Tuesday, October 27, 2015

#1,898. The Rhoads Opera House Fire: The Legacy of a Tragedy (2008)

Written By: Jaccii Farris

Narrated by: Jaccii Farris

Line from the film: "It was a tragedy that tore families apart, and devastated a town"

Trivia: It took a year's research to produce this 40-minute documentary

Keeping in tune with the Halloween season, I thought I’d take a look at a real-life horror story, one that occurred right in my own backyard.

If I hop in my car, I can be in Boyertown, Pennsylvania in a matter of minutes. I know, because I’ve made the trip many times since we moved to the area a dozen years ago. Both of my sons attended Boyertown Area High School, and for the last decade or so, my youngest has been active in Boyertown’s Little League Baseball program. Both the High School and the ball field are a stone’s throw from the corner of S. Washington St. and E. Philadelphia Ave., which, at the start of the 20th century, was the site of the Rhoads Opera House, the scene of a tragedy that decimated the entire town and made headlines the world over.

It was January 13, 1908, and all of Boyertown was abuzz about a new play opening that night at the Rhoads (which took up the entire second floor of the building, just above the town's bank). Written by Mrs. Harriet Earhart Monroe, the play, titled “The Scottish Reformation”, was scheduled to run for several nights. According to some reports, as many as 300+ people crowded into the tiny Opera House to see its debut.

Then, something terrible happened. Per eyewitness accounts, a bulb slipped from the Magic Lantern, which was brought in to project slides onto the stage curtain during intermission. As a result, hydrogen was released into the air (everyone remembers hearing a loud hissing sound). Then, someone on stage moved closer to see what was causing the noise, knocking over a kerosene lamp in the process. Within seconds, the curtain had ignited, and some claim the air itself caught fire. The building was equipped with fire escapes, which a few lucky people used, while others rushed down the back stairs. Most of the patrons, however, ran for the main doors, pushing forward frantically in an effort to escape the growing inferno. But the doors opened inward, and with the force of a hundred or so people against them, they wouldn’t budge. The fire spread quickly, killing 170 men, women, and children. In the blink of an eye, 10% of the town’s population was gone.

Released in 2008 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the fire, The Rhoads Opera House Fire: The Legacy of a Tragedy is a documentary produced by WFMZ, a television station headquartered in Reading, Pa. Written and narrated by Jaccii Farris, the movie delves into all aspects of this terrible event, from the stories told by survivors and grieving family members to the trouble the county’s coroner had identifying the badly charred bodies of the deceased (many were burned beyond recognition). News of the fire spread far and wide (U.S. Pres. Theodore Roosevelt passed along the condolences extended by the President of France), and resulted in several safety reforms that have become the standard ever since (all doors must open out, all exits must be clearly marked, etc.). Though it runs a scant 40 minutes, The Rhoads Opera House Fire is extremely informative; researchers spent a year collecting photos, court documents, and eyewitness accounts for this movie, and their hard work certainly paid off.

What hits you the hardest are the personal stories, some of which are quite heartbreaking. Hoping to surprise her husband Douglas, who was playing the piano for that fateful show, Olivia Romig traded her second-night ticket with her niece, who in turn gave her a pass to the ill-fated premiere (the only surprise poor Douglas got was when he heard that his wife, who he thought was home at the time, had perished in the fire). Then there’s 13-year-old Lulu Fegley, whose parents allowed her to attend the show unsupervised. Joined by her cousin, Franklin Leidy (who was the same age as Lulu), the two youngsters, getting their first taste of freedom, walked to the theater by themselves. Their loved ones would never see them alive again. It would be weeks before the full extent of the carnage was known; A few days after the fire, someone was walking past the Taggert farm when they heard their animals, nearly starved, making all sorts of noise. It wasn't until that moment that the neighbors realized none of the Taggert family made it out alive.

One area the documentary doesn’t touch on, though, is how the town and many of its citizens believe, quite strongly, that the spirits of the dead are not at rest. In his book Haunted Boyertown, Charles Adams III makes the boastful claim that Boyertown is the most haunted small town in the United States, and the Rhoads fire is the reason why (my wife recently went on a ghost walk, sponsored by the local Historical Society, and the person guiding it talked a great deal about the 1908 tragedy).

Though 100 years have passed, the Rhoads disaster is still very much a part of Boyertown, and in all likelihood, it will continue to be for decades to come.

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