Monday, November 23, 2009

Now on YouTube: The 1982 Des Plaines Theatre Fire

I ran across these videos on YouTube of the 1982 Des Plaines Theatre Fire, and thought this was as good a time as any to tell the story.

Around 2:00 p.m. March 7, 1982, the Des Plaines Theatre was devastated by a three-alarm fire. Burning for nearly three hours, the fire was later traced to the (incredibly stupid) act of putting incinerator ashes into a cardboard box. The fire started in the basement, below the storefront to the right of the theatre entrance, Shoe Box. Damages were estimated at $500,000 and over 50 firefighters and 14 vehicles from seven agencies responded. The fire ripped through the front of the building, with most of the damage to Shoe Box and neighboring Rappoport Watchmakers and Jewelers, where the floor and roof partially collapsed, then spread to the second floor offices. The theatre itself, and Windy's Hamburgers on the corner, sustained very little damage, mostly smoke and water (and as I discovered from this video, a little fire on the roof that was quickly put out), because it is separated from the stores by fireproof walls. The lobby suffered the brunt of the damage from water; the current lobby is essentially a shell within the old lobby.

In a twist of fate, the fire could have been stopped considerably sooner, presumably with less damage. At one point in this video, the cameraman looks down at a fire hydrant across the street. When firefighters arrived on the scene, they found this and another hydrant dry, apparently because a Public Works employee failed to turn them back on after a water main repair the previous month. It took another 20 minutes to get the hoses hooked up on Ellinwood Street and get the water running, all the way across the train tracks, which also delayed C&NW service; passengers had to transfer to a train on the other side of the hose. One train came within 50 feet of the hose. Despite these difficulties, Deputy Fire Chief Dave Clark praised his mens' service as the best firefighting he had ever seen the department perform.

At the time, the Theatre was showing the movie "Taps". It had played for about five minutes when the theatre manager on-duty, John Praught, stopped the film and announced there was smoke in a nearby store. The theatre's 200 patrons quickly evacuated with no injuries.

It was only through the sheer determination of longtime theatre owner Richard Balaban that the theatre was saved from the wrecking ball. He quickly decided he wanted to re-open. Initially, the city and a neighboring business sought to remove the east wall and the entire second story of the building was condemned, for fears of collapse. However, Balaban didn't want to see the building lose its architectural quality, and made the necessary moves to strengthen and maintain the walls.

The long-term impact was that the theatre was closed for almost a year, reopening January 21, 1983. Balaban repainted the interior, cleaned the exterior, recarpeted, reupholstered the seats, and redecorated, along with a new stereo system and screen. The crowds that had until then flocked to the theatre found other places to go in the meantime, and the loss of momentum meant that attendance levels didn't return. This dealt a blow to the downtown as a whole, since those audiences spent money elsewhere downtown. The theatre was sold about a year and a half later to the Mandas family, who then sold it to longtime operators Poppy Cataldo and Jeff Kohlberg, who split it in two and ran it as a successful discount house. Since they sold it in 1997, the theatre has struggled.

Thanks to The Arlington Cardinal for the YouTube find.

UPDATE 11/26/09

Photos after the fire


  1. I grew up in Des Plaines in the 60's and early '70s...and am proud to be the daughter of David and Martha Clark of White Street. My dad was a DP Fireman and eventually became Fire Chief..seeing the film of the theatre fire brings back alot of wonderful memories of the great men and women of the DP Fire Dept!

  2. My grandfather, Dave Wolf, is a former Deputy Chief, although he was retired by the time of this fire.

  3. I worked for Poppy at the theater in the early 90s...the big bags of popcorn were stored behind the duplex screens on the old stage which was buckled from water damage. Man, was that creepy.


Please be civil and constructive!