Windy City Spooks: James M. Nederlander Theater 

Nederlander Theater in Chicago

It’s understandable that America changed post 9/11. Americans have been on edge due to possible terrorist attacks ever since. And America’s Second City, Chicago, spared from terrorist atrocities, were fearful the second foot would drop on them.

In February 2003, post-9/11 hysteria seized patrons of the popular South Loop night spot, E2 Nightclub. It began when a fight broke out on the dancefloor and security used pepper spray to subdue the combatants. Believing the pepper spray was a deadly gas attack, hundreds of club goers ran for the doors to escape what they believed to be imminent death.

In the end, the panic resulted in 21 deaths and dozens more injured. The reason for the deaths was that the emergency doors were too narrow. This was a serious fire code violation that could have been easily avoided. The city clearly had not learned from the mistakes from an incident a century earlier that resulted in over 600 tragic fatalities at the Iroquois Theater.

In 1903, the Iroquois Theater on Randolph Street opened. Being a modern theater, it had the latest in fire prevention technology. Heavy curtains made of asbestos hung over the stage to protect the audience from any mishaps on stage. The building was also equipped with 25 emergency exits. The owners of the theater convinced the city of Chicago that the theater was the safest building in the city.

When the Iroquois opened, two important fire protection systems had yet to be put in place. There was no sprinkler system, and the fire alarm hadn’t been installed. The city overlooked these precautions and allowed shows to commence.

A month after the grand opening in December 1903, the Iroquois presented a matinee performance of the wildly popular musical, “Mr. Blue Beard,” featuring Dan McAvoy. Up until that day, the theater had suffered a disappointing turnout mostly due to bad weather and labor problems. All that changed when 2200 people showed up for the matinee. Dozens of those in attendance were children and it was standing room only.

Shortly after the second act began the unthinkable occurred. Sparks from an arc lamp ignited a muslin curtain just off stage. When stagehands became aware of the fire, they quickly went to work to put out the flames. Unfortunately, their best efforts were for nothing. 

The fire spread very quickly.

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When theater goers realized they were in imminent danger, blind panic took over. Hundreds of people quickly ran for the exits in a vain attempt to flee the fire. Unfortunately, several factors were working against them. They found that the exit doors were either hidden behind curtains or were locked. Moreover, the doors that weren’t locked opened into the building rather than out. To make matters worse, those on the upper levels tried to escape down the fire escapes, but discovered they were incomplete. 

The Iroquois Theater had become the perfect death trap.

When fire and rescue arrived, it was already too late. Over six hundred people perished in a matter of minutes. Most victims were trapped in the building and died in the inferno. While 150 people jumped from the upper floors plummeting to their deaths in the alley below. According to eyewitnesses of the tragic aftermath, dead bodies were stacked in the alley while hundreds more were brought out of the building, their charred remains making them unidentifiable. The fire at the Iroquois Theater is still considered to be the deadliest structure fire in the history of the United States.

Since 1903, the theater was rebuilt and changed hands several times. It was known as the Oriental Theater and most recently, The James M. Nederlander Theater. There is one thing that has not changed over the years, the theater and adjacent alley where 150 people jumped to their death are allegedly haunted by the victims of this horrific inferno.

The adjacent alley where 150 people met their fate has earned the nickname “death alley.” People that walk either near or down the alley, have heard the pleading sounds of screams for help. An overwhelming feeling of dread and panic are felt in the alley. While others have reported the unnerving sensation of unseen hands grabbing their arms and legs. The victims of that nightmarish day are still reaching out for help long after their lives came to a fiery end.

Death alley appears to be the site of intense paranormal activity, but the interior of the theater is reportedly haunted as well. Shadowy apparitions have been seen on stage as well as walking through the aisles. One of these ghosts is believed to be Nellie Reed, an actress who fell from the balcony in the panic and perished in the flames. She is often seen in the balcony and appears to be just as solid as a living person. When people approach her thinking she’s a theater employee, she vanishes leaving a very frightened person to deal with the fact they had just seen a ghost.

The Theater District in Chicago is second only to Broadway in New York City and thousands of people per year attend musicals or plays in the Windy City. While the Nederlander Theater may not be open to investigations, death alley is a popular destination for paranormal enthusiasts from all over the Chicagoland area.

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About Rick Hale 101 Articles
Rick Hale became interested in anomalous phenomenon at an early age after encountering an apparition in his grandparent's home. Rick is the author of "The Geek's Guide To The Strange and Unusual: Poltergeists, Ghost and Demons," and "Behold! Shocking True Tales Off Terror...And Some Other Spooky Stuff." Rick has been published in Haunted Times Magazine, Paranormal Underground Magazine, The Supernatural Magazine, Spookyisles.com and Legends Magazine. Rick appeared in Ghost Tapes 2 and Ghost Tapes: The Series found at YouTube.com.

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