THE general arrangement of a theatre must conform to a design which will in every detail provide for the safety of the audience. Safety should have at all times a predominance over all other considerations in planning a building of any kind, especially a theatre. In order to insure safety and to obviate tendencies that hinder safe construction four primary principles must be studied and maintained. First, the building must be completely isolated from other property. Second, the stage must be capable of instant isolation from the auditorium, by the closing of the proscenium opening with a fire-resisting curtain. Third, the highest seat in the audience hall must never be higher than the top of the proscenium opening, so that all seats will be as near as possible to the street. This is a condition adhered to in London theatre construction, by submerging the main floor of the auditorium below the street level. Fourth, and last, every department of the theatre must have two independent exits, preferably one on each side or one at each end, communicating directly with the street. The exits from the upper sections should have openings only at the top and bottom, with no intermediate doors to confuse patrons in time of danger. The entire plan of the house should be simple and symmetrical, each section being separated from the other.
Wherever possible, there should be visible signs of safety, not by printed notices that might alarm the timid, but by substantial construction designed to give a feeling of security. Where stability is secured thereby, simulation of stronger materials may be employed. For instance, the plastering of interior walls in imitation of solid blocks of Caen stone is effective, for, in addition to imparting a sense of security, such plastering is highly decorative.
A quarter of a century ago most American cities were without definite laws regulating theatre construction. Since then, however, the frequency of theatre fires has frightened the authorities into forcing upon the American public everywhere unjust and inadequate laws, that neither improve the theatre nor safeguard the public.
These unwise laws are not only bad in themselves, but they are usually badly administered by divided authority. A building department requires one thing, the health department another, the fire department still another, and a chaos of conflicting regulations is the result. It would be a far more satisfactory arrangement if all of these bodies were consolidated under some central authoritative control, whose dictum would be final.
Fire is not the only danger to which theatre patrons are subjected. Experience teaches that in most theatre fire calamities the great majority of victims have perished from suffocation as a result of panic, without even having had their clothing scorched. Disregarding the poorly planned theatres with badly arranged or insufficient exits and the theatres constructed with combustible materials, careful consideration should be given to the principal causes of theatre fires and panics.
According to statistics compiled by Edwin O. Sachs, a noted architect and an international authority on theatre construction, the average life of a theatre is about eighteen years. This same statistician says that the annual number of theatre fires in the United States almost equals the number of similar catastrophes in all of the European countries together. Serious theatre fires have an uncanny custom of happening in batches of twos and threes within short periods of each other.
The statistics of Mr. Sachs further indicate that theatre fires are on the increase and the yearly average is now close to forty. They show that over fifty per cent of theatre conflagrations have had their origin in or near the stage section, the immediate causes of these fires being defects in gas installation, careless or defective equipment for lighting with gas, unprotected gas lights, defects in the heating apparatus, presence of fireworks, explosions, faulty lamps, firing of guns, and errors in electric wiring. The introduction of electricity instead of gas has not lessened materially these causes, as faulty insulation and short-circuits have proved as dangerous as gas defects. Since the stage section is the point where the majority of theatre fires have their origin, it should receive the greatest amount of attention from the builders. The proper construction of the stage, its safe equipment, and the installation of the electric wiring thereon must receive the most thorough attention.
No doors, windows or other openings should be allowed in stage walls adjacent to neighboring property, because of the danger of fire from without the premises. The same argument serves against the legalized open court with emergency exits leading to it. Emergency exits, being rarely used, are almost useless and likely to produce panic, and should a fire occur in an adjoining property, such exits would be a source of danger, and the open court would become a disadvantage. For this reason European theatres are entirely isolated from surrounding buildings, and open courts not equal to the width of a street are never allowed.
In accordance with sane principles for stage construction the proscenium wall, protecting the auditorium from the stage house, should be constructed absolutely fireproof. Notwithstanding the legal provision made in many states that this wall must be built of heavy brick, substantial hollow building tile sufficiently heavy to withstand the high water pressure from fire hose is far better and safer. This is also true of other heavy walls.
The large opening in this wall through which the spectators view the stage is now protected, in all theatres, by a fire curtain. The best of these fire curtains are made of sheets of perpendicular asbestos cloth, sewn together with pure asbestos sewing twine. The completed curtain should weigh not less than two pounds to the square foot.