Thursday, March 15, 2012

I'll Take a Seat in the Gallery

Sometimes it doesn't pay to be a female.

It certainly didn't if you were at the Richmond Theater on December 26, 1811. That was the night that the theater caught fire and over 50 of the 72 dead had two X chromosomes.

Like me.

Elaborate and bulky clothing, likely seating in the impossible-to-escape box seats and a decided lack of chivalry ensured that the fairer sex never had a chance.

I know all that only because of today's Library of Virginia lecture with Meredith Henne Baker on her new book, "The Richmond Theater Fire: Early America's First Great Disaster."

She began by rhapsodizing about time spent at the Library of Virginia "at these book talks, in the archives and fighting with the coin lockers."

Ah, memories.

As many of these lectures as I've been to, this was easily one of the largest crowds, so clearly the fire and the resulting dozens of deaths are like a reality history show.

Painful but no one can look away.

I found it fascinating that because free blacks, slaves and prostitutes were relegated to gallery seating, few of them were killed in the fire because they could get out while most of the others struggled to find the limited exits.

I'm sure it didn't help that for a venue that comfortably held 500 people, 580 tickets had been sold that night.

Sounds a little like what the National did the night of the Sufjan Stevens show. Just saying.

No doubt they were eager to see a four-hour performance that began with drama, moved on to music and concluded with a melodrama.

And what a melodrama! Kidnappings! Bandits! Nuns bleeding! Who could resist all that?

Sadly, the sets caught fire mid-performance and moved very quickly to the seating areas where people fought to escape, some even jumping out of upper story windows.

One man who lost his wife and son in the fire referred to the tragedy as "an event that unhinges the intellect."

Monumental Church was the collective conscience's salve to deal with the loss of such a large percentage  of Richmond's population at the time.

Because the bodies had been left where they'd fallen, the ground was consecrated and the church stands as a tribute to the people who never made it out.

But perhaps the biggest surprise of the fire was that people started attending church in droves.

That awful fire opened the door to a new religious climate in Virginia, so there's the unexpected legacy of the fire.

In yet more over-reaction to it, Baker said that Richmond had no theater for the next eight years.

As it was, they enacted a $6.66 fine for Richmonders going to public amusement.

Let's hope our sometimes myopic state government never does something that foolish again. Do I look like I can afford $6.66 every night of my life?

Walking out after Baker's excellent talk, I heard my name called from behind.

"I'd recognize that advance and retreat anywhere," said the history-loving man about town, who was gallant enough to walk a few blocks with me before catching his bus back to work.

He even kissed my hand before climbing on board.

If only there had been more men of his caliber in the Richmond Theater that awful night in 1811. Or any night.

Fortunately, no bulky clothing is ever going to prevent me from escaping anywhere.

Nor are my two X chromosomes afraid to jump.

Preferably into chivalrous arms.

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