The exits of a theatre embrace all avenues of egress, including the entrance lobby, foyer, all passages and stairways, in fact, the various routes that the persons therein must travel to escape in time of danger. A theatre fire may become fatal within five minutes from the time of its discovery, and it is therefore vitally important that proper and sufficient means be supplied to provide speedy exit in such emergencies. Even if the alarm should prove to be false similar provision is necessary to prevent death and injury from panic.
The distribution of exits depends entirely on the plan- of the theatre and the nature of its site. The problem of quick and safe departure rests largely on a proper sub-division of the various departments, each sub-division having direct independent means of egress on both sides of the building. In no case should exit passages meet or cross one another. The number and size of exits must be determined wholly by the seating capacity of the theatre.
The principal avenue of escape is the entrance lobby, which should be well arranged and free from obstruction. An intermediate avenue, and the next in importance, is the foyer. The natural means of escape that a panic-stricken audience will seek is the one by which they entered and with which they are thoroughly familiar. This would be through the lobby and foyer. Accordingly, these should be planned large enough for such emergencies, and the most useful design in this connection for a foyer is that of a semi-circular inclosed passage surrounding the rear and the rear sides of an audience hall.
The foyer should be from eight to ten feet wide in the rear section and five or six feet in width at the sides (depending on the capacity of the auditorium). This will afford ample room for the escape of a frenzied mob in time of panic and allow sufficient promenade space on normal occasions. The building laws of the city of New York demand a space sixteen feet wide behind the last row of seats on the main floor as a means of escape. Such an enactment was possibly prompted by a praiseworthy desire to give ample room for the patrons to pause in their flight and ponder over the best means of escape, though this is a most unlikely action on their part.
The inclosing of the foyer passage will aid in excluding from it smoke or gas in time of fire and will also limit the sound area of the audi-torium during the performance. It will, in addition, allow the passage to be independently lighted and ventilated, both desirable conditions in times of panic.
The minimum width of an exit for 500 persons is usually five feet, with an additional twenty inches for each 100 persons in excess of that number. All exit doors should have panic bolts and swing outward, and each door should be plainly labeled so that no mistake can be made. Cloak room or toilet door should also be marked as such to avoid their being mistaken for emergency doors. In the opinion of the writer narrower exit doors and a greater number of them would be more desirable than wide exit doors. Two exits three feet wide are worth more than one exit six feet wide, as people are less likely to stumble in a narrow way and more people could pass through the two exits.
All stairways should be direct and of ample width. They should not lead to other stairs, and where possible should have the same formation on both sides of the building. All stairs should have uniform treads and risers to prevent stumbling, and all balcony aisle steps should be illuminated in the manner described under the head of "Lighting" for the same reason.
The factory law in many of our states requires anti-smoke or fire towers in factories and schools, but no law has yet prescribed the same regulation for theatres. Such towers, having large doors equipped with panic bolts at each level, would be far more efficient for a hurried escape than the open grille type of exterior fire escape now in general use. These towers, inclosed in fire-resisting walls, could easily be placed in the forward corners on both sides of the auditorium, in place of the unsightly stage boxes now in vogue, and provided with emergency stairs or even sliding chutes similar to those described for the escape of actors and stage employes. The remaining space might be devoted to convenient toilets, thus eliminating useless box recesses that produce imperfect acoustics. The vista openings now used for stage boxes could then be covered by ornamental wall panels that would artistically assist in focusing attention on the stage.
The dark alleys or open courts usually required by law in no way insure safety for theatre patrons in time of danger. These alleys, except where they provide means of egress for actors and stage hands, are a waste of valuable space. Terror-stricken crowds only seek ways of escape with which they are familiar, and nothing in the history of theatre fires gives assurance that these alleys are useful even for firemen.
The question of open courts is also a serious one financially. With a plot 100 feet square, valued at $306,000, an alley 10 feet wide on either side reduces the productive area to 7200 square feet, and a space of 2800 square feet, valued in the same ratio at $84,000, is rendered absolutely unproductive.