Explosion rocks Spokane's Hippodrome Theater on September 28, 1918.

  • By Eric L. Flom
  • Posted 12/23/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7580
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On September 28, 1918, an explosion inside Spokane’s Hippodrome Theater surprises patrons waiting outside for a children’s matinee. One theater employee is hospitalized following the event.

In keeping with the Hippodrome’s booking policy, Saturday afternoons were given over to special children’s matinees. This was a popular feature for the venue, one that allowed it to compete with Spokane’s Clemmer Theater, which had been enjoying success with its own matinee shows for some time.

On the morning of the September 28, 1918, a crowd of youngsters gathered outside the Hippodrome waiting to see six vaudeville acts (topped by a sketch entitled “The Mystery of the Water Fountain”) and the feature film, The Golden Wall (World, 1918), starring Carlyle Blackwell and Evelyn Greeley.

To boost attendance at the Saturday matinees, the Hippodrome offered souvenir balloons to children under the age of 12. Accordingly, 15-year-old usher Eugene Gilbert and a companion arrived at the theater a little early on September 28th to fill the 200-plus balloons required for the event. Unfortunately, the gas used to fill these balloons proved volatile. (Although unnamed in press accounts, the gas wasn’t helium, typically used to inflate balloons today.)

The filling was done in the Hippodrome office, located on the second floor of the theater. Just as the young ushers were nearing the end of their task, the motor on the gas pump suddenly sparked up. Gilbert, who was using the pump at the time, suffered slight burns when his balloon he was filling exploded in his face. The boys immediately retreated to deal with Gilbert’s injuries, but the single burst appears to have ignited a small fire within the Hippodrome office. These flames, in turn, caused the other balloons to explode en masse.

The ushers were lucky to have escaped when they did. This second explosion blew out a large window in the Hippodrome office, showering glass on Howard Street in front of the building, and took the office doors completely off their hinges. According to Hippodrome manager Walter C. Smith, the explosion and fire (extinguished fairly quickly) resulted in $250 in damage.

Prior to the accident, Spokane Fire Marshal E. M. Northup allowed the Hippodrome to fill balloons as long as there was no show in progress. The Hippodrome lost this privilege following the September 28th accident.

Sources: “Theater Balloons Explode,” The Spokesman-Review, September 29, 1918, p. 6; S. Clark Patchin, “Hippodrome Damaged by Explosion,” The Moving Picture World, October 26, 1918, p. 535.

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