The early years of cinema presented some real dangers to its patrons, including fires started from highly flammable film stock, bombings associated with labor disputes, and audience panic that sometimes resulted in patrons being trampled to death. The Iroquois Theater Fire in Chicago (1903; interior shown above) resulted in over 600 deaths, many from the ensuing panic. This fire had no association with movies, but highlighted the dangers of packing many people in a small space and the tragedies that could result.
Most of the stories below consist of excerpts from newspapers and trade magazines.
August 26, 1911, Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, Morgan Opera House. In one of the worst disasters in movie-going history, 26 people died when someone shouted “Fire” in a crowded theater, causing a panicked rush for the exits. Twenty-five of the dead were watching a movie inside the theater. Arthur McPeake was not. He was outside the theater when he heard the commotion and rushed inside to help. He was trampled by the crowd rushing to exit the theater. He was well-known in town as a baseball player and athlete. He was 22 years old.
The Daily Notes, Canonsburg, PA, August 27, 1911
March 31, 1907, Lockport, NY: In a fire that destroyed the interior of the Arcanum Theatre, Albert Phillips, twenty years old, a moving picture machine operator, lost his life while fighting to prevent the flames from cutting off the escape of others.
The theatre was showing moving pictures. The place was crowded with men, women and many children. The show had been on but a few minutes when someone yelled “Fire!” The audience was terror stricken. The fire originated in the lamphouse directly over the entrance, in which was located the moving picture machine. Phillips yelled to the audience to leave the theater as soon as possible.
While Phillips was giving the orders in a cool manner as to prevent a panic, his clothing was on fire. When the firemen entered the operator’s room they stumbled over the body of the youth.
Moving Picture World, April 6, 1907
December 30, 1911, Wheeling, West Virginia: The coolness of Amy Harris, 13-year-old piano player in the Lyric moving picture theater, prevented a panic among the 400 persons in the theater and probably saved many lives when some fool in the rear yelled “Fire” today.
“There’s nothing the matter, sit still” yelled the girl, at the same time playing a stirring march. Several persons in the rear had already made a rush for the single exit, but the girl’s action prevented a stampede.
Washington Post, December 31, 1911
March 6, 1926, Minneapolis. The Wonderland Theater was a non-union shop, and had had trouble with labor unions for years. It was a Saturday at 6 pm, with a packed house, when the manager of the theater, Edward Oliver, discovered five sticks of dynamite, wrapped in brown paper, with a short fuse attached that was lit. He tried to dampen the fuse, but was unsuccessful. He threw the dynamite out the back door into a snowbank. At this point, he could have run away to save himself, but instead he stopped the film and told the 200 patrons: “Everybody out the front way.” The bomb exploded a few seconds later, shattering windows in nearby buildings, but everybody in the theater, including Edward, was spared. The bomb had been planted fifteen feet from the front row.
Minneapolis Sunday Tribune, March 7, 1926
William Pare, Emile Massicotte
January 9, 1927, Montreal, Canada. Victims of a movie disaster more tragic than ever flickered on the silver screen. 76 children lay dead today, crushed or suffocated in a fire stampede in the Laurier Palace, a motion picture house in Montreal’s east end, Sunday.
In the rear of the mass, an usher, William Pare, fought heroically, but futilely, in the blinding smoke and intense heat to save some of the pinioned children. He dragged as many little victims as he could to a window over the entrance canopy and thrust them out in the hope that some were alive. Most were already dead. Almost overcome by smoke himself, he crawled onto the canopy and was taken to the street by firemen.
Another hero was the projection machine operator, Emile Massicotte. Massicotte discovered that many little children were caught in the jam on the one stairway. He forced a window opening out over the entrance marquee, and, groping about in the smoke and darkness, he shoved more than twenty-five children out to the open air, thus saving their lives. Firemen raised ladders to the marquee, and carried the children down, later assisting Massicotte himself from the theater.
Various newspapers; Motion Picture News, January 1927
Jerome Lynch, George Patton
Woburn, MA, April 13, 1930: The courage and cool headedness of a 17-year old high school boy saved 300 children from possible death or injury in a fire which swept the Strand moving picture here Sunday. The flames caused slight burns and cuts to 15 persons.
Five minutes before the curtain was to go up, Jerome Lynch, 17 years old, an usher and high school student, noticed a flickering back of the screen. He went to investigate with a janitor and found the curtain already had caught fire. Walking calmly to the center of the auditorium he announced there was a slight fire back-stage and asked the audience, mostly children, to walk out quietly.
Lynch and the manager, George Patton, directed the children to the exits, but as they did so flames shot up the curtain and curled along the roof, apparently drawn by a large electric fan at the front of the theatre. Some of the children screamed and pushed and a panic threatened to develop. Lynch and Patton succeeded in clearing the auditorium, however.
The two ran through dense smoke to be sure none was left. They escaped themselves just before their own exit was blocked by flames. As Lynch reached the street, however, he heard screams from the second floor rest room, reached by wooden stairway which was cut off by the fire.
Lynch climbed a telephone pole to reach the roof of an adjoining building. Aided by Joseph Cohen, the moving picture operator, who escaped from his projection booth via the roof, broke the windows of the rest room and helped six girls, one of whom had fainted, to safety.
The Asheville Citizen, Asheville, NC, April 14, 1930
Do you have any knowledge or pictures of these heroes, or know of other heroes that saved lives during movie theater incidents? Please share in the comments below.