Haunted Oriental Theater in Chicago
The Iroquois Theater in Chicago was completed in November of 1903. The opening night play starred Eddie Foy in a musical called Mr. Bluebeard. Attendance was poor at the play until an afternoon matinee on December 30th when the house was not only packed to its capacity of 1600, but was overflowing into the aisles with 2,000 patrons most of whom were women and children.
The brand new theater was advertised as being “absolutely fireproof,” despite a Chicago Fire Department captain who had previously noted on a tour of the building “that there were no extinguishers, sprinklers, alarms, telephones, or water connections.” The captain reported his findings to the fire warden, and his commanding officer, who both told him “that nothing could be done.”
During a dance number in the second act, a muslin curtain was ignited by an arc light shorting out. The stagehands were unable to quench the fire, which spread high above the stage igniting painted scenery flats. When the much touted “asbestos curtain” was lowered, it not only got caught up, but was later determined to be composed of mostly wood pulp which would have rendered it useless.
A huge fireball was formed when someone opened a huge door allowing a blast of cold air into the building. The fireball was unable to escape through the vents which had been nailed shut, and passed out into the audience.
Although Foy was heroic in his efforts to calm the audience, over 600 people died that afternoon, mostly mothers and schoolchildren. The panicked audience’s effort s to exit the building were thwarted by hidden fire exits, unfamiliar locking mechanisms, false doors, locked gates, and doors opening inwards becoming jammed as the crowd pressed forward.
Iron gates barring the stairways to the upper levels prevented many of the patrons from escaping, and the largest amount of charred bodies were found on these staircases, “trampled, crushed, or asphyxiated.”
Many people jumped and fell from fire escapes that had not been finished.
When firefighters arrived on the eerily quiet scene, they had difficulty entering the building because of the bodies piled seven feet high against the doors. By the time they got inside, the fire had consumed everything it could, and wasn’t difficult to put out at that point. Carrying the hundreds and hundreds of charred bodies to the back alley took a great deal of time.
An investigation was conducted, and a major cover-up by city officials and the fire department was discovered. Several individuals were indicted “including the theater owners, fire officials, and even the mayor.” It was suspected that fire inspectors had accepted bribes for free tickets to “overlook code violations.” Most of the charges were eventually dropped.
Because of this devastating fire, several public building fire codes were changed in the United States.
The building that housed the theater was repaired and reopened several times before being razed and re-opening as the Oriental Theater in 1926. Today, the theater is known as the Ford Center for the Performing Arts Oriental Theater.
A sit-down production of Wicked was performed at the theater from June 2005 to January of 2009, the most popular stage production in Chicago history.
Ana Gasteyer originated the role of Elphaba in the production of Wicked, and was nominated for a Jefferson Award for her performance.
On the 29th episode of Celebrity Ghost Stories on the Bio channel, Ana talks about her experiences at this “extraordinarily beautiful historical American theater.”
Ana first mentioned the now rarely used back alley called “Death Alley” since the Iroquois Theater fire when the bodies were stacked there by the firemen. She described the alley as being “very dismal and gloomy.” She said that it felt terrible to be there.
On December 30th, the anniversary of the fire, Ana has a paranormal experience during her performance at the theater. At the end of Act I, her character, the witch Elphaba is learning to fly, and she flies up high into the air. There is a great deal of fog and smoke, and the orchestra is playing very loudly.
While flying up into the air, Ana noticed a lot of people in the wings standing in little groups. After the show, she is walking down a long deserted hallway to her dressing room, when she hears children crying. A moment later, she sees a woman and two children standing at the end of the hallway dressed in winter period clothing.
The family appears calm and collected, but out-of-place. The mother, especially, exudes sadness. Ana nods to the woman, who nods back. They then turn a corner, and disappear. Ana has no doubt that this family perished in the fire of 1903. She said that Wicked is a play for families and children, and it stands to reason that the ghosts of other mothers and children would be joining them nightly.