MUSEUMS OFTEN CONTAIN interesting surprises for visitors. The small museum in Burnham on Crouch (in Essex) is no exception. It amused me to see that amongst the exhibits there were several early examples of so-called pocket calculators – too large to fit most pockets. I was given one of these (made by Casio) in about 1974, and at the time this was a wonderful gift as well as being a useful tool. I was able to replace my slide-rule with my Casio. These calculators, along with other things that were regarded as being ‘the latest thing’ in the 1960’s and ‘70s, were not what surprised me most at the museum. Hanging on the wall of one side of a staircase, there was a huge piece of cloth with advertisements printed on it. It is part of the fire safety curtain that was used in the local cinema, The Rio (see: https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2021/11/13/a-small-cinematic-survivor/) , in the 1930s.
Fire curtains are usually made of metal or heavy materials containing asbestos (or some other fire retardant). They are designed to be lowered (often automatically) should a fire break out on the stage of a theatre or cinema in order to prevent the fire spreading to the auditorium. In 1613, a cannon misfired on the stage of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, causing the thatch on the building’s roof to catch fire; the theatre was destroyed. There were no fire curtains in those days.
The first fire curtain (it was made of iron) to be installed in the UK was in 1794 at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London. A large fire at the Theatre Royal in Exeter in 1887 led to the wider use fire curtains in British theatres, and later in cinemas. However, these safety devices were not infallible. A fire that began on the stage of the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago (USA) led to the deaths of about 575 people when the fire safety curtain snagged and could not be fully lowered. This led to the invention of an improved automatic fire curtain by John Clancy a year later in 1904.
Fire curtains, which must be lowered at least once during every performance in the UK can be plain or decorated. Plain fire curtains, when lowered, can serve as screens on to which advertisements are projected. The example at the museum in Burnham has advertisements printed or painted on it. Local businesses paid the cinema to have their adverts printed on the curtain that hung in the Rio during the 1930s. The Treasurer of the museum explained that of the many Burnham firms, who placed adverts on the fire curtain, only one of them is still in business. Thus, the old fire curtain (or at least the half of it that is in the museum) not only protected Burnham’s cinemagoers from burning but also serves as a valuable record of the town as it was almost 100 years ago.