When the first patrons arrived at the new Girard Avenue Theatre on March 30th, 1891, they entered through an ornate tin and cast iron facade on Girard Avenue followed by three slender Rococo lobbies that led to the spacious 80 by 132 foot, 900-seat auditorium. The brilliant room with its two horseshoe-shaped balconies decorated with plaster forms and 70 foot frescoed ceiling was painted blue, silver, and white. The large stage was separated from the audience by an asbestos curtain.
This curtain was the latest in fire safety technology. It consisted of woven asbestos fibers covered by a coat of oil asbestos paint on both sides. The curtain extended into 18-inch channels dug into the walls on each side of the stage. Sounds pretty good, right? Well, it didn’t work. On October 28th, 1903, at 3:30AM, an electrical fire consumed the stage, with flames popping out of the rear stage windows and the two skylights 90 feet above. The curtain failed about 20 minutes after the fire was reported when a girder from the roof fell into an iron support bar that was already softened from the extreme heat. The fire ended up taking down half the building.
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