April 27, 2022

“Fire!” in a Crowded Theatre: They Just Sat Still Like Those Stone Faces on Easter Island

The Wizard of Oz on a big screen at a refurbished historic theatre — with my lovely bride at my side.

I couldn’t wait for this amazing date.

We settled into our seats in the dim light, held hands, and chatted quietly.

“Wait, do you smell that? Is that smoke?”

We looked around, but no one else seemed to notice. It didn’t go away. We got up and walked to the concession stand.

“Is the manager handy?”

The kid behind the counter didn’t know where the manager might be.

“I think I smell smoke in the theatre,” I said.

She gave me that “Not my job” shrug. We headed off to find the source of the smoke.

Back in the auditorium, I thought could now see a thin haze in front of the screen, but no one seemed to notice, or mind. I began to doubt my own senses.

We took the door to the right of the screen and followed the open wooden staircase to the basement. A monstrosity of an antique furnace sat in the middle. An orange glow reflected off the nearby wall.

Upon closer inspection, the wall was smoldering. We found the source of the smoke.

We called 9-1-1.

I stood at the front of the audience and said, “Folks, the smoke you may have noticed is coming from a burning wall in the basement. We need to leave the theatre right now.”

A couple of people began to gather their things, but few actually moved. I calmly repeated the announcement and invited people to “stand up, move to the end of the aisle and make your way to the exits behind you.”

More now chose to follow the advice.

I then moved row-by-row from front to back, politely encouraging people to get up, and get out.

One couple sat like those stone faces on Easter Island.

“Folks, you need to get out of the theatre. It’s on fire,” I said.

“But we want to see the movie,” the man explained, seeking empathy.

“Folks, there will be no movie tonight. And soon, there may be no you. Please get up and walk out the exits behind you.”

Reluctantly they obeyed, shuffling slowly out.

Manager showed up. I briefed him on what we had done.

I met the fire truck at the curb and led the firefighters to the burning wall in the basement. By this time it had spread.

They knew exactly what to do and made quick work of it.

We never did see The Wizard of Oz on the big screen.

But we also never did die of smoke inhalation in a burning historic theatre.

So many obvious questions rise from this event, and the strange characters live on in my memory.

  • The concession stand clerk who couldn’t be troubled to find the manager, call the fire department, or help evacuate the customers.
  • The missing manager, who — even when we eventually found him — seemed content to let us do his job, whatever that was.
  • The mass of the audience who didn’t seem to understand what fire in a theatre could mean to their lungs, their skin, or their life insurance beneficiaries.
  • And, finally, that special couple who didn’t want to let anything interrupt their movie night — not even their own abrupt demise.

What struck me most, however, was the fact that no one else took any kind of initiative.

We certainly could not have been alone in detecting the smoldering aroma. Others surely had seen news stories about the danger of fires in old, crowded buildings.

No one (except my bride and I) took independent action to do anything helpful.

The lesson I drew from our smoking-hot date night?

  1. Trust your instincts.
  2. Never expect others to act first.
  3. Lead until a better leader shows up.

1 Comment

  • Yeah.
    I never want to be The Leader (Remember Fearless Leader in Rocky & Bullwinkle?) but sometimes there just is no choice.
    Good for you, friend. Glad you and your bride are still with us.
    Just remember, there’s no place like home. Try to keep it from burning to the ground.

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