Iroquois Theater Fire, 1903
Today, a lot of people go to the theater during their Christmas vacation, which is why some of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters come out in December. The same was true 100 years ago, when nearly 2,000 people (mostly women and children out for Christmas break) packed the Iroquois Theater in Chicago for a matinee performance of the musical "Mr. Blue Beard." Although the production starred comedian Eddie Foy, the Dec. 30, 1903, show turned out to be anything but funny.
Everything was going smoothly until the second act, when a light bulb malfunctioned and set a drape ablaze. The flames quickly spread to the scenery hanging from the ceiling, and panicked cast members fled for safety as flaming bits of fabric rained down on the stage. Terrified theatergoers, serenaded with a dreamy waltz just moments earlier, stampeded for the exits as the stage collapsed and the lights went dark.
Tragically, many of the doors were either hidden by curtains or locked to keep people from sneaking into the theater. Those who couldn't escape quickly fell victim to the smoke and flames. When the fire department arrived, they found 575 people dead; some 30 more would die from their injuries in the coming days. The only bright side to this grim Christmastime tragedy was the implementation of many safety features we know today, including clearly marked exits and out-swinging doors that are always unlocked from the inside [source: Secter].