Today in Theatre History: THE GREAT RICHMOND THEATRE FIRE–December 26, 1811

The great RIchmond theatre fire of 1811.

The great Richmond Theatre fire of 1811.

On this day in theatre history—December 26, 1811—occurred one of the greatest theatre calamities in American history: the infamous Richmond Theatre Fire. At the time, it was the worst urban disaster ever in the U.S., killing 72 in all. The fire started after the first act, when a young stagehand, apparently under the thoughtless direction of an overbearing actor, raised the front chandelier before extinguishing the candles. As the chandelier moved up into the fly loft, it set fire to hanging scenery (35 sets in all). The fire spread quickly, as most theatre fires do, filling the house with thick black smoke. The auditorium, nearly sold out, contained 518 adults and 80 children enjoying a Christmas pantomime that had been delayed from the 23rd,, ensuring a full house. Among the audience were a number of Virginia’s political and social elite. Though the facility contained several exits, the doors and hallways were too narrow to accommodate a sudden mass exodus. Many victims were pushed to their deaths from the upper galleries, while others were crushed in the panic downstairs. Among those killed was Virginia’s governor, G. W. Smith.

Monumental Church as it looks today on the site of the 1811 fire.

Monumental Church as it looks today on the site of the 1811 fire.

Helping to save as many as a dozen people, Gilbert Hunt—a blacksmith and slave whose shop was next door to the theatre—stood outside catching patrons as they jumped from the upper windows. In the immediate aftermath, overzealous ministers and moralists cited the disaster as concrete proof that the theatre was an evil institution and that God was clearly displeased by such frivolous entertainments in their city. As a memorial to those killed (and perhaps as an appeasement to an angry and anti-theatrical god), Monumental Church was built on the site in 1814 where it still stands today. A new theatre was constructed a few blocks away a few years later, this time with the latest technological innovation: gas lighting. But Richmond—once a popular center for the commercial stage (George Washington and his brother were regular attendees)—never regained its status as the South’s premiere theatrical city. Instead, Baltimore took over as the region’s top theatre city, where eventually a young John Wilkes Booth would quickly rise to become the most famous of southern matinee idols.

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