Been & Going

[Kicking Back with Jersey Joe] The Tragic Brooklyn Theater Fire

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Imagine sitting in a theater, enjoying a live performance one second, and then having to run for your life from fire and smoke the next.  Thankfully due to modern advances in fire technology and strict building codes, these types of experiences don’t happen that often.  But, almost a century and a half ago; a thousand theater goers in Brooklyn had their lives placed in jeopardy and sadly almost 300 of them didn’t make it out.


The Brooklyn Theater opened on October 2, 1871 near Washington and Johnson streets in Brooklyn, New York.  Being located close to ferries and mass transportation to Manhattan, the theater was able to bring in big name productions and actors, and featured packed houses on most nights.  One of the area’s most elegant and successful theaters, the design featured seating on three levels.  Each seating level was partitioned off from the others and featured their own separate entrances, so patrons could not socialize with or sneak into the lower levels with more expensive seats.  The parquet and parquet circle seating was on the ground level with seating for 600.  The dress circle, which also housed the second level balcony, had seating for 450.  The family circle, which featured the cheapest seats, was located on the third level with seating for 450 and had its own ticket booth.


Brooklyn Theater before the fire.

Brooklyn Theater before the fire.

On Tuesday, December 5, 1876, about a thousand theater goers were watching a live production of The Two Orphans, a French show, which was a popular show touring theaters at the time.  It was around 11pm and the play had paused for an intermission between the fourth and fifth acts.  The orchestra was playing and the curtain was down.  The cast had taken their positions.


As the curtain rose, the stage manager noticed a small fire off to the left side of the stage.  The fire was coming from a large drop curtain which contained a background image for another scene.  Part of the drop had become detached and touched one of the stage’s gas lights and was ignited.


Before electricity, theaters used gas lights to illuminate the stage.  Each gas light featured a screen that was designed to keep anything away from the flame.  Strict rules governed who could ignite the lights and everything was controlled at a gas table, which is similar to today’s light boards.  The table would feature valves that could be opened and closed to increase or lower the flames that would brighten or dim the lights.  The lights would be lit there by remote by causing a small spark from a flint (just like your gas stove).


The stage manager noticed the flame and called for stagehands to put it out.  While there was a fire hose and water buckets available, both were obscured by sets for Julius Caesar, that were stacked on the side of the stage waiting to be shipped out.  Nobody could get to the flames quickly enough and the fire grew.


The curtain goes up and the actors begin the scene, while the crew tried to stay off stage and battle the growing fire.  The actors spoke their lines and the crowd became aware of the situation as embers rained down on the stage as stagehands now began to beat the flames out with large poles.  It didn’t work.


The actors then fell out of character and tried to calm the crowd.  Many were already heading for the exits.  As the actors and even the stage manager took the stage to try and calm the panic, a large piece of flaming wood landed in front of one of the cast and it caused people to panic even more.


Some of the cast evacuated the stage and exited the side stage doors onto Johnson Street.  A few ran through a secret corridor that ran from their dressing rooms to the ticket office.  While two others, returned to their dressing room to grab their coats and became trapped as the flames quickly engulfed the stage.


The head usher tried to open the fire doors at the rear of the lower auditorium, but couldn’t as the doors were locked and rarely opened, leaving the lock was corroded.  Eventually, he was able to force the doors open and more people escaped.  However, this new inflow of air caused the flames to spread even faster, now out to the seating area.


The second floor patrons jammed their single staircase exit to a near halt.  There was a second exit on that level, but it too was locked and no one ever made it upstairs to open it.  Several people tried to escape that way, but were forced to turn around and head back to the crowd.


The 400 people that were seating in the third level family circle found themselves, not having to worry so much about the flames at first, but the thick black smoke that quickly filled their level.  They only had a single staircase as an exit that featured three stairways and a second floor landing.  The panicked crowd immediately jammed that stairs, with the smoke and flames right behind them.  Eventually, the gas lights in the hallway went out, leaving this exit a dark jammed mess.  People fell and many were trampled in the confusion, while those still at the top began to asphyxiate from the smoke.  More than half of the patrons sitting on this level succumbed to the smoke in a matter of minutes.


Brooklyn Theater after the fire and collapse.

Brooklyn Theater after the fire and collapse.

The Brooklyn fire company arrived at 11:26pm, but the flames were already out of control.  The chief decided to try and contain the fire and save the neighboring buildings, instead of just putting in out.  The fireman entered the lobby and assisted who they could to get out.  They entered the family circle stairs, but didn’t make it far as they stairs were filled with thick black smoke.  The auditorium was now fully engulfed in flames.  Those who were still inside never had a chance.  They did a quick check of the second level, where there were no signs of life.  Whoever had made it out in those few minutes were alive, the hundreds that did not … were gone.


At about 11:45, cracks began to form in the walls and the building collapsed causing the flames to grow even more.  The fire company was able to bring it under control by 3am.


The official report is that 278 people perished in the fire.  It is currently the third highest amount of fatalities among fire that have occurred in public buildings and theaters in the United States.


A 2013 Google Maps shot of the area, showing a very different Johnson Street and park.

A 2013 Google Maps shot of the area, showing a very different Johnson Street and park.

Today, nothing remains of the theater site.  Another performance house opened as well as a newspaper on the site, but the entire area was razed in the mid 20th century to create Cadman Plaza.  A monument in the park honors those lives lost.


Buildings today are constructed to much stricter codes that require fire doors to remain unlocked, add plentiful fire hoses, hydrants, and alarms.  I was once seeing a movie at The Waterfront in Pittsburgh one night and the fire alarm went off and we were forced to evacuate the theater.  I remember staring at the screen, being focused deep in the film.  Suddenly, the movie quickly went off and two white strobe lights kicked on directly underneath.  It took a second for the house lights to come up.  It was a disorienting experience and it took me a moment to understand what was going on.  In fact, I really didn’t until an automated announcement over the intercom to evacuate.  But, I can understand how seconds can come into play during a life or death situation, especially involving a fire.


This story also reminds me of the Station Nightclub fire that happened in Warwick, Rhode Island back in 2003.  The entire incident was caught on tape by a news crew, when pyrotechnics caught the stage on fire and burned the entire building in just over 5 minutes.  100 people sadly perished.


Monument to the victims of the Brooklyn Theater fire.

Monument to the victims of the Brooklyn Theater fire.

THE 411


What: Brooklyn Theater Fire


Date: December 5, 1876


Location: Brooklyn, New York




I found this story surfing the internet one night and it made me stop and think.  It’s always a good idea, just to take 2 seconds, and look for the closest exit when you’re at a theater.  While evacuations and incidents are rare, it’s just a good idea to know where to go if you must quickly exit.  In fact, that’s just a good policy in general.  We have disaster drills at work every few months that are mandated by the FDNY that teach us where to go and the several different options we have to exit.  Our fire alarm malfunctions every day, but I’m confident that in an emergency, I know several different ways out.

[California Seething] A Day in the Absurd Life

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Transcript of phone call between Eric & Ronni Sims- March 1, 2013:

Eric: The mayor won’t let them film COPS in Albuquerque, that’s ridiculous! I agree, you should totally write about that in DESERT DROPPINGS (SHAMELESS PROMOTION ALERT). OK, hey listen, I’ve gotta go. No, everything’s ok- I’m just at work. Yeah. Well, they’re doing a reading upstairs of this new play about a Mexican-American family during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Yeah, I know- it does sound interesting. Lots of interesting themes to explore there. Anyhow, they’re about to finish, so I’ve gotta strike all the chairs and music stands and set up the bondage mannequins and sex toys for the 50 Shades Red Room before the balloons arrive. What? Yes, bondage mannequins. Yes. Yes. Oh, sure, of course I’ll take pictures. What was that? You’re right- I should totally write about this.

Look, I know that in an Office-Parks and Rec-Community world, everybody thinks that their workplace would make just the funniest, quirkiest single Cal Seething-031014-parkscamera sitcom ever. While this means that 40 year old writers can feel better about their barista jobs because they can tell their worried parents that they’re “doing research” while they borrow money for rent, the result is a whole lot of terrible spec scripts and an epidemic of reader suicides. Don’t judge-you’d eat lead too if you had to read Coffee Shop followed by Post Office followed by It’s Totally Not the Apple Store Even Though We’re All Wearing Black T-Shirts and There’s a “Smart Guy” Bar at the Store followed by Office Max- about a corporate office supply super-store- where, get this, the main character’s name is actually MAX- get it?? Get it??? GET IT????? Hey, wait, that’s pretty good. NBC would totally produce that. I should write it. CRAP! I just killed a reader. Sorry, dude. I’ll tell your wife you loved her.

The problem is, despite what aspiring writers in workplace approved polo shirts may think, most jobs are more depressing than Cal Seething- 031014-dilbertwacky-not so much Parks and Rec – more like Franz Kafka guest-writing for Dilbert. And, to be fair, my job isn’t a sitcom either. It’s straight up Eugene Ionesco – and for those of you that didn’t squander your education by becoming Theatre Majors, that’s “theatre of the absurd.” Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with becoming a theatre major- hey- if you can spend 4-6 years saying “red leather, yellow leather” over and over again for course credit, lying on the ground and really paying attention to your breathing and rehearsing scenes from True West in your dorm room between gravity bong hits- then, Mazal Tov, Amigo- you win college. But, just a word of advice- if you do decide to convert your Theatre Major into an actual career in the field then get a temp job that makes you learn Excel- cause nobody in the real world actually gives a shit if you know who Eugene Ionesco is as long as you can make a budget for The Bald Soprano.  

Anyhow, the whole point of Absurdist Theatre is that characters are doing and saying utterly nonsensical things with the utmost Cal Seething-031014-binabeseriousness and conviction like Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar speech or a less bonkers version of CPAC. And doing nonsensical things with the utmost seriousness is exactly what being a theatre professional is all about!  Or, as Eugene Ionesco would have said “Cockatoos, cockatoos, cockatoos, cockatoos, cockatoos, cockatoos, cockatoos, cockatoos, cockatoos, cockatoos.” Because- when it comes right down to it, making theatre is about putting in absolutely heroic efforts to achieve utterly ridiculous objectives. I mean, just imagine you’re part of Seal Team Six only instead of being sent to kill Bin Laden, you’ve been deployed to help him alphabetize his giraffes. Or, even worse, to help produce his one man show about Abraham Lincoln- and, oh, did I mention it’s a rock opera? And you know it’s a terrible idea and that no one will come and that he can’t even sing, but you still spend three weeks frantically searching for the perfect stovepipe hat that’ll fit over his turban while you argue ferociously at a production meeting about the budget with the set designer, who wants to import lumber because it’s totally impossible to find enough trees in Pakistan to make a good log cabin- and if it doesn’t look 100% authentic, well then nobody’s going to believe that a singing Bin Laden is actually Lincoln. IT’S A FUCKING DISASTER.

Or, more to the point, imagine you’ve got to set up an S&M themed VIP area for 50 Shades! The Musical  and figure out how to share the space with a public reading of a serious new play about a Mexican American family during the Cuban Missile Crisis named Hope. Cause that’s actually a little more ridiculous- I mean, Bin Laden and Lincoln- well they’re both tall and have beards and were shot by Americans, so it’s practically like they’re twins – whereas Hope and 50 Shades! The Musical have absolutely nothing in common. 50 Shades! is a silly, fun and extremely raunchy show performed by a sweet, earnest, fresh-faced young cast that’s singing their eager little hearts out as they rhyme every possible synonym of penis and vagina- like Deep Throat performedtyler perry as madea by the cast of Glee. And the women coming to see the show- well, let’s just say they’re fanning themselves with their programs but it’s not actually that warm in the theatre. So actually, with all the well dressed, fanning, hollering women the whole thing feels like going to Sex Church or something out of Madea’s Bachelorette Party which is hands down Tyler Perry’s filthiest film. So, yeah, totally worth seeing for a good time. And naturally, a show like this needs an S&M themed VIP room or “Red Room”- which is a reference to something in the books that I am SO PROUD TO ADMIT I DO NOT GET. And the business to sponsor the Red Room- why that could be none other than independent, locally owned sex shop Pure Delish cause when it comes to nipple clamps, I’m strictly a locavore (pretty sure it’s a Mom & Pop cause one of the owners goes by “Daddy”).  Now, I’m no naïve little blushing kitten bunny, but I had absolutely no idea Pure Delish was a sex shop- I mean, I’d been by it a million times, but I just assumed they sold cupcakes- which I still think is a totally reasonable assumption- I mean, come on, it’s Culver City for god’s sake- I see Pure Delish in this part of town- I’m thinking Red Velvet not Red Room. It was only my devotion to the Sprinkles ATM that saved me from the unbelievable awkwardness of stopping in for a sugary treat at Pure Delish and being offered Cal Seething- 031014-delishan entirely different and far more disturbing kind of sugar from Daddy which I’m pretty sure is some kinda kinky sex thing or, at least, Def Leppard seems to think so.

Anyhow, a few days before the first 50 Shades! performance we picked up the disassembled mannequins from Pure Delish using a dirty old white van (just for extra creepiness) and, let me tell you, you don’t know what it means to be thankful you’re white until you’re driving through LA in a white van full of body parts- especially cause all the mannequins were white women. When we got to the theatre, Cat, the store’s owner (I may have slightly exaggerated about Daddy #poeticlicense #itstheonlylicenseicanget) guided me and a couple of my male staff members through the process of assembling the mannequins with the infinite patience and kindness of an American Julie Andrews- if Julie Andrews was a petite dominatrix in colorful yoga pants teaching arts and crafts at a Special Needs S&M Summer Camp. Actually, I was the only Special Needs student there. Both of my staff were surprisingly adept at putting the women together from spare body parts and dressing them proactively. One of them in particular was particularly adept. Disturbingly adept. Adept in a Criminal Minds, don’t go in the crawl space, it puts the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again sort of way. I mean, I don’t like to judge, but he named his mannequin Gladys and I think they went to see Her together. For me, though, the whole thing was just a giant Elementary School Arts & Crafts anxiety nightmare. Like all of a sudden, I’m eight years old again, tears of frustration in my eyes, fingers all stuck together with Elmer’s glue, a pile of busted up popsicle sticks on the table in front of me glued together in every which way but the right one and all around me perfect little girls with perfect little collars up and perfect little bows in their hair and perfect little popsicle stick houses in front of them while I sit in the middle with my popsicle stick shitbox like that trashy house in the perfect suburban subdivision that everybody whispers about with the unwashed, homeschooled kids of indeterminate age and number who were never allowed to play street football with the rest of the kids but just looked out the window with the dead eyed curiosity of Russian orphans, the fleshy wife with the tired eyes and tight-lipped smile whose washed-out floral pattern bathrobe showed just enough cleavage to make her an unspoken masturbation favorite of all the neighborhood boys and the scary guy with a beard like a red-eyed angry Jesus with a beer belly and, yes, I realize I’m getting pretty far afield but if you made popsicle stick houses that were this evocative of The Virgin Suicides YOU WOULD HAVE ANXIETY NIGHTMARES ABOUT ARTS & CRAFTS PROJECTS TOO.

So, as you can expect, when it came to putting the mannequins together, I was useless. Every two minutes, I was like “Caaaaat, I can’t get the panties to stayCal Seething-031014-poppins on” “Caaaaat, why are her hands in backwards”, “Caaaaaaaat my node id caught id da nipple clampd.” And every single time, Cat would rush over with her infinite American Julie Andrews dominatrix patience and deftly rescue me singing “Just a spoonful of patience helps the nipple clamps stay on, the nipple clamps stay on, the nipple clamps stay on. Just a spoonful of patience helps the nipple clamps stay on. In the most erotic way.”

So, OK, great. Mannequins put together. Gladys looking fierce. Project done, right? Well…not exactly. We still had to hang the Pure Delish banners; set up the 50 Shades! step & repeat (that’s the thingamajig with logos you take pictures in front of at press conferences and premieres and stuff- I know, right- there’s a name for those! ) for photo opportunities; arrange the S&M paraphernalia on the table next to the 50 Shades! step & repeat including a feather, blindfold, riding crop, mask plus a wrench and a screwdriver for some reason that I pray to God I never have to know; put out the gift bags complete with commemorative tie, lube, Pure Delish postcard and women’s orgasm gel (I tried some. Amazing); and set out the decorative balloons, because everybody who loves bondage also loves balloons I think!

So, OK, great. Room is set up. Project done, right? Well…not exactly. Because right in the midst of the first weekend of performances we had that pesky public reading I was talking about earlier of the serious play about a Mexican American family during the Cuban Missile Crisis- and somehow, the director didn’t think the S&M mannequins would work for this presentation, even though he did keep trying to give Gladys his number and offered to let her read stage directions #poeticlicense. So…on Friday afternoon, before they came to rehearse, we hid the mannequins, took down the Pure Delish banners, struck the step & repeat (you feel cooler cause you know what that means right? Right? Yeah, you do.); boxed up the S&M paraphernalia including the wrench & screwdriver (I DON’T WANT TO KNOW); stashed the gift bags, popped the balloons and brought out chairs, music stands and a keyboard. Red Room becomes Reading Room- Ta Da!

Of course- after rehearsal – we had to strike the music stands, move the keyboard, put away the chairs, hang the banner, pose the mannequins, put out the step & repeat (go on- use it in a sentence. You know you want to) , set up the S&M props including the wrench and screwdriver (LALALLALALA I CAN’T HEAR YOU I CAN’T HEAR YOU), set the gift bags back out, and put out the fucking balloons. Hurray fucking balloons!!

Then, Saturday, early in the morning…well I think you can guess. Banner, mannequins, step & repeat,  S&M paraphernalia, gift bags, balloons- OUT! Chairs, music stands, keyboard- IN! Serious reading about Mexican American family during the Cuban Missile Crisis GO!!

Which brings me back to that phone call to my mother, right where we started. The reading was about to end and I was tired. All I wanted to do was just restore the Red Room one more time and get the fuck out. And everything had been going so smoothly. We were practically home free. Just one more time- chairs, music stands, keyboard – OUT! Banner, mannequins, step & repeat, S&M props, gift bags and balloons…wait a second….where the fuck are the balloons??? What do you mean the new balloons haven’t been delivered yet?? How is that fucking possible??? Don’t these people know I want to go home????? How many question marks do I need to use to show just how FUCKING UNACCEPTABLE THIS IS????????????????????????????? ????????? QUESTION MARKS????????????????????????

Half an hour dragged by. I called the florist. They said the balloons were coming. They lied. Half an hour dragged by. I called the florist. I said terrible things. I screamed, I railed, I pleaded with desperation like a soldier in the Korengal valley covered in blood screaming into the radio for a Medevac while he watches his buddy bleeding to death on the hot sand only I was screaming cause the goddamn delivery of decorative balloons for my bondage themed 50 Shades VIP room was a motherfucking hour late and that shit was LIFE AND DEATH. GET ME MY FUCKING BALLOONS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! GET SOME !!!!!!!!!GET SOME!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Balloons, that is.

So, anyhow, a few minutes later, the balloons arrived, we set them up and left. Everything was fine. The way it always it. Cause that’s the other thing to know about theatre- we live in a constant state of narrowly averted disaster. And you would think that would mean I would calm down and relax a little cause I know things are going to work out and, sure, that’s what a rational person would do but if I was a rational person I WOULDN’T HAVE MAJORED IN DRAAAAAAAMA.

So what’s the point? No point. What, did somebody tell you there was going to be a point? Weren’t you paying attention? Music stands go out, bondage mannequins go in, balloons show up, I go home. Cockatoos, cockatoos, cockatoos, cockatoos, cockatoos, cockatoos, cockatoos, cockatoos, cockatoos, cockatoos.

So how do we cope with the meaninglessness? Me, I like to attend City Council meetings. There’s nothing like taking an active role in government to remind me just how much I love theatre. At a recent Council Meeting, a local man got up with his well worn yellow Legal pad and said: “I live at the corner of ______ and __________  and for the last 20 years, I’ve been coming before you to say we need a stop light. Well, last night, the long awaited accident finally happened- and while nobody was hurt, I urge you to take action.” And the Council naturally reacted like this was a serious problem but all I could think was- “Dude, that’s great! You have one little accident every 20 years- you’ve gotta live on the safest fucking street corner in America! You don’t need a stop light- you need a plaque and a parade in your honor!” And, talk about theatre of the absurd- check out these little dialogue snippets from last night’s meeting:

“Is there a special notification list for trees?”

“That would just be the initial initiation of an initial plan”

Are you kidding me? That’s straight out of Ionesco’s Twitter feed #cockatoos. He missed his calling as a playwright- he should have just run for mayor. As for me, I’m just gonna stay back at the theatre. With Gladys. Where it’s safe. Well, relatively speaking. I still don’t know what that wrench is for- but I’ve got a sinking feeling I’m gonna be around long enough to find out. At least I don’t live in Albuquerque. I hear the mayor won’t even let them film COPS there. Now THAT’S absurd. (SHAMELESS PROMOTION ALERT.)







[From the Trenches] Deck Audio

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The meters start to blur together after a while.

So many meters.

Hey folks! I’m gonna cycle through a variety of hats I’ve worn in the past from the trenches of backstage theatre. Let’s have a look at all the unique and delightful personalities that were never happy just working real jobs. Starting off is one near and dear to me, the Deck Sound. It’s usually a doo rag or skull cap.

Deck audio. These are the pale folk who are responsible for strapping invisible microphones to sexy girls and sweaty guys. The job is slightly more invasive than “TSA Screener” and involves slightly more embarrassing pawing-up-on-of grannies and exposure to radiation, albeit in the form of wireless transmitters and receivers (which, for layman’s sake, I’ll refer to as “sprinkle pixie magic talk-talk box,” because explaining how they actually work makes slightly less sense).

The enemy? Sweat. A single, wayward drip of sweat can be the difference between a solo like whoa and a no-go show. At any point in the performance, the natural juices produced by performers performing may collectively overwhelm ridiculously expensive, sophisticated technology and wreak audio sweaty hell on earth.

Typical show procedure involves waiting backstage in mortal fear, cresting before each expensive lead performer’s big production number. Salty little fuckers perch on the tip of a practically disposable microphone, playfully toying with the thought of ruining your day. It can drop at any point, although likely when most deleterious to your career. It then becomes the deck audio person’s job to dive into the performer’s unmentionables and wrestle out whatever pertinent technology they have successfully destroyed this performance, only to instantly and invisibly replace it before the next time they are expected on stage. Most performers I’ve worked with are amicable to this, but I’ve always imagined the life of a professional performer to be rife with moments of career-critical stripping.

Consider this: hundreds of thousands of dollars and hours have been invested in design and development. We now have the best wireless microphones we’ve ever had in the history of humanity, barring some sort of lost Egyptian technology using, perhaps, reeds and crocodile paste. It’s a triumph of the human spirit that talented performers continue to innovate methods for completely destroying our technology simply by using it.

Were I to paint with a broad stroke, I suppose I would suggest working deck sound is a bit like chasing a pink unicorn made entirely of marshmallows through a crowd of sugar-starved eight-year-olds: at times, peculiar in retrospect. That said, there are precious few professions for cisgendered heterosexual males with non-medical technical training to paw with impunity through the undergarments of attractive young women and be thanked for the effort. Nothing’s really all bad, I suppose.