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.

1
The New York Evening World, Final Extra,
Monday, November 28, 1921. Page 8
2
The New York Tribune,
Monday, November 28, 1921. Page 2
3

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

Newspapers as cited in the text