It started out as a gala performance of Two Orphans, at the Brooklyn Theater on Washington Street in Brooklyn, but thanks to inefficient and incompetent theater personnel, it wound up being the third worst fire, occurring either in a theater or public assembly building, in the history of the United States of America. http://twoplankstheater.org/
The title roles were played by Maude Harrison and Kate Claxton, who was thought to be one of the best stage actress of her time. Others in the cast included well-known actors Claude Burroughs, J.B. Studley, H.S. Murdoch, and Mrs. Farron. All would play leading roles in the tragedy that followed.
The Brooklyn Theater, which seated 1600 people, had been built in 1871. It was an L shaped brick building with its main entrance on Washington Street, and a secondary entrance on Johnson Street, a smaller thoroughfare, which ran perpendicular to Washington Street, 200 feet to the east. One block to the north was what was then Brooklyn’s City Hall, and one block to the south was Fulton Street, the main thoroughfare to the Manhattan ferries, which brought theater-goers from the mainland of Manhattan to the Brooklyn Theater. The Brooklyn Bridge wasn’t built until 1886.
The Brooklyn Theater had three floors of seating. The ground floor was called the “Parquet and parquet circle” seating. It contained 600 seats. The second floor balcony seats were called the “dress circle” seats, and they seated 550 patrons. The third floor gallery, which was called the “family circle” seats, contained 450 seats.
The top level family circle seats, at 50 cents a pop, were the cheapest seats in the house, and had it’s own box office on Washington Street. It also had one set of 7-foot-wide stairs, designed with a zigzag of right and left angle turns, leading directly from the street outside to the third floor. The theater was set up as such that the people in the family circle seats had no access to the balcony below, or to the main floor of the theater. This turned out to be their undoing.
The second floor dress circle seats, costing one dollar, had two flights of stairs to enter and exit the theater. One was a 10-foot set of stairs that led to and from the lobby. The other was a smaller set of emergency stairs that led to Flood’s Alley, a tiny strip of dirt behind the theater. The ground floor door to Flood’s Alley was usually locked to stop gatecrashers from entering the theater on the sly.
The ground floor seating was comprised of three price ranges. The least expensive was the parquet seating, disadvantageously situated on the side of the stage, and costing 75 cents. The parquet circle seats, which were in the middle of the auditorium cost $1.50. There were also eight private boxes, four on each side of the stage, which were the most fashionable and expensive seats in the house. Each private box contained six seats. Box seats cost a whopping $10 apiece, a kingly sum in the 1870’s.
Illumination in the theater was provided by gas jets in the lobby and in the vestibule. A few gas jets covered by ornamental globes were set on the orchestra floor. Border lights were set in a row along the proscenium arch, which is the rectangular frame around the stage. These lights had tin on the side facing the audience, and were covered by wire netting. Above the boarder lights was thin pieces of cloth that served as scenery. Some of these pieces of cloth dangled precariously close to the boarder lights.
As a precaution, buckets of water were usually kept on the side of the stage in case the dangling scenery caught fire. And there was a fire hose backstage that was connected to a two and a half inch water pipe.
On December 5, 1876, approximately a thousand people were in attendance at the Brooklyn Theater. About 400 people were seated in the upper family circle seats (an exact figure was never determined). 360 people sat in the dress circle seats, and 250 people sat in the parquet and parquet circle seats.
Edward B. Dickinson, who was seated in the middle of the parquet seats about five rows from the stage, thought the auditorium floor was not more than half full. However, Charles Vine, who was sitting in the top family circle seats, thought it was “one of the biggest galleries” he had seen in a long time at the Brooklyn Theater.