Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Great Lafayette and The Empire Theatre Fire Remembered At Edinburgh Library

By Nancy Mattoon

Cover of A New Book Being
Launched By Edinburgh City Library:
Robertson, Ian and Gordon Rutter.
The Death and Life of the Great Lafayette.
Edinburgh: New Lands Press, 2011.

(All Images Courtesy of Edinburgh City Library.)

May 9, 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most spectacular fires ever recorded in the city of Edinburgh, Scotland. Capital Collections: The Image Library of Edinburgh Libraries and Museums and Galleries has created a new online exhibition to commemorate the tragic event, The Great Lafayette and the Empire Theatre Fire. The Library is also conducting a book launch for a new title exploring the fire, The Death and Life of the Great Lafayette by Ian Robertson and Gordon Rutter.

The blaze took the life of master magician and "Man Of Mystery," The Great Lafayette, and began in the midst of a performance of his greatest illusion, "The Lion's Bride," before a sold-out house of 3,000. Ten other performers and backstage crew members also perished that night, along with a lion and a black stallion featured in the act. Miraculously, quick thinking on the part of a stage hand and an orchestra conductor allowed every audience member to escape the flames and survive.

An Undated Publicity Photo
Of The Great Lafayette

and His Beloved "Beauty.

According to the exhibition, "Little is known of the origins of Sigmund Neuburger, the Great Lafayette, who died, aged 40 on 9th May 1911 in a fire at the Empire Palace Theatre in Nicolson Street." Neuburger was a German Jew born in Munich on 27th February 1871. He was the son of a silk merchant, with a serious case of wanderlust. He left Europe to be part of the 1891 gold rush in Cripple Creek, Colorado near Pike's Peak. Apparently, he did not strike it rich, but instead began a career in show business, opening a dance hall. He eventually formed a traveling theater company, and hit the vaudeville circuit as the centerpiece of an act involving feats of derring-do with a bow and arrow.

Undated Photo of The Great Lafayette and Beauty Off Stage.

Witnessing the brilliant magic act of Chinese master illusionist Ching Ling Fu convinced Neuburger that mastering the art of sleight of hand was the fast track to becoming a vaudeville headliner. Neuburger was apparently a quick study, by 1900 he earned top billing on the London stage as "The Great Lafayette," a moniker he soon adopted as his legal name. His closest colleague, and lifelong friend, was fellow Jewish magician, Harry Houdini. It was Houdini who unknowingly provided Lafayette with what became both his constant companion, and his longtime onstage assistant, a terrier mix he named "Beauty."

Detail Of The Cover "Slightly Singed"
From The Empire Palace Theatre.

Lafayette insisted that Beauty was "a magician in her own right," and the dog accompanied him everywhere, onstage and off. Beauty was given her own hotel room while she toured with the magician, and as they traveled the British Isles by train, she luxuriated in a separate compartment with a small sofa, and a bed with velvet cushions. Lafayette routinely tacked a sign on the door of his suite of rooms which read, "You may drink my wine; you may eat my food; but you must respect my dog." He spoiled the dog completely, giving her a series of diamond-studded collars, and feeding her steak dinners ordered from the room service menu. This last may have proved her undoing. On April 30th, 1911, just before the opening of a two-week engagement at Edinburgh's Empire Palace Theatre, Beauty died of an apoplexy brought on by what some speculate was overfeeding.

Beauty's Tomb In
Edinburgh's Piershill Cemetery.

Lafayette was distraught at the death of his best friend and fellow magician. He insisted that Beauty be buried in Edinburgh's Piershill Cemetery, previously a final resting place reserved for humans. The burial was only permitted when Lafayette purchased the plot for himself at a premium price, and signed a contract agreeing that upon his death he would be interred alongside the canine. It was said that Lafayette remarked that now that Beauty was dead, "I fear I shan't live much longer." If true, it proved to be an uncannily accurate premonition. Less than two weeks later the magician was dead.

The Elaborate Stage Set For "The Lion's Bride."

On the evening of May 9, 1911, the Great Lafayette was on stage performing his grand finale "The Lion's Bride," an extraordinarily elaborate illusion including a real lion, a horse, a "midget," a dancing girl, and several actors in supporting roles. In the midst of the finale, a faulty stage light set the scenery ablaze. The fire spread rapidly across the stage, but the audience members remained seated, believing it was all part of the act. Only when a stage hand lowered the fire safety curtain did the audience grasp that the fire was indeed real, and potentially deadly. The orchestra conductor, in a moment of brilliance, launched his musicians into an impromptu rendition of God Save the King. This immediately caused the audience members to stand, and file quickly from the theatre to safety.

The Stage Of The Empire Palace Theatre After the Fire.

The performers were less fortunate, as the back stage doors were locked. Some said this was theatre policy, others maintained Lafayette insisted the exits be locked so no one could steal the secrets of his illusions. In either case, the locked exits meant all onstage perished in the flames. The theatre's stage area was completely gutted. The Great Lafayette, however had one more trick up his sleeve.

Early the next morning, a charred body was discovered next to the corpses of a lion and a horse. Based on rings remaining on the fingers, it was identified as that of The Great Lafayette, and held for cremation. But two days later fire officials discovered another body wearing the same elaborate rings. The first corpse was discovered to be that of the body double for The Great Lafayette used in the act, the second body was Lafayette himself. Houdini said of Lafayette’s death: "He fooled them in life and he fooled them in death, I envy him."

The Great Lafayette and Beauty,
Side By Side For Eternity.

The Great Lafayette was laid to rest after a lavish funeral beside his beloved Beauty. The Edinburgh City Library exhibition "includes images from the collections of the Museum of Fire taken at the scene of the blaze, Lafayette's death certificate, a programme from the day before Lafayette's last performance (slightly singed!) and some wonderful pictorial programme covers spanning the theatre's history from the collections of Edinburgh Museums and Galleries."

On May 9, 2011 the Edinburgh Secret Society is conducting a 100th anniversary séance at the City's Festival Theatre, (located on the site of former the Empire Palace Theatre) in an attempt to contact the spirit of The Great Lafayette. The event is sold out, but the proceedings will be broadcast live on the society’s website.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Subscribe to BOOKTRYST by Email