that there is little danger of loss of life in case of a panic. While theatres are necessarily dangerous places, they would be far less so if invariably built upon a corner lot, with abundant facilities for reaching at least two streets, and were constructed with a view to resisting flames. At Wallack’s Theatre, the stage and the auditorium are two separate buildings, divided by a thick brick wall, as should be the case in every place of amusement where a stage and scenery are required.
But if our city theatres are mostly death traps, what can be said of the ordinary theatres to be found in smaller places ? As a rule, they have all the dangerous ^characteristics of a city theatre, with the additional one that they are usually located in the second or third stories of buildings, with but a single stairway leading to the auditorium. Exits from the galleries and the body of the house run together into a common lobby leading to the stairway, and under ordinary circumstances, the theatre cannot be emptied in less than ten or fifteen minutes. In case of a panic, the lobby would become a swarming mass of excited humanity, pushing, crowding, struggling, fighting and trampling each other under foot, as was the case at the Brooklyn Theatre fire. On that occasion, of the three hundred corpses found in the ruins, nearly all were found piled up at the point where the stairs from the galleries and the body of the house met in the lobby. Here the struggling masses had become inextricably jammed together, and the unfortunate victims were suffocated and consumed by the fast following flames, heat and smoke.
Every Chief of a Fire Department has a certain moral, if not legal duty, to perform in connection with all places where many people congregate, be it in churches or theatres. They know better than most persons the perils attending all fires ; they know, too, that in times of danger from this cause, inexperienced persons lose their self-control, become panic-stricken, and are no more responsible for their conduct than so many maniacs. It is, therefore, the duly of every Chief of Department to see that all churches and theatres are provided with adequate means of exit, so that, in case of fire, an audience can be quickly dispersed in safety. If they have not the lawful power to compel owners to make their property safe, then they should apprise the public of its danger by officially reporting the facts and publishing them. This done, they have at least discharged their duty in the premises, and if the people themselves do not heed the warning and compel compliance with the ordinary laws of self preservation, the Fire Departments cannot be held responsible for any disaster that may occur.