November 27, 1921–A Night of Terror in New Haven, Connecticut as “Sheik Week” Begins—-A Deadly Fire, Multiple Deaths as a Prologue Goes Horribly Wrong

At some theaters across the U.S. and Canada, the presentation of The Sheik was accompanied by a “prologue” before the film was shown. Music, singing, desert scenes–all were presented to put the audience in the mood for the film. But one prologue went drastically wrong…


At the New York premiere on November 6 at the Rialto at Times Square, Manhattan, several opening features entertained the audience. In the review by Harriet Underhill carried in the New York Tribune the next day, a description of the program was included.

New York Tribune, Monday, November 7 1921. Page 8

Out in Calgary, Canada, a scene “showing a tent in the desert” was offered at the Capitol Theater.

A tent in the desert; a very pleasing baritone …”

The Calgary Daily Herald, Tuesday, November 29, 1921. Page 8

On the same day, in Winnipeg, Canada, at another Capitol Theater, the prologue furnished “a realistic scene from the very heart of the hot, sand-covered desert, with colorful lighting effects playing its whole gamut of glitter upon it. The curtains part with the sun partially clouded….”

“The colorful background changes into many pleasing hues, the glitter of all vanishing with the opening scenes of the feature.”

The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, Tuesday, November 29, 1921. Page 10

In both theaters, a song titled “Till the Sands of the Desert Grow Cold” was presented, This was a popular song composed in 1911. There are several renditions on Youtube, but this video by Tim Grayck which features a 1912 recording by Donald Chambers also has lyrics to follow along with to about Minute 1:30 and really gives a sense of what audiences going to see The Sheik may have experienced. Here is a link to the full lyrics for the song, which was composed in 1911.

These spectacular introductions to The Sheik certainly got the audience in the mood for the film…but, on the first day of “Sheik Week” a terrible tragedy occurred in New Haven, Connecticut that evening of November 27, 1921.

As the late newspaper editions hit the streets, the headlines revealed the the evolving story of horror.

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The New York Evening World, Final Extra,
Monday, November 28, 1921. Page 8
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The New York Tribune,
Monday, November 28, 1921. Page 2
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According to The New York Tribune, the frame building was already 100 years old. It had been a church before it was sold to Yale University and was used as an auditorium and music school for 20 years. One story said that the building was altered for use as a movie theater six years before The Sheik was booked for that night.

There was different reporting on how and where the fire started– from an ember from an incense lamp in front of the screen (The New York Tribune) or from a flash from the left wing of the stage which set the curtain a blaze (Daily News). The difference is understandable as the scene would soon turn into chaos. The incense lamp seems to be the most likely scenario given The New York Tribune background report:

1–Filled to Capacity…
3–Oblivious Audience in the Other Theater to the Rear…

The New York Tribune,

Monday, November 28, 1921. Page 2

2–…The Film Had Just Started
4–…A Death Trap

One hundred Yale students, some of whom became victims of the fire, were in the audience and they tried to urge order, but exits were blocked. People were trampled and many in the balcony were trapped as flames moved from the proscenium arch of the stage and climbed rails and onto the seats. People in the balcony jumped down onto those below who were trying to escape. The New York Evening News reported that many children were in the audience and parents were injured as they tried to lift them above the mass of flailing bodies surrounding them. People already standing in the lobby waiting for the second show were pushed back into the street as a rush of people tried to escape through the house doors of the theater. The walls caught fire and flames swept to the side where there was one window which opened on to the fire escape, which was the site of a horrific scene:

…charred beyond identification…”

Daily News, New York, New York

Monday, November 28, 1921. Page 1

Although every piece of firefighting equipment in New Haven reportedly rushed to the scene, the Rialto was completely destroyed, along with the Hyperion theater building at the rear.

“…The fire burned for more than two hours and a half…”

Daily News, New York, New York

Monday, November 28, 1921. Page 2

Lawrence R. Carroll, the manager of the theater and his assistant, James Carter, were initially detained by authorities but were released on their own recognizance (The New York Evening World, November 28, 1921, Page 8). The Final Edition of the Daily News reported that the coroner was prepared to issue manslaughter charges against Carroll (Monday, November 28, 1921, Page 2).

With unfortunate irony, while Sheik Week was starting to celebrate the smashing success of The Sheik, the lives of many who were eager to see the film lost their lives while survivors of the New Haven tragedy were left with frightening memories of what should have been a night spent enjoying the most popular film in the country.

NOTES

1. The Prizma Color system, according to Wikipedia, “was a color motion picture process, invented in 1913 by William Van Doren Kelley and Charles Raleigh.

2. The New York Evening World from November 28, 1921 carried another film-related story right next to the New Haven theater fire headlines along with a full banner across the top of the paper. That story was titled “Arbuckle In His Own Defense Goes On Stand And Gives His Version of Actress’s Death.” It’s a story still remembered to this day, unlike the fatal New Haven fire.

Link to the video of this blog on Youtube.

SOURCES

As cited in the text

November 27, 1921: The Start of “Sheik Week” Follows The Precedent-Setting New York Premiere and Nationwide Release of “The Sheik”

In my previous post I detailed the dueling Los Angeles premieres Rudolph Valentino enjoyed on October 30, 1921–the “Western” premiere of Camille and the “pre-release” debut of The Sheik. The Sheik then premiered in New York in two theaters–on November 6 at the Rialto at Times Square in Manhattan and in Brooklyn at the Rivoli.

The day after the premiere, the ad for The Sheik in The New York Tribune heralded first day attendance–20,000 on the opening day–although it shared the ad space with another Paramount Film, Peter Ibbetson. The following week, the ad for The Sheik on November 13 was far bigger and featured exciting descriptions of the film as the picture entered its second week at the Times Square Rialto.

New York Tribune, Monday, November 7, 1921. Page 8.

New York Tribune, Sunday, November 13, 1921. Page 2, IV.

Like her Los Angeles counterpart a week earlier, New York Tribune critic Harriet Underhill panned the story line of The Sheik in her review the day after the film opened.

Harriet Underhill writing in

The New York Tribune

Monday, November 7, 1921. Page 8.

…Kindly play “Hearts and Flowers.

But Harriet Underhill’s critical appraisal seemed to soften as she commented, “…The Sheik, almost got us at certain moments in the performance yesterday at the Rivoli Theater. It is probably that this was so because the title role is played by Rudolph Valentino, and most any woman would try to bear it with equanimity if he carried her away on his Arabian steed to be the queen of the caravan.” While commenting that Agnes Ayres “doesn’t do anything in particular with Diana Mayo, the young lady who was the object of Ahmed’s desire,” she had much more to say about Valentino. She noted the “very wide eyes” that reminded her of Theda Bara but overall she was impressed by his screen presence as a “fine young animal, with a sense of humor and a predilection for vamping” instead of what she feared might be a portrayal as a “conservative and dignified person.”

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The New York Times critic (name unknown) wrote a review that could be described as “tepid.” After discussing how the novel offered “no little amusement for the book reviewers,” he continued:

Again the writer must confess that he has not read the novel from which the photoplay under review has been derived. He knew he would have to see the picture sooner or later. Isn’t that enough?” ….Agnes Ayres is the girl and Rudolph Valentino is the sheik. Both of them can make the characters they impersonate seem real in a picture, which gives any character a chance to seem real.

(The New York Times, Monday, November 7, 1921. Page 20)

The New York Daily News critic, writing under the name “McElliott” was unhappy over the fact that the picture had been “denatured.” (“The Sheik” Has Been Denatured for the Movies, Daily News, Tuesday, November 8, 1921. Page 21.)

Daily News, New York, New York

Tuesday, November 8, 1921. Page 17

McElliott the critic finished with an attempt at humor about Valentino:

“The picture is beautiful as to photography and as to Agnes Ayres, playing the trapped Diana. She and Mr. Valentino are worth looking at, whatever the story. However, I like Rodolfo not so much in one of his turbans. The other is becoming.”

On November 20, 1921 The Sheik was released at over 250 theaters across the country and newspapers like the Arkansas Democrat announced “Sheik Week” to the public and noted the New York opening box office success. A month later, revised box office numbers confirmed the initial reports.

The Arkansas Democrat, Little Rock, Arkansas
Sunday, November 27, 1921. Page 6

Great Falls Tribune, Great Falls, Montana
Sunday, December 25, 1921

Where did the numbers come from? They were provided in a press release produced by Paramount Pictures that would become part of ads and picked up as “news” stories by papers across the nation.

The Decatur Herald, Decatur, Illinois
Sunday, December 4, 1921. Page 21

Below is a “news” article from the Clarion-Ledger, Jackson, Mississippi (actually the Paramount publicity release) which shows the text in readable form:

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Clarion-Ledger, Jackson, Mississippi

Sunday, December 25, 1921. Page 4

Headlines from newspapers across the country reflected the excitement and anticipation as The Sheik opening rolled out:

Arabian Romance Makes Thrilling Drama for Screen..Spectacular Settings a Feature of ‘The Sheik’, Plot One of Interest“–South Bend News-Times, South Bend, Indiana. Monday, November 28, 1921

The Sheik, Tremendous in Power, Wildly Exciting, at the Opera House“–Bangor Daily News, Bangor, Maine. Tuesday, December 13, 1921

‘Sheik’s’ Story of Man Breaking Girl’s Strong Will, Many Stirring and Thrilling Scenes in Great Photodrama“–Great Falls Tribune, Great Falls, Montana. Sunday, December 25, 1921

At Last ‘The Sheik’ with Romance, Thrills and Valentino at the Regent and That’s That!“–The Wichita Eagle, Sunday Morning, November 27, 1927. Page 31

The headline from the Wichita Eagle set the stage to let readers know what the Wichita public could expect to see. And although a New York critic felt the film was “denatured” the Wichita columnist was careful about telling readers how the film had survived the state board while letting parents know that, even so, the film “wasn’t for children.” The accompanying ad heightened the public’s eagerness to join the anticipated crowds at the theater.

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At Last ‘The Sheik’ with Romance, Thrills and Valentino at the Regent and That’s That!

The Wichita Eagle, Sunday Morning, November 27, 1921. Page 31

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While The Witchita Eagle writer was concerned about children, a professor in Chicago had a different reaction…

Great Falls Tribune, Great Falls, Montana
Sunday, December 11, 1921. Page 11

We probably will never know exactly what that psychology professor discussed with his students after they saw The Sheik, but one hundred years later, we know that the arrival of The Sheik not only thrust Rudolph Valentino to a new level of fame, but also triggered a wave of reaction that turned the spotlight onto the shifting relationships between women and men. It played right into the spirit of the newly-liberated 1920’s and the beginning of “the Jazz Age.” But society hadn’t moved THAT far as the story had to work around the subject of interracial relationships/marriage. One hundred years later, we are still talking about The Sheik and although it may seem like a relic from a distant age, the echoes of the themes are still with us today.

NOTES

1. Emily Leider, in her biography Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino, mistakenly states that the film premiered in New York on October 30, page 167.

2. Agnes Ayres also appeared in The Affairs of Anatol. See my previous post for more details on the overlap of cast members who appeared in this film and The Sheik.

Link to Youtube video of this blog post

SOURCES

Leider, Emily W. Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003.

Newspaper articles as cited in the text.