By John G. Hughes, Jr.
There was always a reverence in her voice when she spoke his name. Her
gentle blue eyes, framed by wire granny glasses, would then lose focus and
shift upward, searching for an image of a bygone era. My sister, Ann, and I
would sit quietly in anticipation.
At this point, our grandmother...we called her "Baba"...would usually light
an unfiltered Camel cigarette, blow out the wooden safety match, hold it
until she could touch the extinguished tip with her finger, and then
carefully deposit the harmless stick in the glass ashtray on her dressing
The mental connection complete, her eyes would regain lucid intensity. She
would continue the story. "Eddie Foy saved my life that day. Mr. Foy saved
many lives that day." She would then proceed to describe, in numbing detail,
the horror of the Iroquois Theatre Fire. She had been on that stage when the
fire started. She had escaped the disaster alive...over 600 people did not.
Her stage name was "Madeline Dupont". A nineteen year old showgirl, she was
thrilled to be in the Eddie Foy troupe. Foy had already established himself
as a marquee vaudeville entertainer, and to perform at his side was the quest
of so many aspiring actors and actresses. Add to that the excitement of
playing the Iroquois Theatre, the Windy City's premier playhouse, and there
is little wonder that young Madeline was ready for the ultimate adrenaline
rush of her budding career.
Over 1900 people packed the palatial six-story theater on Randolph Street for
the matinee performance of "Mr. Bluebeard". Heavy advertising throughout
Chicagoland had successfully wooed the holiday crowd, mostly women and
children, to the scenic extravaganza. Even Eddie Foy, the star of the show,
was unable to secure seats for his wife and children who had traveled from
New York to be with him for the year-end festivities. Foy had managed to
"sneak" one of his sons in for a behind-the-scenes vantage point. Father and
son were back stage when the curtain went up.
Act II, "Mr. Bluebeard". It was Wednesday afternoon, December 30, 1903.
Madeline Dupont and the other members of the octet stood center stage in the
darkened auditorium. On cue, an arc light high above the stage bathed the
performers in lunar luminescence. The eight couples strolled the measures of
the show's hit song, "In The Pale Moonlight". Suddenly, the rough edge of a
heavy scenery curtain brushed against the white-hot light. Just beyond the
reach of the startled stage electrician, the fire spread quickly through the
upper rigging. The disaster had begun. It would take only thirty minutes
for fire fighters to extinguish the blaze. The impact of the catastrophe
would live on forever...
Miss Dupont was the first among the cast to be interviewed during the
coroner's inquest. She testified "I first saw just a little bit of flame,
which was on the right hand side of the first entrance on the west, the first
drop of the curtain. It was just above the lamp that was reflecting on the
moonlight girls. It was a calcium light. I went back and got in my place
with the pale moonlight girls and the boys came out and sang their lines.
Then we eight girls went on the stage - as we always did - went down to the
front of the stage - and going down stage I saw the flame getting larger... we
sang one verse of "The Pale Moonlight" song and then Mr. Foy came out and
spoke to the audience."
With burning curtains cascading onto the stage, Eddie Foy bravely pleaded
with the audience to remain calm. Attempts to lower the asbestos curtain
were thwarted by faulty wooden tracks, and the safety device stuck midway
down. Foy directed the performers to leave via the stage door...and as the
door was opened, December winds formed a deadly wind tunnel, driving the
flames toward the audience. As the panicked theatre goers raced for the
exits, they found many locked to prevent gate-crashers. Those that were
unlocked opened inward. People packed up against the portals. Grim
obituaries were written for over six hundred unfortunate souls.
Madeline Dupont was one of the last to leave the stage. Her transcript
continues, "I went downstairs to notify the girls in the basement in the
dressing rooms. I called to them that there was a fire, and advised them to
run for their lives. Nobody was coming up then. Then I went out of the
regular stage door entrance."
Years later, my grandmother could describe, in vivid and dramatic detail, the
gruesome scene in the alleyway behind the stage door. As the performers
escaped into the cobblestone alley, hundreds of human forms rained down on
them, falling or jumping from fire-spewing openings above. Many survived,
their falls cushioned by those who had preceded them. When the smoke
cleared, 125 corpses lay piled in "Death Alley". Those ghastly images would
haunt my grandmother until her death in 1959.
Her real name was Adeline Josephine Curtis. Born in Brooklyn in 1884, she
was the third daughter of Samuel Cohan Curtis, a member of a well-to-do ship
building family in New York. Proudly, the family traced its heritage to
pre-Revolutionary War times in Manhattan.
At the age of 38, her father fell off one his own sidewheel paddle boats and
drowned in the Harlem River. Four years later, her mother died. The trio of
young orphans were sent to live with three widowed aunts. Adeline, who was
seven years old at the time, went to live with her Aunt Mame on 119th Street
in New York City. Aunt Mame and Adeline frequently attended the shows in
midtown. The lights of Broadway beckoned, young Adeline was smitten, and
fate and connections landed her in Eddie Foy's company. She was nineteen
when she started her show business career.
Even after her brush with death in the Iroquois Theatre inferno, "Madeline
Dupont" continued to perform with Eddie Foy. She was on stage with him as
late as 1912 in "Over The River". She also worked with other notables as
George M. Cohan in "Broadway Jones", Fred Stone in "The Old Town" and "The
Red Mill", Frank Moulan in "Humpty Dumpty", and Gertrude Hoffman in "The
Along the way, Adeline met a handsome, smooth-talking character named Herbert
Terra Jones. He was known as "Herbert Terry...The Welsh Comedian". They
fell in love, wed in 1914, and continued their careers together, billed as
"Terry and Dupont". Their names would share the vaudeville billboards with
the likes of Houdini, Will Rogers, and heavyweight boxing champion Jim
Corbett. They starred together in plays entitled "The Outside Inn" and "Land
of the Pyramids". Their's was, indeed, a magical mystery tour.
My grandparents savored the memories...and saved the mementoes ...pictures
and postcards, playbills and press clippings...they saved them all. Each
keepsake sparked a story, and each story represented a sure-fire source of
entertainment for "Terry and Dupont's" new audience: their adoring
grandchildren, Ann and me. Granddad would whimsically replay his song and
dance routines, his portly profile defying gravity. Much of his vaudeville
banter went over our adolescent heads, but slapstick sight gags always evoked
howls of laughter. He relished his fresh audience. Herbert T. Jones was
once again "Herbert Terry...The Welsh Comedian". He was the consummate
entertainer; he was the greatest grandfather.
In contrast to Granddad's effervescence, our grandmother's demeanor was
usually subdued, almost somber. On occasion we could persuade her to talk
about the good old days. With reluctance, she would begin. Faintly, with no
more than a whisper, she would say his name, "Eddie Foy". There was a
reverence in her voice. Her eyes would lose focus, shift
upward... cigarette.. match.. blow.. hold.. touch.. ashtray. "Eddie Foy saved my
life that day. Mr. Foy saved many lives that day!"