Chicago’s Iroquois Theater opened in 1903 on West Randolph Street. No expense was spared on the massive, L-shaped structure. From the soaring ceilings to the mahogany trim to the gilded accents, the theater was a work of art. It had three levels and could accommodate 1,700 people.
Owner Will Davis expected the theater to be complete mid-year, but the opening was delayed by labor disputes.
When fire-related safety concerns threatened to delay the opening yet again, Davis was irate. The deficiencies including iron gates blocking many of the exits – which were designed to keep people from sneaking in to the shows without buying a ticket – exits hidden by drapes, an absence of proper air flow, and the ubiquitous mahogany trim. The fire-fighting equipment was limited to an asbestos curtain that could be lowered onto the stage to smother out a fire and a half a dozen canisters of a bicarbonate soda compound used to snuff out residential kitchen fires. There were no fire alarms, extinguishers, sprinklers, or water connections; there was not even a telephone.
But corrupt city officials accepted bribes, including free tickets to upcoming events, and the howls of the Fire Department were ignored. The Iroquois Theater’s grand opening took place in November, to wide acclaim.