Here’s a joke that Chicago residents told immediately after the Great Fire:
Question: Why is Theodore Thomas different than Nero? Answer: Because one fiddled away while Rome burned, and the the other roamed away while his fiddles burned.
Not a thigh-slapper, to be sure. And for the joke to make any sense today, you need to know that Thomas was a famous orchestra conductor. When Thomas played a program of Johann Strauss in New York, critics said he wielded the baton better than the composer himself.
Tickets going on sale for his October 1871 Chicago performance created a furor. The Tribune predicted the concert would be “one of the most notable events in the history of music in Chicago.”
It wasn’t. The performance was set for Crosby’s Opera House on Oct. 9, 1871 — 150 years ago Saturday. By curtain time, Crosby’s, and much of the city around it, would be ash and ruin.
The date of the Great Chicago Fire is remembered as Oct. 8, 1871 because that’s when it began, about 9:30 p.m. in the barn behind Mrs. O’Leary’s home on the near southwest side. But by midnight it was no historic fire; just another blaze on par with a big fire the day before.
The next day — Monday, Oct. 9 — was when it earned the word “great,” leaping across the river, twice, first ravaging downtown, then jumping to the North Side.
How a story comes out depends upon where you begin it. In my tale of the fire coming in a special section in this Sunday’s Sun-Times, I start the story in July of 1871, for reasons that will be plain if you read it. The Sun-Times is running its package of stories two days after the anniversary, perhaps to create a sense of anticipation. The Tribune has been pelting its readers with fire stories for the past six weeks, so by the actual anniversary, I imagine they’ll want to run shrieking from any mention of the fire. While you guys have something to savor.
Thomas isn’t in Sunday’s story, since his connection to the fire is so fleeting. Though it is a marvelous moment.
Imagine the scene. The train carrying Thomas and his orchestra pulls into the 22nd Street station. The most lucrative performance of their tour, set for tonight. Thomas is informed the train cannot proceed because the city is burning down.
What would you do? I guarantee it is not what Theodore Thomas did.
“He ordered his musicians to pick up their instruments and personal baggage and follow him the rest of the way on foot,” according to Eugene H. Cropsey, in his history of the Crosby Opera House.
You don’t reach the pinnacle of 19th century American classical music by being a cream puff. The orchestra marches into the fiery chaos.
“They found themselves in the midst of the most dire confusion,” Cropsey writes. “The street was choked with furniture and other household and personal belongings. Some people were running through the crowd crying and cursing, others sat trembling on their trunks and bundles, hollow-eyed and in despair.”
Someone assured Thomas the opera house was rubble and there were no hotels available. They returned to their train and fled to Joliet.
Afterward, Chicagoans who had excitedly bought tickets tried to get their money back. To me, this is one of those piquant details that compress time, connecting us who are alive today with those of 150 years ago in a bond of sympathy and understanding. The opera house was ash and Thomas gone. He insisted, via letter, that he had returned the ticket money to the organizers, so it wasn’t his problem anymore. Still, holders of Chicago tickets tried to use them at Thomas performances in other cities, and were refused.
I don’t want to leave you with a bad impression of Thomas. He made it up to us.
By the late 1880s, he was tiring of touring the country. “I would go to hell if they gave me a permanent orchestra” he complained, and Chicago businessman C. Norman Fay said that could be arranged. Thomas founded the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1891, and after his death in 1905 the CSO was renamed the Theodore Thomas Orchestra for eight years. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven each have their names carved once on the facade of Orchestra Hall. Theodore Thomas’ name is carved there twice.