Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Recollections of Pelham Firefighter Who Fought the Infamous Thanhouser Movie Studio Fire in 1913


John Gruber was an early member of the First Fire District that served Pelhamville and, later, the Villages of North Pelham and Pelham (today's Pelham Heights).  He is said to have been the first "paid" fireman of the First Fire District.

In 1931, John Gruber (who had moved to Tuckahoe) returned to North Pelham and visited the firehouse where he once had served.  A Pelham Sun reporter had the opportunity to interview him there about the early days of the First Fire District.  

One of the fascinating elements of Gruber's reported reminiscences was his recollection of fighting the infamous Thanhouser Film Corporation movie studio fire with other Pelham firefighters on January 13, 1913 in New Rochelle.  Today's Historic Pelham Blog article tells a little of the story of that fire and efforts by First Fire District firefighters to assist New Rochelle in battling that fire.

Between about 1:00 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. on Monday, January 13, 1913, the Thanhouser Movie Studio located at Grove Avenue and Warren Street in nearby New Rochelle was humming with activity.  More than fifty employees including actors and actresses were working hard on several movies as part of the studio's policy of turning out about three movies a week.

Yes, in those days the Pelham region (including New Rochelle and City Island) was an important movie-making center before the rise of Hollywood.  Many Thanhouser films were made in Pelham and in other parts of our region and were distributed to theaters throughout the country as the infant movie entertainment industry began to grow.  Indeed, I have written before about Thanhouser films made in Pelham.  See:

Fri., Jun. 30, 2006:  Is There New Evidence of a Previously Unknown Thanhouser Company Silent Film That Was Filmed, in Part, in Pelham in 1911?

Tues., Mar. 31, 2015:  Another Silent Film Recorded in Part in Pelham In 1912.

On that January afternoon more than 105 years ago, however, something happened at the Thanhouser Studio in New Rochelle.  To this day, no one is quite certain what.  There was in the film development darkroom an area known as the "perforation section" where film negatives were perforated so sprockets on film projection equipment could pass the film through the projectors for display to audiences.  Somehow, there was a spark from the equipment or, perhaps, friction overheated the film stock.  In any event, something happened.

In those days, film stock was made of celluloid, a highly flammable plastic made of cellulose treated with sulfuric acid and potassium nitrate to create cellulose mononitrate.  Indeed, film stock was so combustible that most projection rooms at public movie theaters -- including that of the Pelham Picture House in Pelham -- were built as fireproof rooms with special equipment that automatically sealed all openings in the event of fire to contain the flames long enough to permit patrons and employees to escape.

That day in 1913, somehow, the film stock in the perforation area burst into flames.  In only a few moments, the flames spread to curtains and wooden walls until they were out of control.  Employees in the darkroom burst out of the area and spread the alarm.  According to one account:

"The cry of 'fire' caused a scene of intense excitement.  Employees working in the other departments, actors and actresses on the stage, dashed toward the cloak and dressing rooms, but were driven back by the flames.  Bert Adler, the general publicity agent, with Charles J. Hite, president of the Thanhouser Film Corporation, shouted for order, which calmed the more excited ones, and about fifty inmates of the building marched with some semblance of order through the smoke to the open air."

It began as a two-alarm fire.  As the alarms were given, it took less than twenty minutes before two THOUSAND spectators from all over the region gathered to watch the massive conflagration.  

Local firemen arrived promptly and, just as promptly, recognized the dangerous size of the fire as well as the fact that many nearby homes were at risk of burning as well.  The call went out for mutual aid from other communities including North Pelham and the First Fire District.

New Rochelle Fire Commissioner Frederick E. Winter was one of the first to arrive on the scene.  He entered the building and approached stairs to assess whether it would be safe for his firefighters to battle the blaze on an upper floor.  As he neared the top of the stairs, a massive explosion blew him down the stairs and all the way into the street outside.  According to a local newspaper, miraculously he was only "slightly scorched."  

Soon the Pelham firefighters arrived.  This was especially significant because the New Rochelle "motor fire engine" was temporarily out of commission while Pelham's First Fire District firefighters had a new pumper truck.  Moreover, there was low water pressure in the area.

Numerous firefighters and Thanhouser employees were hurt slightly -- most scorched by the intense heat.  Miraculously, no one was killed and no one was seriously injured.  Additionally, there were many heroic actions during the blazing fire.  Although a couple of nearby homes were burned, many others that caught fire and that were scorched were saved by the firefighters.  

One of the most amazing actions of the day was the effort by Mrs. Hattie McCroskery, a Thanhouser employee, to save all the negatives of Thanhouser films.  A local newspaper described her quick thinking and bravery as follows:

"The quick wittedness of Mrs. Hattie McCroskery, employed in the 'journey' room, is especially worthy of note.  As soon as it was known that the building was on fire, Mrs. McCroskery dashed to the stock room and began handing out through the window the tin boxes containing the negative reels.  She refused to seek safety until the last reel was saved, and then had to be assisted from the building by the firemen."

Other employees raced into the company's administrative offices and began throwing out of the windows "bundles of checks and money, books and papers until they were compelled to leap out of the windows on account of the heat."


Image of the New Rochelle Studio of the Thanhouser Film
Corporation Burning on January 13, 1913.  Source:  Pinterest.
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

Pelham firefighters did all they could to help their firefighting brethren fight the fire.  According to John Gruber, "We went up there with that pumper and pumped for five hours."  Despite such efforts, however, the flames burned the studio and a couple of nearby homes to the ground.

Once the fire was out, John Gruber drove the North Pelham pumper back to the First Fire District headquarters.  Dozens and dozens of Pelhamites who were there to watch the fire joined Pelham firefighters and hung onto the machine to hitch a ride back to North Pelham.  As John Gruber put it:  "Coming home, this machine looked like a picnic bus with half a hundred fellows from North Pelham hanging to every available hold."

Given the volatility of film stock in that day, it was prohibitively expense to insure such locations as Thanhouser Studio.  Estimates for the loss ranged between $75,000 and $100,000 with no insurance for the losses.  Yet, the President of Thanhouser Film Corporation, Charles J. Hite, promptly announced that the company would resume work the following day by "taking advantage of the loan of their studios by other motion picture concerns."  He further announced that all employees would continue to receive their pay, uninterrupted, and that the company had leased the Cooley West building on Union Avenue near the New Rochelle Train Station that it would use as a temporary office.  He further assured the community that Thanhouser would rebuild and construct a larger fireproof studio in New Rochelle.

Never to miss an opportunity to tell a good story, within mere weeks the Thanhouser Film Corporation released a new film entitled "When the Studio Burned."  That silent film may be watched in its entirety by clicking on the play button below.



*         *          *          *          *

"John Gruber Returns To Recall Early Days of Fire Department
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Boasts He Was the First Man To Operate Pumper in North Pelham; Recalls Moving Picture Studio Fire in New Rochelle in 1915.
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Memories of former days in the First Fire District were conjured up last week at fire headquarters on Fifth avenue, when John Gruber, former resident of North Pelham, and the first paid fireman to be employed by the district, dropped in for a visit.

Gruber, who moved away from this village a number of years ago was discovered inspecting the old pumper of the department which was purchased in 1914.  Each shining bit of metal and the various items of equipment on the machine were gone over, almost lovingly by Gruber, the first man to drive this engine.

'That's a great old pumper,' he said to several of the firemen who were standing around.  'I can remember how many hours I pumped at fires with it.'

Several moments were spent in discussing the days before the purchase of the pumper, when horses were used to draw the engines.  At that time there were five equine members of the department and the best of all these was a big 'black' according to Gruber.

'Remember the Thanhauser [sic] fire in New Rochelle?' Gruber was asked.

'Do I remember that fire?  Well I ought to,' he replied.  'We went up there with that pumper and pumped for five hours.  That was in 1915 and that moving picture studio made some blaze.  Coming home, this machine looked like a picnic bus with half a hundred fellows from North Pelham hanging to every available hold.'

A rather amusing incident was mentioned by Gruber in connection with the pumper.  He told of the time, many years ago, when the Highbrook Arms was afire.  He was sick at the time and the department rolled out to answer the alarm.

'They got to the fire,' he continued, 'but the pumper began to act up so they came and got me out of bed to make the thing work.'

Among other fires recalled by this veteran was the Hazen school fire in Pelham Manor, when the firemen had to work in a heavy snow storm as they fought the flames.

Charles W. Foster, custodian of the firehouse, who was a member of the board of fire commissioners of the First District that appointed Gruber to duty, enjoyed the reminiscences.  After saying good-bye to the men on duty, Gruber left for his home in Tuckahoe."

Source:  John Gruber Returns To Recall Early Days of Fire Department -- Boasts He Was the First Man To Operate Pumper in North Pelham; Recalls Moving Picture Studio Fire in New Rochelle in 1915, The Pelham Sun, Jul. 24, 1931, p. 7, cols. 4-5.  

"THANHOUSER PLANT BURNED
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MANY NARROW ESCAPES FROM DEATH IN THIS CITY'S MOST SPECTACULAR FIRE. -- LOSS MAY REACH $100,000. -- NO INSURANCE.
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The destruction of the entire plant of the Thanhouser Film Corporation, located at Grove avenue and Warren street, on Monday afternoon, entailed a loss of approximately $100,000, and is characterized by Fire Chief James Ross as the largest and fiercest blaze the local firemen have had to deal with.  The total loss of the Thanhouser plant ant the building alone is estimated at $85,000.  Neither the building nor the plant were insured owing to the excessive insurance rates necessitated by the great fire risk in a business of this nature.

The blaze, which started shortly after 1 o'clock, necessitated the turning in of two alarms.  In about twenty minutes after the location of the fire became known there were several thousand spectators on the scene.  

The origin of the fire, it is generally believed was in the perforating section of the dark room.  It is thought that a spark perhaps from an electric coil or from friction in one of the perforating machines which might possibly have refused to work smoothly, set fire to a reel of film.  The film, which is on a celluloid base, burned so quickly that the flames communicated to the dark curtains and woodwork with lightning rapidity.  In a few minutes the interior of the room was a mass of flames, and the employees of this department dashed through the building spreading the alarm.  

The cry of 'fire' caused a scene of intense excitement.  Employees working in the other departments, actors and actresses on the stage, dashed toward the cloak and dressing rooms, but were driven back by the flames.  Bert Adler, the general publicity agent, with Charles J. Hite, president of the Thanhouser Film Corporation, shouted for order, which calmed the more excited ones, and about fifty inmates of the building marched with some semblance of order through the smoke to the open air.

Narrow Escapes Many.

On the arrival of the firemen, the building was burning like so much paper.  Fire Commissioner Frederick E. Winter, who was one of the first firemen to arrive, started up the stairs.  He was warned not to go in, but he wished to see if it were safe for the firemen to work inside.  As he neared the top of the stairs, where was an explosion and he was hurled backwards down the stairs and out to the street.  He was slightly scorched.  The firemen were handicapped at first by the low water pressure and the absence of the motor fire engine, which is not at present in use.  They did heroic work, however, and saved a number of surrounding dwellings that at one time appeared to be doomed.

It is fortunate that no breeze was blowing while the fire was in progress, or about an entire block of closely built frame houses would have been burned to the ground.

Escapes from serious injury on the part of firemen, Thanhouser people and spectators were numerous.  Samuel W. Dassler, commissioner of assessment, who was formerly a fire commissioner and one-time head of the department, ran across the street, under the wall of the factory, to straighten out a line of hose.  His right arm was badly scorched by the heat.  Several firemen, who refused to retire, when their comrades did, were scorched and cut by glass.

Numerous Displays of Heroism.

Displays of bravery were not lacking and the presence of mind shown by a number of employees of the plant is being highly commended upon today.  The quick wittedness of Mrs. Hattie McCroskery, employed in the 'journey' room, is especially worthy of note.  As soon as it was known that the building was on fire, Mrs. McCroskery dashed to the stock room and began handing out through the window the tin boxes containing the negative reels.  She refused to seek safety until the last reel was saved, and then had to be assisted from the building by the firemen.

Mr. Hite, Mr. Adler and John Desmond, an office boy, turned back to

(Continued on last page)
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Thanhouser Plant Burned
(Continued from first page)
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the offices to save some of the company's records.  They threw out of the windows bundles of checks and money, books and papers until they were compelled to leap out of the windows on account of the heat.

Loss of Money and Clothing.

Very few of the employees were able to save any of their personal belongings.  Charles Gercke, in charge of the developing room, was unable to save $65 which was in a wallet in his coat in the cloak room.  He did good work, however, in saving valuable negatives.  Actors and actresses escaped in their stage costumes and make-up, leaving street clothes and extra wardrobes in the dressing rooms.  David Thompson, one of the actors, was the only one to save anything.  He dashed into his dressing room and saved his vest in which was his gold watch and chain.  

Miss Bishop, one of the office assistants, it is reported, went back into the burning building to try to save a valuable brooch which was in her purse in her coat.  She was carried out of the building and the brooch was lost.

Soon after the walls fell, a can of chemicals exploded near Grove avenue, making a loud report, and throwing blazing debris into a group of firemen and spectators.

Adjoining Buildings on Fire.

When it was seen that neighboring dwellings were likely to be burned to the ground, the occupants made haste to remove their belongings.  Household articles of all kind were unceremoniously dumped in the mud of the street.  The roof of the cupola on Ruppert's brewery station on Crescent avenue caught fire, as did several other buildings.  Several were badly scorched by the heat, which was the most intense of any fire in the history of New Rochelle.

The houses of Hyman Bolnik on Grove avenue and James Graham on Crescent avenue were destroyed and the houses occupied by Mrs. Maher, Sophia Kallenberg, August Effern, Finn, Moore, Kermin, Slattery and Hoffer, began to smoulder.  The houses of Effern and Finn, on Grove avenue, opposite the factory, caught fire near the top, but the flames were extinguished.

Company Resumes Work.

Despite the total loss of its plant, the film company resumed work on the following day, taking advantage of the loan of their studios by other motion picture concerns.  The Thanhouser company has hired the building of Cooley & West on Union avenue, near the railroad station, which it will use as a temporary office.

In reply to a query by Mayor Waldorf on Tuesday evening as to whether the Thanhouser corporation will remain in New Rochelle, Mr. Hite replied that a meeting of the firm had been held at his residence and it was practically decided to remain in this city, and to build a fireproof studio and factory here. Mr. Hite announced, during the fire, that the employees would continue under salary as though nothing had happened.

Some of the Losses.

For several days after the fire a search of the ruins was made by different Thanhouser players in the hope of recovering a part of their personal property that had been lost.

It is reported that Bert Adler found in the ruins a gold bracelet and an opal necklace owned by Miss Marguerite Snow, which she valued at $2,000.  Miss Snow's entire wardrobe was burned.  This consisted of about thirty dresses and costumes of all descriptions.

James Cruze, the leading man, lost fourteen suits of clothes, mostly stage costumes of fine material, and several hats of different descriptions.  In the suit he had worn to the studio that morning, he had $50 in bills, a diamond ring, a diamond pin, valued together at $300, and a gold watch and chain.

George Barnes lost ten suits of clothes and considerable money.

David Thompson, who plays 'heavy' roles, lost about $1,000 worth of clothing, his watch and jewelry.  Tuesday morning he found in the rains a silver belt buckle belonging to Miss Lila Chester, one of the 'juvenile' women, the silver heads of his two canes, and a diamond pin worth about about $30.

Miss Chester lost a valuable diamond brooch in the fire.  Frank Grimmer found one of her gold bracelets in the ruins of her dressing room.

Charles Van Houten, a carpenter, found his gold watch.  The watch was still going, though the gold case was fused and partly melted.

One of the things saved by Charles J. Hite, president of the company, was a foreign check for $1,500.

The $2,000 automobile used for carrying the photoplayers from place to place, was destroyed in the garage under the building."

Source:  THANHOUSER PLANT BURNED -- MANY NARROW ESCAPES FROM DEATH IN THIS CITY'S MOST SPECTACULAR FIRE. -- LOSS MAY REACH $100,000. -- NO INSURANCE, New Rochelle Pioneer, Jan. 18, 1913, Vol. 54, No. 43, p. 1, col. 5 & p. 8, col. 5.  

"THANHOUSER FIRE
New Rochelle Plant Destroyed, but Releases Will Continue Without Interruption

The plant of the Thanhouser Film Company, including the studio, indoor theater and dressing rooms, at Grove, Warren Street and Crescent Avenue, New Rochelle, was destroyed by fire at 1.30 o'clock Monday afternoon, Jan. 13.  The flames started in the perforating room and spread to every part of the big, two-story building within five minutes.  Fifty employees, mostly women, remained in the offices, on the second floor, with J. C. Hite, the owner, in an effort to save films and apparatus, and got out just in time.  Mr. Hite, Bert Adler, the publicity agent, and John Desmond, a boy, were cut off from the stairways and had to jump from a second-story window.  Mr. Hite was the last to leave the building.

The fire was a spectacular one, as the chemical contents of the building burned like powder, and there were several loud explosions.  Fire Chief James Ross was on the scene two minutes after the alarm was sounded.  The chief placed the damage at not more than $75,000, but Mr. Hite's estimate of his loss slightly exceeded that sum.  There was no insurance on the building, or any of its contents.

None of the actors or actresses employed by the film company were in the building at the time of the fire.  Six or eight of them, including Marguerite Snow, the leading woman, and James Cruze, the leading man, were at dinner at their hotels when the alarm was sounded.  Mr. Hite, who is president of the Mutual Distributing Company, which controls the Thanhouser plant and four others, said that he would at once begin the erection of a new plant at New Rochelle.  He promised employment in one or another of his companies for all of the actors and actresses until the new plant is completed.

The Thanhouser Producing Company in the Middle West, under Mr. Heffron, was to be back at New Rochelle last week, but they have been wired to go right on to Los Angeles, to the Thanhouser Company's studio, where a company under Mr. Henderson has been working for a month past.  This will make two companies at work there turning out the regular 'three-a-week.'  As all the negatives were saved, they will not even miss one single release, as already advertised.  

Lawrence Marston, the producer of the Star of Bethlehem and other Thanhouser features, is busy furnishing a studio at New Rochelle, and is even now at work on a picture right on the ruins of the fire, entitled A Thanhouser Heroine.

The Thanhouser Company is equipping a temporary studio and factory in New Rochelle, and will decide within the next few days in regard to a permanent new factory, studios and offices, which will undoubtedly be located in New Rochelle.  For the present they should be addressed at the Cooley Building, New Rochelle, where offices were equipped within a few hours after the fire."

Source:  THANHOUSER FIRE -- New Rochelle Plant Destroyed, but Releases Will Continue Without Interruption, The New York Dramatic Mirror, Jan. 22, 1913, p. 30, col. 1

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