From Fun to Horror
December 26, 1811: The Richmond Theatre fire takes place. The theater was located on Broad Street between what is now Twelfth and College Streets in Richmond, Virginia. Prior to the theater being built there, it was the first Academy of Fine Arts and Sciences in America. After it became a theater, the area was known as “The Theatre Square” as coined by Chevalier Quesnay de Beaurepaire who was a French officer who served in the American Revolutionary War. The first theater was a barn-like building and opened on October 10, 1786 with a performance of School for Scandal. The building was also used for three weeks in 1788 by the Virginia Ratifying Convention.
On this date, a benefit performance was held for Alexander Placide and his daughter. The night’s entertainment was a double bill with the first performance being a play entitled The Father, or Family Feuds. Following that, a pantomime was scheduled which was called Raymond and Agness, or The Bleeding Nun. The benefit had originally been scheduled for December 23 but there was need to postpone it after Mrs. Poe (Edgar Allen Poe’s mother and an earlier benefactor of the theater) tragic death earlier in the month as well as Placide’s own illness, and inclement weather. Because of the holidays, this was the last scheduled performance of the year and the theater was packed. There were 598 people in attendance, 80 of them children.
The play went well and the pantomime began immediately afterward. This was the performance the children were more interested in. The first act went well and as the curtain fell, a chandelier was hoisted toward the ceiling with the flame still lit. The light became entangled in the cords used to lift it and the chandelier came into contact with part of the scenery used towards the front of the production. The boy who was operating the cords noticed the flames and immediately fled the building. There were a series of 35 hanging scene pieces and the flame spread, jumping from one to the next. There were other hanging pieces which also were set alight by the quickly spreading fire.
The curtain hid the flames from the audience but soon it was apparent the theater was on fire. There were several exits but they weren’t well known. A side exit was used by the players and orchestra, but few knew of it and there was a balcony exit that was a clear way out. But in the panic of spreading fire, many were pushed or fell as they attempted to exit and this blocked the pathway to safety. Some jumped from windows to escape but others congregated there too frightened to leap to safety. There were a total of 72 deaths, mostly women. Virginia’s governor, George William Smith was among the dead as was the former senator, Abraham B. Venable. The theater was rebuilt at a different location in 1819 because the exact location was used to build the Monumental Church as a commemoration to the victims.
I believe in the theater; I believe in it as the first glamorizer of thought. It restores dramatic dynamics and their relations to life size. – Laurence Olivier
All of the arts, poetry, music, ritual, the visible arts, the theater, must singly and together create the most comprehensive art of all, a humanized society, and its masterpiece, free man. – Bernard Berenson
Theater is, of course, a reflection of life. Maybe we have to improve life before we can hope to improve theater. – William Ralph Inge
Promises are like crying babies in a theater, they should be carried out at once. – Norman Vincent Peale
Also on this day: Kwanzaa – In 1966, the first Kwanzaa was celebrated.
Searching – In 1986, Search for Tomorrow went off the air after more than 35 years.
Zounds! Sounds! – In 1933, a patent was granted for FM radio.
Storming Scandinavia – In 2011, Cyclone Dagmar made landfall.
Thespis – In 1871, Thispis opened at the Gaiety Theatre of London.