John Ripley Freeman.

On the safeguarding of life in theaters; being a study from the standpoint of an engineer online

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Second, to provide a better track and trucks and arrange the
joints so that the leakage of air through the clearance space would
not tempt the janitor to close the space by something that may
interfere with the sliding open. Common cotton fabric garden
hose, paraffined outside and with an elastic lining or with a thin
wire spiral inserted, meets the need for a yielding, non-adhesive
packing, if applied as shown.

A third sketch, Fig. 7, shows an arrangement of a safety ven-
tilating shutter that sometimes can be conveniently placed in the
brick wall near the top of the rigging loft.

It is dangerous economy to be niggardly about providing the
best design and workmanship for the smoke vents, because these
are the most important of all the structural safeguards to life in
a theater.


The second safeguard in order of importance is, in my opinion,
complete equipment with automatic sprinklers over the stage
and throughout all rooms and nooks and corners except in the

It is now twenty-five years since a former vice-president of
this Society, the late Col. Thos. J. Borden, of Fall River, intro-



duced automatic sprinklers in two Fall Ki^er cotton mills under his
charge, throughout picker rooms, card rooms and spinning rooms.
These were put in by Mr. Frederick Grinnell, lately deceased, also
a member of this Society, to whom more than to any other man
crejdit should go for the development of this greatest of safe-
guards against fire. Since that time the factory insurance com-
panies have been slowly led by their wide and varied experience


of 25 years, in thousands of factories, to urge automatic sprinkler
protection as the foremost of all safeguards against fire. In the
beginning they were recommended cautiously, and only over those
portions of factories believed to be the most hazardous. Grad-
ually, as their merits were proved, they were called for through-
out wider areas, until it has come to pass that out of about two
thousand of the largest factories in America, which entrust their
insurance and the supervision of their fire protection to an organ-


zation with which I have long been connected, substantially every
ten feet square in mill and storehouse is under automatic-sprinkler
protection. We have records of more than a thousand factory
fires that have occurred under sprinkler protection, covering a
great variety of conditions, and from my own experience in what
sprinklers can do to control a fire under adverse circumstances, I
unhesitatingly recommend them as the best of all known means
for promptly controlling a fire that has once got good hold in
the scenery upon the stage of a theater. Like everything else in
the mechanical line, they should be skillfully put in.

It has been claimed, as a matter of intuition, by some who
have not closely followed the experience with sprinklers over
fires, that under the high rigging loft of a theater, sprinklers at
a distance of sixty or perhaps eighty feet above the floor of the
stage would be so remote from the flames that they would not
open with sufficient promptness to be of material service.
I am confident that this is untrue. The hot air from a fire
quickly travels over a vertical distance of sixty or eighty feet.
Not more than five to ten seconds' time would be required for
this rise, and the conditions for pocketing and confining the
heat to a small area in the top of the rigging loft of a theater are
much more favorable than in many portions of factories where
sprinklers are found to work successfully.

The rainfall from a series of automatic sprinklers carries ten-
fold more water than that from densest ten minutes of the heavi-
est thunder shower of the ordinary year.

With eighty square feet to the sprinkler and the ordinary
water pressure, this sudden artificial rainfall would be at the rate
of about twenty-five inches per hour.

One series of sprinkler heads should be placed below the gridiron,
and preferably another series above it, these not being vertically
over one another. Those in the top series are as likely to open
first, but it is well to be liberal and provide both series. A line
should also run along the lower outer edge of each fly gallery.
With care, a skillful sprinkler fitter can readily place and guard
all the heads and pipes so the danger of breakage need be no
greater than in a factory. The one hundred and sixty-two-de-
gree solder should be used and the piping should be on the " wet

* The foundation patents on the^e devices have expired. Half a dozen differ-
ent good makes are on the market. Under the somewhat difficult conditions of


Stage scenery, while exposed to very rapid ignition, is equally
well exposed to very rapid drenching, and the fact that we have
so few actual records of what sprinklers can do in controlling a
fire on the stage is due to the few instances where sprinklers have
been installed in theaters, or have had an opportunity to demon-
strate the work of which they are capable. At least there have
been no failures, and there are several most notable successes to
their credit. The first was in a case where they had been put
into a theater because Mr. Cumnock, a factory manager who was
one of the stockholders, had been satisfied of their efficiency by
fires that they had extinguished in his cotton mill.

This was at a theater in Woonsocket, R. L, in which a gauze
piece took fire from the border lights prior to the performance,
and sprinklers opened under the gridiron sixty-five feet above
the floor, while other sprinklers opened under the roof eighty
feet from the floor.* At theaters in Philadelphia, in New York
City and in Providence, R. I., there have been notable instances
of fires when the audience was absent, from spontaneous combus-
tion and overturned lamps, in which the sprinkler extinguished
the flames, and from Manchester, England, a case is reported of
a fire in a " gauze sky," between the acts, extinguished by four

installing them about a theater the cost for sprinklers, pipes, fittings and erection
will average, perhaps, $5.00 per head. In factories the cost averages about $3.00
per head.

The heads are placed from 8 to 10 feet apart, and fed from the public water
supply or from elevated tanks. The cost of tanks and main water supply is not
included in the estimate above, and is liable to bring the total cost to $10.00 per
head in theaters, varying widely according to circumstances. In cities with low
pressure a large tank for water supply adds materially to the expense.

With a stage of medium size, say 40 x 60, or 2,400 square feet and 80 square
feet per sprinkler, 30 heads would be required on the ceiling above the gridiron,
and 30 more just below the gridiron. About 10 heads more would be needed in
lines along the edge of fly galleries, and perhaps 30 more beneath the stage,
making, say, 100 sprinkler heads for the stage portion of a medium-sized theater.

The dressing-rooms, auditorium, basement, carpenter's room and various odd
corners are likely to call for another hundred sprinklers, so that 200 sprinklers
would perhaps be an average equipment.

Some very large theaters have taken 500 sprinkler heads.

The saving in cost of insurance commonly goes far toward paying good inter-
est on this cost, leaving the safeguarding of life as costing little or nothing.

* This case was so complete an answer to the suggestion that sprinklers at
the top of a high stage are too far off to work with promptness, that I sent an
engineer to measure the distances and sketch the surroundings. These sprink-
lers worked so effectually that the wooden gridiron was not burned. The sprink-
lers appear to have put out this fire after it got away from the man with the
stage hose.


sprinklers thirty feet above the flies so promptly that although
the stage and scenery Avere wet, the performance went on without
the audience knowing just what had been going on while the
curtain was down.*

The reasonable safety of the public requires that automatic
sprinklers be persistently urged , followed up and demanded under

* Abbreviated from The Standard, Boston, February 3, 1906. At the Colonial
Theater, Jan. 20th, the house held a large Saturday matinee audience. Near
the close of the performance a strong odor of burning wood was noticed. The
automatic alarm and sprinkler signals worked perfectly, and when the firemen
arrived it was found that a sprinkler head had completely extinguished the fire,
which had caught in a box of properties located under the stage. " It should be
required by law that all places of amusement be thoroughly equipped with
sprinklers and alarms. There are several theaters in Boston not so equipped."

From report of Committee on Surveys, N. Y. Board of Fire Underwriters.
Nov. 29, 1905, Grand Opera House, New York City. About 7 A.M. fire orig-
inated in a quantity of scenery at side of stage. Cause unknown. Thirty-six
automatic sprinklers opened and held fire in check. The sprinkler alarm called
watchmen, who summoned Fire Department, which completed extinguishment.
That 36 sprinklers were unsoldered proves a lively blaze. (That fire could orig-
inate in a lot of scenery is interesting in view of the fact that law requiring flame-
proofing of all scenery is understood to be now enforced in New York City.)

At the Kensington Theater, Philadelphia, July 30, 1895: Fire occurred at night,
probably from spontaneous combustion in a newly painted drop curtain, done in
oil colors, and communicated to a side-piece that stood against the proscenium
wall. A single automatic sprinkler opened and thoroughly drowned out the fire,
which the owner, Mr. John W. Hart, believes would otherwise have quickly
spread and wrecked his theater. He writes enthusiastically recommending auto-
matic sprinkler protection for all theaters.

At the Providence Opera House on Sunday morning, September 23, 1900: Com-
bustion started in some garments left on a small trap below the stage perhaps
from a cigarette after the performance of the previous evening. One sprinkler
head located about eight feet above opened and the sprinkler alarm summoned the
protective department, who found the fire practically extinguished by the water
from the sprinkler.

At the Casino Theater, New York, January 11, 1900, about 8.15 P.M.: Fire
was started by the upsetting of a lamp in a dressing-room filled with flimsy mate-
rial. .Two automatic sprinklers opened and, it is said, practically extinguished
the fire, although the stage fire hose was also brought into service.

At the Queen's Theater, Manchester, England, on July 20, 1899: " As gas was
being lighted in the wings, a gauze sky caught fire and ignited several curtains
or cloth hangings near it. Soon there was a big blaze, but four sprinklers situ-
ated about 30 feet above the flies opened, almost immediately, and before the fire
brigade arrived the fire was out."

At White's Opera House, McKeesport, Pa., December 6, 1903: A letter from
the proprietor states We had a slight fire in the basement yesterday and about
eighteen sprinklers opened. Thanks to the sprinkler equipment the damage
to the building will not exceed $50.00.

At Keith's Chestnut Street Theater, Philadelphia: It is reported that a fire


the building laws and police laws until every theater using mov-
able canvas scenery has this protection over its stage. There
are half a dozen well -proved makes, and plenty of experienced
sprinkler fitters can be found to properly erect them.

Possibility of Leakage of Automatic Sprinklers.

A leading argument against automatic sprinklers has been the
possibility that they would break open when there was no fire, and
thus injure the scenery. We have statistics to show how ex-
tremely small this danger really is.

Our records, when I last had them compiled, showed that out of
a total of something over three million sprinkler heads scattered
through more than two thousand different factories, losses from
premature discharge were occurring at the rate of about fifty
sprinkler heads breaking open per year. This proportion of one
sprinkler in each sixty thousand springing a leak per year, ivhen
applied to the conditions in a theater that would commonly have
less than one hundred and fifty sprinkler heads over the stage,
although they were put in both under and over the gridiron and
under the fly galleries, would give a probability at any one par-
ticular theater of a leak over the stage once in four hundred
years.* Should we admit, which is not certain, that the danger
of knocking one of these sprinklers open by a blow is greater in
the theater than in the factory with its moving machinery, and
assume even that they break tenfold more often, it is plain that
this danger of leakage is no just ground for excluding sprinklers
from over a theater stage.

Our insurance companies do not hesitate to recommend them

occurred in one of the dressing-rooms, presumably by fabrics coming in contact
with gas jet, although this jet was protected by a globe. The sprinkler extin-
guished the fire without outside assistance, and, in fact, on the arrival of the em-
ployees no fire existed, but some dresses were burned and the cleats to which they
had hung were charred.

* Later, in going over the replies to my circular of inquiry sent to managers
of all known sprinklered theaters in United States and Canada, I find that cases
of the accidental bursting open of sprinkler heads have occurred in far greater
frequency than is found in factories. Perhaps half of the theaters reporting
have had one or more such accidents, due, in nearly all cases, to allowing the tem-
perature to fall so low that one or two sprinkler heads have frozen and burst. In
no case does it appear that any serious damage was caused. Obviously, these ac-
cidents should be charged to carelessness and not to defects in the sprinkler head;
and, obviously, an accident of this kind will seldom be allowed to happen more
than once in'the same theater.


for a packing and storage room over a quarter million dollars'
worth of delicate silks or finest textiles, and so little do
we fear the premature discharge that in the fire insurance we
guarantee against this water damage in our fire policies with no
additional charge. Our careful records show that we are pay-
ing for water damage by the premature discharge of sprinklers
and the bursting of their pipes and fittings from frost, blows,
carelessness and inherent defects, about 5 cents per year per
thousand dollars of value covered!

The idea that the fine spray or rain of water from a single
opened sprinkler head falling vertically and probably invisible to
most of the audience could produce a panic within the audience,
however much it might disturb the chorus, is too absurd for se-
rious argument.

Sprinklers, although not so generally used over the stage as
they ought to be, have been introduced here and there, and
in some cities quite generally. The great theater at Bayreuth,
Bavaria, the home of the Wagnerian opera, was completely
fitted up with automatic sprinklers eight years ago, 666 sprinkler
heads being installed. I now have the record of about one hun-
dred and fifty theaters that have been sprinklered. I sent
a circular letter to the managers of many of these theaters
asking for their experience. In no case did I receive an adverse
criticism, and in the majority of cases they speak in most ap-
preciative terms of the value of this safeguard.


The third of the safeguards demanding investigation is the
curtain for closing the proscenium arch.

With good smoke vents and complete automatic sprinkler pro-
tection over the stage, and with ample stairways from galleries,
it is probable that the audience could escape from a situation as
bad as that in the Iroquois, notwithstanding there was a very
poor fire curtain, or perhaps no curtain at all; but in theaters,
as in factories, it is wise to have a second and even a third line
of defence, lest the first happen to be inoperative in the moment
of need.

The fire curtain for covering the opening under the proscenium
arch in nearly all American theaters outside Chicago, at the
present time, is made from a heavy canvas woven from asbestos
fiber; and in English theaters the asbestos curtain appears to


have been steadily gaining in favor because of its less weight and
smaller cost in comparison with a curtain of sheet iron, stiffened
by iron ribs. In Chicago, because the failure of the Iroquois as-
bestos curtain, and with the excellent corrugated iron curtain of
the Auditorium before them, the Aldermanic Committee has
made the steel curtain the rule. Chicago to-day leads the coun-
try in the substantial quality of its proscenium curtains, and in
the present state of the art they merit little criticism except in
their lack of a positive down-haul and their need of better
holding and guiding in iron channels at the edge.

Like nearly all steel-ribbed shutters, these steel curtains will
warp and twist off their seats under ten to fifteen minutes of
exposure to a severe fire unless securely held at edges, and should
smoke vents be closed and sprinklers lacking and a back door
open, their loose fit would let volumes of suffocating smoke and
tongues of flame pass by their edges into the auditorium. With
the smoke vents open and the draft therefore inward, they will
serve their purpose until the audience has escaped and the
firemen have arrived.

Special attention was directed to the asbestos curtain in the
Iroquois fire from the fact that the curtain, although promptly let
loose, failed to fall ; because, as some say, it was blown outward
from the stage by the strong current of air; or because, as others
say, it caught on certain of the electric light shields.

It is a fact that the asbestos canvas soon fell as mere rubbish
to the stage, but so little that resembled a piece of asbestos
canvas could be found in the wreckage on the stage that it was
for some time believed that the curtain had not been made of

It is now certain beyond question that this Iroquois curtain
actually was made of a good, ordinary commercial quality of as-
bestos canvas, but somewhat thinner than the very best, and it is
doubtless true that this Iroquois curtain was just as good as those
which hang to-day in the great majority of our theaters. I
personally found fragments of this asbestos cloth in my first
examination of the stage while everything was just as the fire left
it, and later I secured samples which, although brittle, " rotten,"
or without cohesion of fiber, are in all respects similar to what I
obtained by exposing a sheet of new, thoroughly first-class
asbestos cloth to a moderate flame temperature for the space of
five minutes.


The asbestos curtain at the Iroquois theater was an utter failure
in three different ways :

1st, as already stated, it could not be lowered, and stuck
fast after descending a distance variously estimated at from


(From a photo.)

one-fourth to one-half -the height of the proscenium arch.
2d, the Iroquois curtain was improperly hung, being
supported at the top in part by being clamped between
thin strips of pine wood about four inches in width by
three-fourths of an inch in thickness. (So tolerant is the


public and so easy are public building inspectors, that I have
myself seen in actual use in several theaters examples of an
asbestos curtain hung from a batten of white pine to which
it was nailed across the top.)

3d, the asbestos canvas of the Iroquois curtain, when ex-
posed to actual fire, lost its strength and fibrous quality
almost completely, and became so brittle that it would
crumble under a very slight pressure, and became utterly
incapable of withstanding the pressure of a strong draft of
air, and too weak to hang up under its own weight.


The word "asbestos" has become, in the public mind, a syn-
onym for perfection in fire- proof material, but the investigations
now to be described have made me believe that a simple asbestos
curtain of even the very best quality will not form a durable and
certain fire screen for the proscenium arch when exposed to a
bad fire.

Any asbestos curtain may be expected to resist the ridiculously
inadequate test of the flame of a gasoline torch, and any well
hung asbestos curtain, if it can be pulled down, will probably en-
dure longer than the brief period of two or three or four minutes,
within which it should be possible to empty any theater; and
meanwhile it might serve a most useful purpose in screening the
flames from direct view.

In opposition to the failure of the Iroquois asbestos curtain we
have an interesting test of action of asbestos curtain and smoke
vents combined in the fire that destroyed the Girard Avenue
Theatre in Philadelphia, on October 28, 1904, and which broke
three hours after midnight on the stage when no one was present.
On the arrival of the public fire department, three minutes after
the first alarm, the flames were coming out of the skylight venti-
lators over the stage, which it is said were of one-eighth the stage
area, and had opened automatically. The firemen at first found
no fire or smoke in the auditorium, and the curtain hung there,
and probably with the aid of the cool indraft toward the stage,
kept flames out of auditorium for a period said to be fifteen
minutes. Shortly after this the fire somehow passed into the
auditorium; doubtless around the edge of the curtain or by the
curtain becoming ruptured by falling material. It is curious to


observe how this case has been quoted as a triumph for the asbestos
curtain, while the more important part played by the smoke vents
was completely lost sight of !

While I regard this record as more of a triumph for the smoke
vent than for the curtain, it is of great interest to note that under
existing conditions, whatever they were as to quantity of burn-
ing scenery, this curtain, with the open smoke vents of one-
eighth the area of the stage, lasted much more than long enough
to have covered the escape of an audience. In all probability,
this fire was much less fierce and rapid than the Iroquois and had
far less scenery on the stage.

In the United States asbestos canvas costs anywhere from
$1.25 to $3.50 per square yard, according to weight and texture,
and a proscenium curtain of asbestos may cost anywhere from
say $175 to $600.

In order to learn what difference there might be between dif-
ferent makes and grades of asbestos canvas, I obtained through
various channels samples, each one or two yards square, from
all of the prominent American manufacturers of theater curtains
and also from each of the American manufacturers of asbestos
cloth. I also cabled to London and had an architect familiar with
theatrical work collect samples of asbestos curtain cloth none less
than a yard square from the leading English manufacturers and
dealers, under instructions to use every effort to procure some
canvas that was woven from French or Italian or other than
Canadian fiber.

When pressed hard for the pedigree of their samples, no one
of these makers would furnish asbestos canvas under a guarantee
that it was made from anything other than the Canadian fiber,
and on chemical analysis, all of our specimens of canvas, obtained
either at home or abroad, were found to be of a chemical con-
stitution similar to that of the Canadian fiber.

The Canadian mineral is not the kind to which the name asbes-
tos was first applied and, strictly speaking, is not true asbestos.

The Canadian asbestos is a fibrous crystalline variety of ser-
pentine and contains about thirteen per cent, of water in chem-
ical combination, plus a little hygroscopic water; whereas the
form to which the name asbestos was first applied by the ancients
contained no combined water whatever.

There are two or three minerals of very different chemical con-

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Online LibraryJohn Ripley FreemanOn the safeguarding of life in theaters; being a study from the standpoint of an engineer → online text (page 3 of 8)