The Glen Cinema Disaster 1929

Brian Hannan

Film had a deadly secret. It contained a lethal ingredient. It was not that big a secret, as indicated in the previous chapter, the industry being fully aware of the dangers of using film based on nitrate cellulose and the big question really was: how did it ever come about that one of the most poisonous products known to man became associated with an everyday pleasure and risked the lives of hundreds of millions of people all over the world on a daily basis? Or that once its true properties became known that the industry on which it depended decided to favour commerce over caution, to continue using the product regardless rather than instantly abandoning it and insisting the manufacturers produce something safer.
Nitrate cellulose is today considered such a dangerous material that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has rigorous regulations concerning its handling. The HSE declared that nitrate cellulose was “extremely dangerous. It catches fire very quickly…hot, intense flame and smoke particles toxic containing large quantities of poison gases.” It goes on to add: “once it is burning it does not need oxygen in the air to keep burning” while “immersing burning film in water…could instead increase the amount of smoke produced.” 
This warning was produced in 2013. But in the nineteenth century when the material was first invented scientists already knew this. And so, too, in due course, did cinema operators and film makers, and despite the various disasters and loss of life that use of such material aused nobody thought fit to impose an immediate ban.
Nitrocellulose was discovered by accident. German-Swiss chemist Christian Friedrich Schonbein was at home in his kitchen in Basle, presumably doing an experiment since this material is hardly stored in such a place, when he spilled a mixture of nitric acid on the wooden table and cleaned it up with a cotton apron. He hung the cloth on the stove to dry. Once it was dry it ignited in a flash – hence the reason for being called flash cotton or gun cotton. In 1868 American scientist John Wesley Hyatt created celluloid to be used as photographic film. 
The material was highly volatile. In fact volatility was part of the attraction when used for more relevant purposes. Gun cotton was suitable for blasting and in due course was used as the explosive in the warheads of torpedoes.
Michael Binder in Light Affliction: A History of Film Preservation and Restoration came to the same conclusion as the HSE, explaining that “film is made of nitrocellulose which has the same chemical structure as gun cotton used in explosives. As a result, nitrate film is extremely flammable and once ignited cannot be extinguished because it creates its own oxygen as it burns, giving off toxic fumes as it does so.” 
But if people were not killed by a flame that would not go out or a gas that grew stronger by the minute they would die from the one complication that every fire shared  – panic.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries governments were not so aware of the need for caution, fire regulations where they existed were not as strict as they are today, and often avoided by the power of corruption, and the general public was not trained, as we are today on a regular basis, on how to react in the case of fire. In all fires of that period there were no fire drills employed, no calm exiting parade of people, no fire marshals guiding their flocks, no fire and safety inspectors ensuring strict codes were actually strictly followed. 
When fires broke out, nobody knew what to do. Or, they did know what to do. But it was always the wrong response. Panic is the worst response to fire and very often a greater killer than flames or smoke. The first major incident involving the wrong reaction came at the birth of the cinematography industry and proved that the instinct for flight would not easily be overcome. In Paris in 1897, at a cinematographic exhibition held on May 4, over one hundred people, mostly women, died when a replacement projection lamp exploded. But most people died not from flames or smoke but from panic. They were trampled to death.
There actually was a safer alternative. Recognising that handling celluloid required professional skills and that nitrate cellulose should not be left in amateur hands, Kodak in 1909 developed a “safety” film made from acetate. (Pathe, in Europe, did too but in 28mm not the Hollywood standard 35mm). Acetate was still dangerous, just not as dangerous. It was still susceptible to catching fire especially in conjunction with the heat of a projector. But it did not explode and it did not spontaneously combust. 
Acetate did not take off for a simple reason. It was not pretty. When you watch a pristine print of a silent film you will see how faces sparkle and glow on screen. It was called the “Silver Screen” for a reason (celluloid did contain actual silver). That was the nitrocellulose effect. With acetate “the image was of markedly poor quality” and too sensitive for constant use, liable to brittleness and shrinkage, prints used up much faster, entailing more prints at a time when a big studio rarely produced more than a couple of hundred to service the entire world. 
Even when the National Fire Protection Association twice campaigned for change in 1918 and 1923 - the same year that Kodak produced a 16mm safety film for amateurs - nobody could persuade the motion picture industry to drop nitrocellulose in favour of acetate. The industry had its reasons. One was that the introduction of safety film would make it easy for anybody anywhere to project films and that they were likely to be the type of people who would copy films and play them without paying a rental to the studios. 
American projectionists followed a similarly warped logic and opposed the introduction of safety film because it would do away with their specialist skills and, instead, essentially as a sop to safety, wanted to see more stringent rules imposed, but one in particular that made a lot of sense, that more thorough inspections of prints should be required since torn sprockets could cause film to jam in the projector and “be ignited by a fiercely hot projector lamp.”

The warnings were there. Fires in buildings in the early part of the twentieth century were often lethal. For cinemas, the situation was worse because the industry had grown at too fast a pace to keep up with both building and fire regulations. And there was nothing like the level of regulations that are in existence today. It was not just that there were previous examples of horrendous fires in picture houses either in Britain or the United States, but that everyone who worked in a movie theatre, no matter their position in the business hierarchy, knew that they were working in a tinder box. 
Just over a quarter of a century before the Glen disaster, a fire at the 1,602-seater Iroquois Theatre in Randolph St in Chicago resulted in the largest-ever loss of life in a single building. A total of 602 people died. Although it predated the movie boom, the theatre was constructed on what would later become the model for cinemas, a building on several levels, with different ticket prices at each level. In this case it had an orchestra level (the equivalent of the stalls) seating 700, a dress circle (the circle) seating 400 and a gallery (the cheapest seats) for 500, plus more  deluxe seats. And there was also standing room. 
Critically, at the Iroquois, there was one only one exit. This was against local fire ordinances, but then regulations were often ignored either through incompetence or corruption. A theatre either presenting plays or variety shows contained much flammable material, costumes, sets, paint, glue, lighting (electric or otherwise). In this case muslin curtains, ignited by a spark from an arc light, set fire to a pile of painted canvases used for set building. At the smell of smoke, the patrons panicked. There was no fire alarm to automatically alert the rest of the audience to the impending danger and to attract outside attention and no telephone either. And in the days before fire drills people had no conception of staying calm and departing a burning building in an orderly manner. Nor were there any exit signs to direct patrons to safety. 
There were fire exits but, equally critically, the doors opened inwards. The first people to reach the doors were unable to open them for the press of people behind. And once the bodies piled up it was impossible to reach the doors, even if they could have been opened. The bodies were piled up – ten deep – according to contemporary reports. Those who managed to climb over the pile of bodies were overcome by smoke or flames. 
After the fire, the City of Chicago closed all theatres for six weeks, banned standing in all theatres and brought in new regulations including clearly marked exits.
And there had been other warning signs. Just over three years prior to the Glen disaster, 48 people had died – with nearly another 50 injured, nine seriously - watching a film in Drumcollogher, a village in County Limerick, Eire. 
Approximately two years before the Glen disaster, 78 children were killed in a fire at the Laurier Palace Theatre, in Quebec, this time in a proper movie house. The fire was started by a discarded cigarette. This was also a kids matinee, on Sunday, January 9, 1927. Twelve kids were crushed to death, 64 were asphyxiated from smoke and two died of burns.