070320.Bath, Shiny Emergency

March 20, 2007 at 1:14 AM | Posted in Actors in Period Costumes, Architecture, Bath, Conservation, Crescents, Light and Shadow, Mansion, Peephole Views, people, Reflection, somerset, Supernatural | 4 Comments

Door handle of One Royal Crescent’s Drawing Room.

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exit_sign
One hundred beeswax candles lit equals the light given off by one 60-watt light bulb. Although it may be romantic to have that many candles lit

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in a room, it’s expensive and dangerous as well. Before the choice of electric or gas, candles or oil lamps of any kind were expensive and thus used sparingly. However, when they were inevitably used, precautions had to be taken in the event they burned down the house. Thus lamp and candle-era door handles, knobs, etc. were shiny to reflect the light of a carried candle or a raging inferno. If you needed to get out fast, you could find the exit. These were the equivalent of red-light EXIT sign boxes you see everywhere that are positioned throughout large spaces to aid in their two and a half minute evacuation. In Micahel Forsyth’s book “Buildings of Music,” (I don’t have it in front of me so don’t quote me) he figured out that theatres in particular burned down on average ever [number under 10, I think] years.

Most aesthetics of that long gone age reflected this necessity, and as gas and electric overtook commonplace lighting, so too did non-shiny, duller, more subtle colors overtake fashion. Today, we see shiny as somewhat tacky. (Although its use in architecture has been resurrected with the starchitects’, like Gehry’s, use of the aesthetically superficial to have their building stand out on glossy magazine covers.) Who wants an old mirror frame re-gilded to its shiny former like-new self? Basically, shiny doesn’t work in terms of modern aesthetics: think Liberace.

[Above: Liberace and “the World Famous Liberace Museum” in…Las Vegas. Below: The Great Lafayette. The story is paraphrased from JK GILLON’s article.]
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Now, for a second, think of a different Liberace a long time ago in a place far far away: Edinburgh, Scotland, May 1911. One of the greatest and most popular magicians of Europe was the Great Lafayette, the highest paid entertainer on the continent at that time. His shows immediately sold out everywhere he went and featured numerous illusions, large-scale stage shows, a fantastic mechanical teddy bear, midgets galore, and exotic animals too!

The magician himself was somewhat of showstopper. As a “bachelor recluse,” he lived with his cross-bred terrier named Beauty, a gift from the great Harry Houdini. Beauty was certainly loved by its owner, who had a metal statue of the dog cast for his limo hood ornament. Lafayette bought the dog a pure gold diamond-studded collar, velvet cushions, a minature porcelain bathtub that was fitted on his private railcar. This magician lived for his dog.

But then, the unthinkable happened — Beauty died (curiously enough, of apoplexy caused by overfeeding – the same thing that French chefs do to the foie gras geese and also what probably killed by gerbil)! The magician could barely go on, he had his beloved dog embalmed and buried in what became his own plot in Peirshill Cementery, on a mound near the Portobello Road entrance.

This death of a loved one came four days into his two week show at the Empire Theatre, Edinburough. That Tuesday on the 9th of May, 1911, during the second evening performance, the shiny satin-costumed Lafayette was still grieving but had continued to perform and made it through almost the entirety of the show. All that remained was the finale, called “The Lion’s Bride.”

It started off easily enough, Lafayette charmed the audience by pulling out not a hare but an entire goat from the folds of his satin pants, quickly followed by the usual flocks of birds (extracted from a still shinier sequined-handkerchief). Then Lafayette vanished, then he reappeared, then he switched identities with his assistants, you know, the usual. But the act involved a staged “exotic” “Oriental” set, complete with tapestries, cushions, tents, curtains, carpets, etc. There was a caged African lion, fire-eaters, jugglers, acrobats – basically, everyone who was anyone. The whole stage seemed full of people who had previously appeared. A scantily-clad woman entered the lion-filled cage, which was then covered (to allow the sedate lion to be poked and roar), then the covering was lifted and suddenly the magician was in the cage! Fooled you, he’s the lion’s bride.

The crowd went wild, everyone always loved that act, it was a great way to end the show. Lafayette got out and bowed but in so doing he knocked over an “exotic” lamp, which quickly set the “exotic” curtains, carpets, and cushions alight.

What did the crowd think? Oh good! There’s more. Let’s stay seated. Soon the exotic blaze engulfed the footlights and edged to the stall seating. Stage hands, assistants, orchestra members and off-stage performers suddenly broke rank and started spilling out of the woodwork, where they were hidden. As the crowd got this sneak peak and learned a few of the magician’s secrets, the fire curtain quickly fell hiding the growing inferno and the audience jumped up and fled the theatre in about two and a half minutes.

Three hours later, the fire was under control but many of the orchestra and stage-hands didn’t make it out. Neither did midget Little Joe nor 15-year-old mechanical-teddy-bear-operator Alice Dale. But where was the magician — had he vanished to safety? A few survivors claimed he had escaped but returned to save his horse. Whatever the reasons, they shortly found his charred elaborately costumed body on stage – AND THEN THEY FOUND HIM AGAIN! The second severely burned body was found in a lower basement, and this one had his diamond rings – the ones he didn’t lend out to assistants.

Later that week, his ashes were interred in the resurrected and opened casket of Beauty, in a funeral described as “one of the most extraordinary interments of modern times.” Houdini didn’t make it to the funeral but he sent flowers, a floral arrangement shaped like Beauty.

Subsequently, theatres and large arenas have to be evacuated in under two and a half minutes. Cathedral-ceiling spaces can take longer but low-ceiling spaces should be evacuated much faster.

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4 Comments »

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  1. Wow, that’s all very interesting. I do remember Liberace; my grandmother used to insist I watch his television show so that I would get “culture”. I still laugh about that today.

    I hadn’t heard before of the Great Lafayette, nor did I know about how frequently fires occurred in the age of candles. My husband always suggests candles are dangerous whenever I try to set a romantic mood. I usually respond by saying, “but, of course, my dear . . . like women.”

    My best to you, Annie

  2. You have very large hands and very sad eyes.

    What’s One Royal Crescent?

    (I read the rest of the description, too– rarely are we at Bath DP subjected to this sort of non-architectural storybook tale– but your description is so good that I have no questions. Except: which body did they bury with Beauty?)

  3. hmmm…with my short attention span, your article interests me to read til the end. You are indeed unique, in a nice way!

  4. Great story–all the better for being true. Sounds so much like the Prestige (movie) too. Where did you come upon this story? Interesting to think of a community of magicians–Harry Houdini staying in touch. They still have the magicians’ Monday Night at St. Clements in NY which is a show with various magicians. Makes you grateful for Edison’s invention of the electric bulb.


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