a wide shot of the byham theater auditorium, looking down on the lowered fire curtain

100 Years of History: A Look at the Byham Theater’s Fire Curtain

Tue, Aug 20, 2019

Written by: Jamie Crow | Photos by: Seth Culp-Ressler

The fire curtain at the Byham Theater may sound self-explanatory: it’s a fireproof curtain that provides a barrier between backstage and the auditorium in case of a fire. While the fire curtain does serve its practical purpose, it also has a storied past that provides a look at the Byham’s history.

a photo of the front of the byham theater auditorium, including the lowered fire curtain on the left of the frame
 

The timeline of the Byham Theater’s multiple transformations is laid out in a 1993 story by writer D. Nash. The Byham originally opened as the Gayety Theatre on October 31, 1904. The Gayety was a vaudeville house that allowed many local residents the chance to see a live show at a reasonable price. While it was originally believed that the fire curtain was installed when the theatre opened, it is actually dated July 26, 1911. The curtain, painted by Pittsburgh artist T.J. Collins, depicts a stunning scene that looks similar to Venice. Intricate detail, fountains, waterways, and beautiful architecture are portrayed, bordered by burgundy swags and gold detail at the top.

a detail shot of the dating and signature on the curtain reading 'T.J. Collins July 26 1911'
 

The fire curtain was so popular that Nash said many members of the audience would arrive to a show early to catch a view of the curtain before it went up into the fly loft before the show. At the end of the show, the asbestos cloth would come back down, providing the fireproof barrier between shows.

When the Gayety became the Fulton Theatre in the 1930s, it was transformed into a movie theater. During that transition, Nash wrote that a lot of the original charm was lost, with many of the original fixtures being covered up or demolished. The fire curtain, too, was sent up to the fly loft and stayed there for decades, until the Fulton went through a renovation in the early 1990s to become the live theater we know today.

a photo of the backstage ripcord that is pulled to drop the curtain in an emergency situation
 

As part of the renovation, Evergreen Painting Studios restored the fire curtain. When it was first lowered, the curtain revealed layers upon layers of soot from the nearby steel mills. A 1993 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article details the restoration process. In order to remove the soot but maintain the paint’s integrity, white bread was used to gently clean the curtain. The restorers used Nickles brand bread (crust removed), balled into a big clump, and cleaned the curtain. After the soot was removed, Nash wrote that they restored the painting and applied a silicone coating — both to protect the painting and stabilize the dangerous qualities of asbestos.

a photo showing the chipping and flaking paint damage found at the bottom of the curtain
 

Following the restoration, Nash said there were hopes to bring in the curtain before and after shows to allow the audience a peek at the artistry. Today, though, the curtain stays up in the fly loft for reasons of preservation. It’s only brought down once a year for functionality tests.

While many of us may not be able to see the curtain in person now, there is some comfort in knowing that the curtain, which, according to Nash, is Pittsburgh’s last fire curtain from the turn of the century, is safely housed in the fly loft of the Byham. Here’s hoping its history and beauty can inspire audiences for another 100 years.

a head-on photo of just the curtain itself
Tags:
  • Byham Theater
  • history
  • curtain