Fire burns Seattle's Grand Opera House on November 24, 1906.

  • By Eric L. Flom
  • Posted 9/07/2000
  • Essay 2651
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On the morning of November 24, 1906, a fire starts in Seattle's Grand Opera House, located at 217 Cherry Street. Opened in 1900 by manager John Cort (1859-1929), the Grand is Seattle's premier theatrical venue. The blaze -- which caused an estimated $5,000 to $7,500 worth of damage -- is limited to a small portion of the house. A temporary blow to the local entertainment scene, the fire will take on sinister overtones when officials begin to suspect that it may have been related to a burglary in progress at the theater.

Up in Smoke

At approximately 6:30 a.m. on the morning in question, half an hour after the night watchman made his last round, the curtains near the Grand Opera House's left tier box seats mysteriously ignited, and flames spread quickly up the interior wall. Gilbert Barry, a theater doorman who slept in a small room located above the right tier boxes, was awakened by the noise of the automatic sprinkler system and groped his way through the thick smoke to the box office, where he telephoned fire officials. A passerby who witnessed smoke pouring from the building also called the department.

Within minutes, firefighters and police officers arrived at the Grand. At first the smoke was so thick that they were unable to enter the building. They were able to open the front doors and a set of side doors, however, creating a draft that cleared away much of the smoke.

The Mystery Man

When firefighters were finally able to enter, they were surprised to discover that they were not the first to arrive on the scene -- a man with a lantern, identifying himself as a reporter, was already inside the Grand. According to witnesses, as firefighters rushed to put out the blaze, a police officer stopped the man briefly, after which he hurried toward the theater's business offices, kicked in the door, and grabbed the telephone.

The blaze was extinguished quickly -- most of the damage was done not by flames but by smoke and water. Even so, the heat was intense. Although the fire was limited to a small part of the theater, gallery seats some 150 feet away were blistered and twisted. "Manager Cort says that his automatic sprinkling system and the big iron drop door leading to the stage, and the asbestos curtain, worked perfectly," reported the Daily Times after John Cort had personally inspected the Grand.

"It was the first time that they had been given a positive test. When the fire near the stage reached a temperature hot enough to melt a small lead trigger holding the sprinklers and the iron door, the sprinklers opened, flooding the house, and the iron door dropped, making it impossible for fire to make its way to the stage where no damage was done" ("Grand Damaged by Fire").

Doorman Gilbert Barry had to deal with the fire's only casualty: A pet rat that died of smoke inhalation.

Given that the blaze occurred a mere five days before Thanksgiving, and with a string of touring shows slated to arrive over the coming weeks (holidays were busy times for local entertainment venues), John Cort optimistically told reporters that the Grand would be repaired within a week.

An Intriguing Twist

Once the flames had been extinguished and inspectors began to piece together how the accident occurred, they came upon an unexpected twist. According to the Post-Intelligencer, the fire was indeed an accident, but one which may have been caused by a burglary in progress at the Grand.

Upon inspection, police and fire officials discovered that a padlocked iron door at the back of one of the left boxes had been removed by unbolting it from the wall. The exposed passageway led to an inside door, behind which stood John Cort's office, where the house safe was located. At this door, investigators noticed three boreholes, made by an intruder who seemed moments away from getting into the office.

The burglar, the P-I speculated, inadvertently started the blaze, but did not notice immediately and continued his work. Alerted by the house sprinklers and general commotion, he abandoned the attempt and managed to scurry out of the theater -- hence the mysterious man inside the Grand when officials finally entered.

While running up the aisles, the man was confronted by an incoming policeman. The burglar identified himself as a reporter who had accompanied fire personnel to the scene, and with the theater burning out of control a few feet away, no one thought to detain the man to confirm his story.

Only afterward did police discover their error. Apprehension of the man was likely futile by that time. Their efforts were further hampered by the arrest of a plain-clothed night clerk from the fire department, whom they mistakenly believed to be the mysterious intruder.

Officials Downplay the Incident

Even with the burglary theory touted prominently in the Post-Intelligencer and Seattle Star, police, fire, and theater officials noted that it was but one of several possibilities concerning the events of November 24th. Although someone had obviously attempted a burglary that evening, it wasn't entirely clear whether the crime and the fire were related.

Seattle Police Chief Charles W. Wappenstein (1853-1931), after making his own personal inspection, contended that the man inside the theater was, in fact, a volunteer fireman, one of the first to arrive on the scene. "It is the belief of [Chief Wappenstein] that some youth who had gained access to the theater before the Leoncavallo performance last night remained hidden in the place and bored the holes some time during the night," noted the Times. "He perhaps may have been frightened before he got in and escaped long before the fire started" ("Grand Damaged by Fire"). Wappenstein wouldn't rule out the possibility that an employee of the Grand was involved with the robbery attempt.

Speculation then began that the carelessly tossed cigarette of a Grand employee may have started the fire. In the weeks leading up to November 24th, police had received several complaints that stagehands were holding late night poker parties in a room near where the fire was believed to have begun.

The Grand's assistant manager flatly denied this charge. "The report that gained circulation that the stage hands played poker in the house is erroneous. No games of the sort were permitted" ("Burglar Starts Fire in Theater").

Theater Bills Juggled Throughout Downtown

The fire played havoc with local entertainment bills. At the time, John Cort's business interests focused on producing shows rather than managing individual houses, so he had leased the Grand to local managers William M. Russell (1849-?) and Edward L. Drew (1871-1949). Both men were booking acts at the Grand and at the Seattle Theater, located at the northeast corner of 3rd Avenue and Cherry Street, now the site of the Arctic Building. (The Third Avenue Theater, Russell and Drew's original venue in the city, had recently closed its doors due to the regrading of the Seattle's downtown streets, and was close to being torn down altogether.)

Russell and Drew went to work shuffling venues. Attractions at the Grand were transferred to the Seattle Theater less than half a block away, and the aging Third Avenue was pressed back into service to accommodate shows originally scheduled to play the Seattle.

The results were a little chaotic -- the morning after the fire the P-I ran a photograph showing a long line of patrons attempting to exchange Grand tickets at the Seattle Theater box office.

The scene was probably more interesting at the Third Avenue, considering that the regrade had torn up the natural access ways to the theater. A special, none-too-sturdy scaffolding was constructed to enable both performers and the audience to get to the house.

The Grand Opera House in Decline

Ultimately, it does not appear that either the origin of the fire or the identity of the burglar(s) was ever determined. And despite John Cort's initial optimism on when shows at the Grand Opera House would resume, the theater was closed for nearly three weeks. It reopened on December 9, 1906.

Although a mere six years old at the time of the 1906 fire, the Grand Opera House was close to losing its status as the jewel of Seattle's legitimate theaters. After Cort made the Moore Theater his flagship house in December 1907, and after the subsequent opening of the Metropolitan in 1911, the Grand was no longer the center of local theatrical entertainment. Although it continued to offer a series of touring stage shows, the building was eventually leased to Eugene Levy (1878-1970), one of Seattle's motion picture pioneers. Levy transformed the Grand into a photoplay (movie) theatre.

Second Time's the Charm

The Grand Opera House survived the fire of 1906, but the second time around its luck ran out. On January 20, 1917, the theater -- long past its glory days -- went up in a spectacular early morning blaze that claimed the life of a firefighter.

The venue was destroyed, but the superstructure of the Grand Opera House survived, and the building itself was adapted for other uses during the ensuing decades. Once the home of Seattle's high culture, playing host to some of the best and brightest stage stars of the early twentieth century, what's left of the theater remains today at 217 Cherry Street -- as a parking garage.


Eric L. Flom, "From Footlights to Photoplays: Silent Stars on the Stages of Seattle," unpublished manuscript dated 2000 in possession of Eric L. Flom, Seattle; "Grand Damaged by Fire," Seattle Daily Times, November 24, 1906, p. 2; "Burglars Set Fire to Grand," Seattle Star, November 24, 1906, p. 1; "One of the Results of the Fire at the Grand," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 25, 1906, p. 2; "Burglar Starts Fire in Theater," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 25, 1906, p. 11.

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