On the evening of February 2, 1913, a crowded audience enjoyed a moving picture show at the Houston Hippodrome, a movie theater in the East Village. During the movie a small fire erupted in the projection booth. The fire was quickly put out, but not before it was noticed by members of the audience. A frightened boy in the balcony shouted “Fire!” and unintentionally started a panic that took the lives of two and injured many more.
The Houston Hippodrome had been opened in December 1909, in a former Protestant Church at 141-143 East Houston Street. The proprietor, Charles Steiner, and his partners renovated the church to convert it into a theater, turning the pulpit into a stage and the organ loft into a projection booth, but retaining the wooden pews as seating for the audience. Though the building was not originally designed to be a movie theater, Steiner and company also made changes to meet all existing theater safety regulations, such as adding fire escapes and enlarging doorways. However, the Houston Hippodrome received citations from the Fire Department on multiple occasions for filling the theater beyond its mandated 299 person capacity. With the huge population in the Lower East Side at the time, it was easy to draw a large audience to enjoy moving picture shows and vaudeville acts.
But the New York theater regulations did nothing to prevent the deadly 1913 panic. When the cry of “Fire!” was raised, the audience members rushed to the exits, ignoring or unable to hear the theater staff members’ attempts to calm the crowd. The patrons in the balconies hurried down the stairs, where some people fell and blocked the stairways. Those on the main floor rushed through the too small theater exits, which led out into the lobby that was full of patrons awaiting the next showing. As the doorways became clogged and people became more frightened, many lost their footing and were pushed and stomped. Two women were crushed to death in the confusion and 32 others were injured.
Irving Steiner, the projectionist and brother of proprietor Charles Steiner, was initially taken into custody and held on the count of criminal negligence, and the owners and proprietors were questioned by police and fire officials. But Irving Steiner was soon released, and no charges were brought against him or any others. When the Fire Commissioner examined the scene afterwards, he found that the building was in compliance with all safety regulations then in place, and that, despite the hyperbolic headline, the audience was not over the 299 person capacity (though other patrons waiting in the lobby for the next showing would have added to the total number in the crowd). But he also noted that similar fires and dangerous panics were common in small theaters throughout the city, suggesting that the current safety codes were insufficient. In an article about the fire, a New York World editor wrote pessimistically that “without change it [the theater] may be used for more performances, may witness more panics, may gather fresh stains of blood. It is deadly but legal.”
But the Houston Hippodrome panic did help persuade the city’s Board of Alderman to pass new legislation on theater regulation. The fire safety requirements were increased and the Houston Hippodrome underwent a $7000 renovation in the summer of 1913 to meet the new codes. The Hippodrome remained in operation until 1917, when it was demolished and a larger theater was built in its place. Today the Sunshine Cinema still welcomes audiences for movie showings in the space.