■ 1902. Architect Benjamin Marshall is supervising the construction of the Mason Opera House in Los Angeles when he receives a telegram from theater owners Will Davis and Harry Powers to come to Chicago and draw up blueprints for the future Iroquois Theater.
■ May 1903. The New York Times reports that "buildings in Dearborn and Randolph Streets, occupying the proposed site of the Iroquois Theatre are being razed for the new playhouse, which it is expected will be completed by October 12 when Mr. Bluebeard will be given its Chicago opening."
■ July 28, 1903. The cornerstone is laid and construction begins on the theater, which owners Davis and Powers hope to open in time to capitalize on holiday traffic. Labor disputes and other delays postpone the opening until November 23rd. A time capsule placed inside the stone contains copies of all the Chicago daily papers, a directory of 1844, some U.S. coins, photographs of the Iroquois under construction, a report of the Actors' Fund, copies of the Cast and the Dramatic News, and some programs from the Illinois and Powers theaters with accompanying photos.
■ The first production scheduled is the popular Drury Lane extravaganza Mr. Bluebeard featuring Eddie Foy and Annabelle Whitford. Mr. Bluebeard is rescheduled to run from November 23 to January 9. Ben Hur is set to begin on January 11.
■ Building inspector Edward Loughlin inspects the Iroquois daily during its construction and reports to Chicago Building Commissioner George Williams that it's "OK."
■ November 2, 1903. George Williams submits a report to Mayor Carter Harrison that most of the theaters in the city should be closed for violating fire ordinances, but nothing comes of it.
■ November 5, 1903. First snow of the season hits Chicago and it becomes bitterly cold.
■ November 14, 1903. Streetcar operators go on strike, making it necessary to either take horse-drawn carriages to get around or walk in the cold. The strike affects theater attendance throughout the city and won't be settled until November 25.
■ November 15, 1903. Some 347 members of the Bluebeard company arrive by train. Tomorrow they will give a special promotional performance at the Powers Theater to auction off box seats for the grand opening of the Iroquois.
■ November 18, 1903. A labor strike against the Fuller Construction Company results in major workforce reductions, and the fire escapes on the Iroquois are left unfinished.
■ November 22, 1903, building inspector Edward Loughlin invites fellow inspector Julius Lense along on a final inspection of the Iroquois and verbally reports to his boss that it's completed and "OK." In the courtroom later Lense will say the theater was not completed, but since he was not inspecting it in any official capacity he never submitted a report himself.
■ According to the souvenir program printed for the premier, there are 744 orchestra seats, not counting the box seats, numbering 24; the lower balcony has 465 seats, with two upper boxes accommodating 16, and the gallery has seating for 475, making a total of 1,724 seats, with additional standing room on each floor. To ensure everyone in the theater gets a good view of the stage, the gallery has an unusually steep pitch with a 25-inch rise between rows, requiring handrails to help people to their seats.
■ November 23, 1903. The Iroquois opens only six months after construction begins, although unfinished, and remains incomplete for the five weeks of its existence. In the programme it's described as "Absolutely Fireproof" despite the lack of firefighting equipment. There's no backstage telephone, no fire alarm, no sprinkler system, no water hoses, no signs marking the exits, the standpipe has not been connected, and there are no buckets of water on stage. The only fire extinguishers in the building are six canisters of Kilfyre, a powder comprised mostly of baking soda, which is meant to be used only in small household fires. Although there are vents above the stage designed to minimize danger by sucking flames and smoke out of the auditorium, these vents are nailed down and inoperable.
■ November 23, 1903. Architect Benjamin Marshall sits in a $200 box seat with his parents and friends for the premier. After the show, owners Davis and Powers host a reception in the marble lobby with champagne in celebration of the successful opening. There will be a performance every evening from now on, and matinees on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Attendance will be low for most of the season, however, due to labor unrest and weather conditions.
■ December 18, 1903. Livery drivers go on strike, making it difficult to hire carriages, and audience attendance drops even more. The strike will not end officially until January 14.
■ Wednesday, December 23, 1903. A small fire breaks out onstage during a matinee and the asbestos curtain is lowered, but gets caught on a plank holding the spotlight. The fire is put out before a panic occurs, but when curtain operator Joseph Daugherty complains about the faulty curtain, nothing is done about it.
■ Wednesday, December 30, 1903:
■ Attendance since opening night has been disappointing due to cold weather and the transit strikes, but students are now on vacation for Christmas break. The December 30 matinee draws a sellout audience. Additional chairs are placed in the boxes, and tickets are sold for every seat in the house, plus hundreds more for the standing room only areas of the theater. In the rear of the parquet they stand four deep, and some are forced to sit in the aisles in the back of the theater, blocking the exits. An estimated 2,000–2,200 people are in attendance. Eddie Foy would later say, "It struck me as I looked out over the crowd during the first act that I had never before seen so many women and children in the audience. Even the gallery was full of mothers and children."
■ Around 1:00 p.m., Eddie Foy and his six-year-old son Bryan walk from the Sherman House Hotel to the theater, which takes about three minutes. A crowd is already starting to form in front of the theater, but there's still plenty of time before the curtain goes up.
■ Matinee begins at 2:00 p.m. As the lights dim for the first act, the ushers lock most of the doors leading from the balcony and gallery to prevent gate crashers from the poorer seats sneaking downstairs into the orchestra section, even though there's nowhere to sit or even stand downstairs. The ushers have done this at every show in accordance with the owners' policy, and see no reason to do things differently tonight.
■ The first act is followed by a short intermission to allow the audience to use the restrooms or stretch their legs in the promenades on each floor.
■ The second act begins around 3:00 p.m. 19-year-old aerial ballerina Nellie Reed gets into the steel belt that will hoist her above the stage for one of the highlights of the show, when the aerial ballet is swung out over the audience as they drop paper carnations. This highlight would happen after the moonlight number.
■ Shortly before the fire starts, a city building inspector named William Curran reports that the theater is in good condition and that the house is not overcrowded.
■ Around 3:15 the lights in the auditorium dim except for a single spotlight, and the moonlight number begins. Eight women and eight men come onstage and sing Let Us Swear it by the Pale Moonlight. Spotlight operator William McMullen notices a slight crackling sound seconds before a spark from the light ignites a tormentor curtain to his right. He tries to slap it out, but the fire spreads beyond his reach. He calls out to a stagehand on a catwalk above him to put it out.
■ The stagehand tries to slap it out but it spreads beyond his reach, too. Black smoke appears, and the performers on stage, as well as certain members of the audience, can now see the flame. The performers continue the song, believing the fire will be put out soon.
■ William Sallers, the theater's house fireman, has been making his rounds backstage to ensure no one in the cast or crew is smoking since he's caught them at it before. As he climbs the stairs from the dressing rooms he spots the flames. He immediately grabs the canisters of Kilfyre from their wall hooks and begins throwing the powder at the flames, but the fire has grown too large and out of reach.
■ In the orchestra pit, the musicians see the flames over the proscenium arch during the second verse of the song and grow nervous. The bassoon player quietly puts down his instrument and exits through the orchestra pit door beneath the stage. Other musicians soon follow.
■ On stage one of the chorus girls can hear the faint bell for the asbestos curtain to drop, muffled by the music. The normal curtain operator is in the hospital, however, and his replacement isn't sure which rope operates which curtain.
■ Fireman Sallers orders a stagehand to pull the fire alarm, but since there is no alarm connected inside the building yet, the stagehand has to run to the nearest firehouse, Engine 13, and an estimated four minutes are lost this way. At approximately 3:33 p.m. while en route to the theater, a fireman from Engine 13 activates an alarm box to call additional units to the scene.
■ Eddie Foy in his dressing room hears a commotion on stage and comes out to see what's going on. When he leans over the railing outside the dressing room door he can see smoke and flames, and he runs to the stage to find his son Bryan. Handing the boy to a stagehand, he tells him to take the boy to safety through the stage exit onto Couch Place.
■ Some in the audience have risen to their feet, but those standing at the back are blocking the aisles and the exits, so the audience cannot move.
■ Eddie Foy bursts onto the stage after the first chorus of Pale Moonlight. At least one of the chorus girls faints and is carried out by the men on stage. The scenery behind them is now a mass of flames, and the rest of the chorus flees the stage. Alone amidst the burning scenery, Foy tries to calm the audience, telling them to resume their seats. After the fire, some audience members are found dead in their seats, but there's no way of knowing whether they remained seated because of Foy's instructions or because they thought the crowds at the exits would clear if they waited.
■ Most of the musicians have now left, but Foy tells the conductor and the remainder of the orchestra to play something, anything. They play the overture to the Klaw & Erlanger production of Sleeping Beauty and the Beast. As the musicians play, Foy urges the remaining stagehands to lower the fire curtain.
■ In the parquet, the audience leaves quickly through the lobby doors in relative calm, but in the balconies there's a panic as the crowd encounters doors that are locked or difficult to open. The ushers have fled without bothering to unlock them.
■ Foy now urges the audience to take their time and leave calmly, but later courtroom testimony from witnesses indicates the audience can't hear him anymore. He's drowned out by the shouts of parents trying to keep their children together, people screaming at those at the head of the line, and the thunder of a thousand feet frantically trying to flee the building.
■ Nellie Reed is still suspended above the stage wearing a gauzy dress. In later courtroom testimony an audience member says, "Her dress caught fire and it burned like paper."
■ Curtain operator Joseph Daugherty has now found the rope to the asbestos curtain and tries to lower it. It descends in slow motion until getting stuck, probably on a light reflector at the stage left end of the curtain. This end hangs some twenty feet in the air while the other end hovers about five feet above the stage. Since the scenery freight doors are at stage left, opening these doors would allow the cold air from outside to pour in under the highest end of the curtain.
■ Theater engineer Robert Murray runs down to the basement and tells his crew to shut off the steam boilers to prevent an explosion and get out as fast as they can. He himself helps a group of chorus girls escape from the basement dressing rooms through a coal chute up to Couch alley.
■ Murray then returns to the basement, calling out for anyone else who might be still in the dressing rooms. On his way back upstairs he finds Nellie Reed, who probably fell to the stage after her wires burned through. She is horribly blistered and possibly blind, as she is clawing at a wall trying to find her way out of the building. Murray leads her outside and turns her over to some rescuers, then heads back to the boiler room to save his toolbox. He escapes through the coal chute.
■ On stage the heat is stifling and filled with choking smoke. Stagehands use a heavy steel trapeze bar to break open the huge double doors used for hauling scenery into the theater, and Annabelle Whitford is one of many who escape through these doors.
■ The vents over the stage are closed, however, while the vents over the balconies are open. This draws the air from the stage doors toward the balconies and creates a fireball that sears everyone still in the balconies.
■ The heat onstage causes cables holding up the scenery to snap, and tons of rigging, lights and burning scenery crashes to the stage with the force of a bomb, crushing the switchboard. The theater is plunged into darkness, making it that much harder for those unfamiliar with the building to escape.
■ In the stairwells bodies are stacking up like cordwood, as those in the rear step on the floor-length skirts of women running ahead of them, dragging them down and then trampling them. Those who make it down the staircase find locked gates at the bottom.
■ On the north side of the building the fire escapes are unfinished and poorly designed. The stairs are so narrow that opening the lower door blocks those coming down the stairs from the upper door. At least 125 people die in the alley.
■ Firemen and volunteers spend the next several hours carrying the dead out of the building. An estimated 575 people die on the day of the fire; another 25 or more will die in the days ahead. For additional details on victims, please visit Iroquois Theater.com
■ Thursday, December 31, 1903. A blue ribbon team of architects and builders is assembled to examine the ruins of the theater and determine what happened, including architect Louis Guenzel. He begins his inspection around 10:00 a.m. and spends several weeks taking measurements, photographing the theater, and drawing up blueprints.
■ January 5, 1904. Four employees of the Fuller Construction Company are arrested for evidence tampering after they climb onto the roof of the theater to open the nailed down vents.
■ January 7, 1904. Coroner's inquest begins at 9:00 a.m. and continues for 16 days, with 180 witnesses.
■ January 25, 1904. The coroner's jury reaches a verdict and holds eight men for manslaughter, to be tried by a grand jury: Mayor Harrison, Fire Marshall Musham, theater owner Will Davis, Building Commissioner George Williams, Building Inspector Edward Loughlin, house fireman William Sallers, stage carpenter James Cummings and light operator William McMullen. For some reason, the building's architect and construction company are not indicted. Business Manager Thomas Noonan admits that 11 of the theater exits were locked and bolted. Two of these exits leading to the front of the theater on the ground floor were locked, three additional exits on the north side of the ground floor were bolted, three exits on the north side of the theater from the first balcony were bolted and three exits on the north side of the second balcony were bolted.
■ February 23, 1904. The grand jury issues its verdict and indicts Will Davis, Thomas Noonan and James Cummings for manslaughter, but releases the others.
■ July 7, 1904. A superior court judge rules that the City of Chicago is not liable for the fire and dismisses lawsuits estimated at $8M.
■ September 28, 1904. Defense attorneys petition the court for a change of venue to Peoria, which is granted six days later. Before the day's session comes to an end there are accusations of evidence tampering, and the lead defense lawyer is put on the stand for questioning.
■ March 7, 1905. A second grand jury re-indicts Will Davis and others on manslaughter charges. The defense motions to dismiss the indictments.
■ January 13, 1906. The court sustains the indictments and begins preparations for a criminal trial.
■ June 1906. The defense motions for yet another change of venue, this time to Danville, Illinois, a small farming community about 2½ hours from Chicago. The defense strategy is to delay the case with motions and hearings until the general public essentially forgets about it rather than face a jury while emotions still run high.
■ March 7, 1907. The Danville courtroom is packed, but defense attorneys introduce a motion that compels the state to produce the Chicago ordinances on which the manslaughter indictments are based. Since the ordinances are out of date, the judge rules that they are invalid and inadmissible as evidence.
■ March 10, 1907. The criminal trial comes to an end with all charges dropped.
■ January 1909. Five years after the fire, a lawsuit against the George A. Fuller Construction Company is finally settled out of court when the company pays $750 each to 35 claimants. More than 400 other cases remain unsettled.
■ April 22, 1916. A silent movie about the disaster called Realization is released. It's filmed in a Santa Barbara theater and features a cast of 700.