Under The Moonlight

79532328_10157780772611322_8835329309393551360_o-1Chicago was in full swing of the Christmas holiday. The Chicago Tribune highlighted several toys for the 1903 season, including polar bears in a sleigh, a circus set, a cage full of monkeys, a Gatling gun, telescope, violin-playing rabbit, racing automobile, flying machine and a torpedo boat. As many were preparing themselves for the 25th, however, no one was ready for what happened five days later on December 30. 

The Iroquois Theatre, which opened on November 23, was considered to be one of the most beautiful theaters in Chicago. Considered as the finest and most elegant theatre in the USA, it was promoted as completely fireproof and safe. As close to 1,100 patrons came to watch the soldout holiday play called Bluebeard, where one of Chicago’s biggest catastrophes happened.

Six hundred and two spectators, which included Chicago’s elite, the wives and children of its most prosperous businessmen and the flower of local society, were trapped in the theater due to management locking the fire exits and most outside doors to keep people from sneaking into the show. This fatality happened when a spotlight caused the notorious Iroquois Theater fire. 

Porchlight Theatre’s avant-garde The Ruffians “Burning Bluebeard” is now playing with a limited engagement at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts. The bittersweet true story that took place 116 years ago is an iconic piece of Chicago’s history. The comical and compassionate tale of “We just want to make you happy” brought tragedy to the beautiful Iroquois Theatre (which is now the site of the James M. Nederlander Theatre). Jay Torrence’s evocation of 1903 captures the disastrous fatal day of unintended consequences, entertainment, and fire reimagined from the inside out during one of the most festive times of the year. 

Burning Bluebeard tells the story of six seared clown performers who arose from the burnt remains of history trying to perform their spectacular Christmas Pantomime. Their goal was to reach a happy ending of their second act, avoiding the fateful fire that killed hundreds of its audience members. 

 79445514_10157780772511322_1479803356607152128_oThis unusual story is a frolic of sorts with a sensitive heart, which includes a heartwarming eulogy with tumbling, acrobatics, dance, music, clowning, and a sharp irreverent wit. Each performance speaking from the charred walls and seats in the theatre, tells a story in a vaudevillian delight that excavates the poetic and poignant remains of a piece of Chicago’s rich history.

It was a cold day in Chicago where mothers, children, and teachers, were on holiday enjoying their break. The patrons met their fate at the newly Iroquois Theater matinee show to see Mr. Bluebeard.  The musical dubbed as an over-the-top musical comedy starring Chicago native Eddie Foy depicted as the chamber of horrors told the story of Bluebeard, a man who killed six of his wives and hid the corpses in a murder room with a bloody key. The Bluebeard was hardly a family-friendly play due to its content. 

Nonetheless, at 3:15, fate took a turn for the worse, as the show began its second act, one of the special effects concealed as the Angel of Death ignited a spark from the stage curtains. With no success using the retardant to stop the fire, the flames spread across to the other draperies. Foy, who appeared in drag for his upcoming scene, tried to calm down the nervous crowd.   

Floy commanded the orchestra to continue playing as stagehands made useless attempts to lower a supposedly flame-retardant curtain, but it snagged. Out of the four-hundred performers that escaped alive, all but one (the ballerina) met her fate as the upper balconies burst into a fireball, becoming a Viking funeral. 

The tragedy of this disturbing story is much like the “unsinkable” Titanic; the “fireproof” Iroquois Theatre was opulent and brand new–a $6 million Loop playhouse enjoying its maiden season as it competed with Victor Herbert’s much more exquisite Babes in Toyland

81181730_10157780772301322_5298856665251053568_oThis tragedy that took place on December 30, 1903, will be forever etched in history as the deadliest theater fire within a single-building in United States history. All within 15 minutes, a quick intermission in the theatre world 602 patrons died, which prompted the fire safety to change forever. 

The six singed clown performers in ‘Burning Bluebeard’ are permitted a happy rather than dreadful ending, with the spouse killer Bluebeard adequately predisposed, which the children on the fatal date of December 30, 1903, didn’t get a chance to see. However, The Ruffians’ art has triumphed over the Iroquois Theatre’s senseless slaughter, and in perhaps their most exceptional offering ever, they get to deliver a Christmas present for all Chicagoans.

Let’s Play, ‘Recommend’ Chicago’s Holiday Legend a haunting tale, of The Ruffians Burning Bluebeard, where a fake moonlight sparked real flames. We suggest you read up on the history of The Iroquois Theatre and this play so you can understand its totality. 



Written by Jay Torrence 

Directed by Halena Kays 

DECEMBER 13 – 27, 2019


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