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Program page for the January 1, 1904, concert

During the Chicago Orchestra’s last full season at the Auditorium Theatre, first music director Theodore Thomas had programmed the U.S. premiere of Sibelius’s Second Symphony for January 1 and 2, 1904, during the ninth subscription week.

On November 23, 1903, the 1,600-seat Iroquois Theatre (located on the north side of West Randolph Street, between State and Dearborn) opened its doors with a production of Mr. Blue Beard starring Eddie Foy. Barely a month later, the December 30 matinee of the popular musical had a standing-room audience of well over 2,000, mostly women and children on holiday break. An additional 300 actors, technicians, and stagehands were backstage.

Just after the beginning of the second act, sparks from a stage light set fire to a muslin curtain and began to spread to the fly space. Very quickly, sections of burning curtains and set pieces began to fall to the stage, and even though Foy attempted to calm the audience, panic ensued (Foy’s account of the event is here). Patrons rushed to the exits—none of which were identified by illuminated signage and some were even hidden behind curtains—only to find that many opened inwardly or had been locked to prevent gatecrashers.

Chicago Tribune, January 3, 1904

Over 600 people lost their lives—more than twice as many casualties as the Great Chicago Fire in 1871—in this, the deadliest single-building fire in U.S. history.*

“Had Mr. Thomas known some six weeks ago of the great sadness that was to rest like a pall over the city of Chicago on New Year’s Day he could scarcely have arranged a program better suited to the occasion than was that which he and the Chicago Orchestra offered yesterday afternoon at the Auditorium,” wrote the critic in the Chicago Tribune on January 2, referring also to the Funeral March from Elgar’s Grania and Diarmid as well as the Transformation Scene and Glorification from Wagner’s Parsifal.

“The new symphony of Sibelius—[no. 2] in D major, and which yes­terday was played for the first time in America—proved a composition heavy with the mournful melancholy of the northern land whence its writer comes. . . . Mr. Thomas and his men threw themselves with exceptional enthusiasm and vigor into the perfor­mance of the new composition, which is of uncommon difficulty in many places, and the result was a rendition technically com­plete and interpretatively powerful.”

The Saturday evening concert on January 2 was canceled, as Mayor Carter Harrison had ordered all the­aters closed for mandatory inspection. The Orchestra’s next concerts were given on January 15 and 16, since the Auditorium Theatre only needed minor modifica­tions to meet the regulations. The January 2 concert was rescheduled for Monday, January 18, and Sibelius’s Symphony no. 2 received its second performance. The program was revised (likely because the piano soloist, George Proctor, was no longer in town) as follows:

Program insert itemizing schedule for postponed concerts

WAGNER Huldigungsmarsch
SIBELIUS Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43
BEETHOVEN Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72b
ELGAR Incidental Music and Funeral March from Grania and Diarmid
WAGNER Good Friday Spell and Transformation Scene and Glorification from Parsifal

In spite of the tragedy, the trustees of the Orchestral Association continued with plans for the construction of Orchestra Hall—ground was broken on May 1 and the hall opened on December 14, 1904. The Iroquois reopened as the Colonial Theatre in October 1905, but in 1924 it was torn down to make way for the Oriental, which opened in 1926. It was renamed the Nederlander in 2019.

*The tragedy at the Iroquois Theatre was a catalyst for the implementation of increased safety standards and ordinances for public buildings, including clearly marked exits, doors of egress that open outward, and doors equipped with “crash” or “panic” bars.

A version of this article appears in the program book for the December 1, 2, 3, and 6, 2022, concerts.

Theodore Thomas in the early 1870s (J. Gurney & Son photo)

More than twenty years before founding the Chicago Orchestra in 1891, Theodore Thomas and his eponymous ensemble—the Theodore Thomas Orchestra—were enjoying a wave of success. Thomas founded the orchestra in 1864 and after performing to great acclaim primarily in New York, he soon decided that traveling the country was next step in their continued success. The first tour began in the fall of 1869 and included a November residency in Chicago for three concerts in Farwell Hall.

“The first concert by Theodore Thomas’s unrivalled orchestra on Saturday evening was, without exception, the finest musical event Chicago has ever known,” reported the Chicago Tribune on November 29. “The light and shade of this orchestra are something marvelous [and] it plays with delicious expression . . . magical.”

Thomas and his orchestra returned to Chicago twice over the next year and a half, in November 1870 and April 1871. The anticipation for their returns grew and reception continued to be enthusiastic. “I think we cannot, any of us, be too grateful for such music as this,” wrote Peregrine Pickle (perhaps a nom de plume) in a letter to the editor of the Tribune on April 22, 1871. “It makes better men and women of us all [and] lifts us to a higher plane of enjoyment.”

Chicago Tribune, October 1, 1871

The Theodore Thomas Orchestra’s fantastic receptions during those first three residencies encouraged Uranus H. Crosby to invite Thomas to be the centerpiece for the grand re-opening of his opera house in October 1871.

Originally inaugurated on April 20, 1865 (delayed by three days due to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln), Crosby’s Opera House was located on the north side of Washington Street between State and Dearborn. The Italianate five-story palace featured allegorical statues overlooking patrons as they passed through a grand entry arch, and residents included music publishers, William Wallace Kimball‘s piano store, business offices, and art studios and galleries. The 3,000-seat auditorium featured a dome encircled by likenesses of composers surrounded by frescoes painted by the firm of Jevne & Almini, and above the orchestra was a forty-foot painting based on Guido Reni’s Aurora. The reported cost to build was well over $600,000.

Soon after the house’s initial success, Crosby ran into severe financial difficulties, and the theater sat mostly dark until undergoing a major renovation during the summer of 1871. On September 14, the Chicago Tribune announced: “The opening of Crosby’s Opera House, after the splendid refitment which it has been undergoing for several weeks, will be fitly celebrated by a season of Theodore Thomas’s symphony and popular concerts, ten of which will be given, beginning Monday evening, October 9, and ending on Wednesday evening, the 18th.”

On October 8, the “brilliantly decorated and renovated” theater was “lit up for the first time . . . for the pleasure of friends of the managers,” according to George P. Upton. A few short hours later, tragedy struck and the city was in flames, as the Great Chicago Fire rapidly spread from the southwest side to the center of downtown. Early in the morning on October 9, Thomas and the members of his orchestra “reached the Twenty-second Street station of the Lake Shore Railroad while the fire was at its height and left the burning city at once . . .”

According to Memoirs of Theodore Thomas, completed in 1911 by his widow Rose Fay: “Thomas was paralyzed by the announcement that Chicago was burning, and [Crosby’s] Opera House already in ashes! In short, they had arrived just in time to witness the terrible conflagration which so nearly wiped Chicago off the map altogether, and, of course, the concerts which Thomas had expected to give there for two years to come, were canceled. . . . he and the orchestra stayed [in Joliet] until it was time for the next engagement in Saint Louis.”

Advertisement in the October 1871 program book for concerts in Saint Louis

Over 2,000 acres of land were destroyed, including nearly 18,000 buildings and well over $200 million in property. More than 100,000 Chicagoans—roughly one-third of the city’s population—were rendered homeless, and it is estimated that more than 300 lost their lives.

“We got away from the burning city as best we could, and spent the time intervening before our next engagement . . . in rehearsals,” wrote Thomas in his autobiography. “We began by studying the finale of [Wagner’s] Tristan and Isolde, and I played it in connection with the Vorspiel (which I had brought out in 1865), for the first time in America [in] Boston, the following December.”

In Saint Louis, Thomas was invited to add concerts at Benedict DeBar’s Opera House, including a “grand extra concert” on Monday, October 23, “for the benefit of the Chicago sufferers, for which occasion all the members of Mr. Thomas’ troupe have volunteered their services.”

Despite initial financial setbacks due to the lost concerts in Chicago, the Theodore Thomas Orchestra would continue to mostly thrive until it was disbanded in 1888. Of course, this led the way for Thomas to establish the Chicago Orchestra in 1891 and serve as music director for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, proving to the world that Chicago had indeed risen from the ashes.

This article also appears here and portions previously appeared here.

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The opinions expressed here are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.


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