Empire Palace Theatre Fire, Edinburgh, 1911
‘Lafayette lived a man of mystery, and he has died a man
of mystery, and he must remain … a man of mystery’
The Scotsman, 16th June 1911.
On 9th May 1911, a fire started through electrical light failure above the stage of the Empire Palace Theatre on Nicolson Street, Edinburgh. The fire occurred at the end of The Lion’s Bride, a spectacular show performed by the world-famous illusionist The Great Lafayette and his touring company.. The stage was decorated with combustible scenery, including paper lanterns, open candles, cushions and divans, which caught fire instantly.
Newspapers reported an orderly evacuation of the 3,000-strong audience within minutes, whilst the orchestra played the National Anthem. On the stage, a different story unfolded. The fireproof curtain got stuck whilst lowering, allowing the flames to spread quickly. Stage exits were locked. Victims, including two child actors and Lafayette himself, were identified from their belongings.
Lafayette’s body was cremated at Glasgow before burial in Piershill Cemetery, Edinburgh, in a plot with his loyal dog, Beauty, who died days before the fire. It transpired that this was actually his body double after Lafayette’s remains were discovered, wearing his trademark gold rings. He too was cremated and his ashes interred following a funeral procession which brought Princes Street to a standstill.
The fire proved the value of safety precautions for audiences whilst also highlighting the need to protect performers. Campaigners called for sprinklers to be installed above stages, yet Edinburgh’s justices resisted demands to legislate. The theatre’s architect made structural alterations to the building, utilising fireproof construction materials and installing fire-resisting exit doors with panic bolts for performers.
True to the phrase that “The show must go on", Lafayette’s company was taken over by his leading lady, Lalla Selbini, who narrowly survived the fire. She toured a new show, A Carnival of Conjuring, across Britain and North America, keeping her friend’s flame burning.
Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive
An African lion and Arabian horse died in the fire. Lafayette was rumoured to have perished attempting to save them. The identities of other performers pictured is unclear. Whilst there is some evidence to suggest there may have been Black actors, it seems possible that some performers wore racist make-up known as ‘blackface’.
Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved.
With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive.
Less than two decades later, on New Year’s Eve in 1929, a smoking film canister during a children’s matinee screening at Paisley’s Glen Cinema, coupled with a shortage of exits, caused panic amongst its audience. This memorial to the 71 young victims was unveiled in a local cemetery.
Glen Cinema Memorial by paisleyorguk is licensed under CC BY 2.0.