WILMINGTON — In 1934 it is believed that while a Murphy Theatre stagehand was enjoying a smoke, his cigarette accidentally touched the movie screen on stage, igniting it.
Altogether, the fire caused thousands of dollars damage, but to the stage only. The reason for that? The fire curtain that had been installed prevented the flames from spreading.
The curtain bore the face of the theater’s founder, Charles Murphy. The last time the curtain was lowered was back in 1976.
Jennifer Hollon, a Murphy Theatre Board of Trustees member, said that for years people wondered what had happened to the curtain. When a company from Cincinnati was doing construction work and updates to the stage, they lowered the curtain.
Hollon said people knew it was up there, but they weren’t aware that it was the one with Murphy’s portrait.
“It’s thrilling to see it again,” said Hollon.
The way these curtains worked was if a fire broke out on stage, heat-sensitive components would hit a certain temperature and the curtain, usually constructed of heavy fiberglass or iron, would drop. This would keep the fire from spreading.
When it comes to why the curtain had not been lowered in 40 years, Hollon attributes that to it not being utilized as much.
“In the ’30s the theater was more of a live production theater and they would need a fire curtain for protection during these live shows. But in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, it became more of a movie theater where they didn’t put on as many live productions.
“And as staff changed and people moved around it was kind of forgotten about,” she said.
While the curtain needs some updates, Hollon nonetheless was excited to see it.
The story of the curtain and other Murphy Theatre stories will be featured in Hollon’s upcoming book, “The Historic Murphy Theatre” which is set to be released in 2018 as part of the celebration of the Murphy’s 100th birthday.
Reach John Hamilton at 937-382-2574