31 Days of Halloween — Day 31: The Rhoads Opera House Fire: The Legacy of a Tragedy (2008) — by Dr. Shock

Rhoads Opera House

Editor’s note: Happy Halloween! Dave “Dr. Shock” Becker is a host on Horror Movie Podcast and the Land of the Creeps horror podcast. He is also the mastermind behind DVDInfatuation.com, a movie review blog where he is watching and posting one review every day until he reaches at least 2,500 movie reviews. Follow Doc on Twitter: @DVDinfatuation.

“Keeping in tune with the Halloween season, I thought I’d take a look at a real-life horror story, one that occurred right in my own backyard.

If I hop into my car, I can be in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, in a matter of minutes. I know because I’ve made the trip many times since we moved to the area a dozen years ago. Both of my sons attended Boyertown Area High School (one still does, in fact), and for the last decade or so, my youngest has been active in Boyertown’s Little League Baseball program.

Both the high school and the ball field are a stone’s throw from the corner of S. Washington St. and E. Philadelphia Ave., which, at the start of the 20th century, was the site of the Rhoads Opera House, the scene of a tragedy that decimated the entire town and made headlines the world over.

It was January 13, 1908, and all of Boyertown was abuzz about a new play opening that night at the Rhoads (which took up the entire second floor of the building, just above the town’s bank). Written by Mrs. Harriet Earhart Monroe, the play, titled “The Scottish Reformation,” was scheduled to run for several nights. According to some reports, as many as 300+ people crowded into the tiny Opera House to see its debut.

Then, something terrible happened.

Per eyewitness accounts, a bulb slipped from the Magic Lantern, which was brought in to project slides onto the stage curtain during intermission. As a result, hydrogen was released into the air (everyone remembers hearing a loud hissing sound). Then, someone on stage moved closer to see what was causing the noise, knocking over a kerosene lamp in the process. Within seconds, the curtain had ignited, and some claim the air itself caught fire.

The building was equipped with fire escapes, which a few lucky people used, while others rushed down the back stairs. Most of the patrons, however, ran for the main doors, pushing forward frantically in an effort to escape the growing inferno. But the doors opened inward, and with the force of a hundred or so people against them, they wouldn’t budge.

The fire spread quickly, killing 170 men, women and children. In the blink of an eye, 10 percent of the town’s population was gone.

Released in 2008 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the fire, The Rhoads Opera House Fire: The Legacy of a Tragedy is a documentary produced by WFMZ, a television station headquartered in Reading, Pa. Written and narrated by Jaccii Farris, the movie delves into all aspects of this terrible event, from the stories told by survivors and grieving family members to the trouble the county’s coroner had identifying the badly charred bodies of the deceased (many were burned beyond recognition).

News of the fire spread far and wide (U.S. Pres. Theodore Roosevelt passed along the condolences extended by the president of France), and resulted in several safety reforms that have become the standard ever since (all doors must open out, all exits must be clearly marked, etc.).

Though it runs a scant 40 minutes, The Rhoads Opera House Fire documentary is extremely informative; researchers spent a year collecting photos, court documents, and eyewitness accounts for this movie, and their hard work certainly paid off.

What hits you the hardest are the personal stories, some of which are quite heartbreaking. Hoping to surprise her husband, Douglas, who was the piano player for that fateful show, Olivia Romig traded her second-night ticket to her niece, who in turn gave her a pass to the ill-fated premiere (the only surprise poor Douglas got was when he heard that his wife, whom he thought was home at the time, had perished in the fire).

Then there’s 13-year-old Lulu Fegley, whose parents allowed her to attend the show unsupervised. Joined by her cousin, Franklin Leidy (who was the same age as Lulu), the two youngsters, getting their first taste of freedom, walked to the theater by themselves. Their loved ones would never see them alive again.

It would be weeks before the full extent of the carnage was known. A few days after the fire, someone was walking past the Taggert farm when they heard their animals, nearly starved, making all sorts of noise. It wasn’t until that moment that the neighbors realized none of the Taggert family made it out alive.

One area the documentary doesn’t touch on, though, is how the town and many of its citizens believe, quite strongly, that the spirits of the dead are not at rest. In his book Haunted Boyertown, Charles Adams III makes the boastful claim that Boyertown is the most haunted small town in the United States, and the Rhoads fire is the reason why (my wife recently went on a ghost walk, sponsored by the local Historical Society, and the person guiding it talked a great deal about the 1908 tragedy).

Though 100 years have passed, the Rhoads disaster is still very much a part of Boyertown, and in all likelihood, it will continue to be for decades to come.”

—Dr. Shock

YouTube video clip: The Rhoads Opera House Fire: The Legacy of a Tragedy

Watch Dr. Shock’s video

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Dr. Shock also appears on this horror podcast: Land of the Creeps

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12 thoughts on “31 Days of Halloween — Day 31: The Rhoads Opera House Fire: The Legacy of a Tragedy (2008) — by Dr. Shock

  1. Just finished the last elm street review for horror movie podcast & a second later i got the email to this. Cool coincidence lol

    • Yeah thanks for working that into your busy schedules while the people that riled everyone up (Dino and Juan) sat back and relaxed haha. I feel so bad for not participating as much during this month, but I’m glad that the comments section was still blowing up with tons of comments from new listeners and first time posters. I’m sure this is just the beginning of your well deserved movie podcast empire.

      And happy Halloween to everyone. Have fun but stay safe. This is the time when the real monsters come out to blend in and trick you into an early grave. Ok, that’s an exaggeration, but do be safe out there and look out and take care of the kids.


  2. 31 Days of Halloween day 30

    70. Over Your Dead Body (***) – Typical Takashi Miike horror, and by typical I mean you’ve never seen anything like it. No idea where this guy comes up with this stuff.

  3. (Spoiler free)

    Day 31 – All Hallows’ Eve (2013)

    When you first begin watching All Hallows’ Eve, the first thing that will stand out to you is how cheap looking of a movie that it happens to be. The truth is, that’s because it is a cheap movie. With two out of the three short stories being filmed years ago and only then being thrown into this movie along with a new short story and a wraparound, the quality varies too. Looking at the film, it looks as if it was made on a budget of how many lawns a teen can mow over the course of a summer, assuming all of the cast agree to work for free/pizza & beer. The special effects budget is whatever you could find down in Uncle Joe’s basement and the rest being covered on a $50 birthday check you received from Grandma Gladys. If the actors have any experience at all, which only covers about half of the cast, it’s mostly just from working on a couple of short films.

    With all of those limitations caused by the budget, it should make for a pretty harsh film to watch. Yet, the opposite is true. I LOVED this movie. Part of my enjoyment did come from being impressed that the filmmakers could create a good film despite those budget restrictions. When you look past the money, you’ll see a film that succeeded in every other department. First and foremost, Art the Clown, the main villain of the film and the only character that can be found in all three short stories and the wraparound is pretty amazing. Art’s extremely creepy, some of his scariest looks is when he’s not even attempting to come off as menacing. Keep in mind, I’m not someone who has a phobia of clowns. So for Art to seem freaky to me is saying it has more to do with the look of the clown and what the actor does to make the character stand out. The director of the film, Damien Leone, is looking at making a full length film starring Art the Clown and I hope it works out. Art the Clown has potential to be a new horror icon.

    Throughout all of the shorts and the wraparound, the one reoccurring theme is that they kept getting me with the scares. The tension is always there. Another thing is you don’t know what’s going to happen next. Leone seemed to love catching the viewer by surprise by his various twisted twists. Again, I’m impressed with this ability to cause me to be on guard when it’s still a cheap looking movie. For example, the second short features an alien that may be one of the weakest I’ve ever seen. Somehow, this weak looking alien stop me from being scared.

    For some quick thoughts on the shorts, the first one about a woman kidnapped and chained with a couple of other girls excelled as being the short that was the most unpredictable. To put it mildly, it gets weird and it’s only going to get weirder the longer you watch it. The second one that features the woman terrorized by the cheap looking alien is suspenseful. Unlike the other two, this one takes a bit to get going, particularly once you first see the alien. However, I got into the story and found it to be the most suspenseful out of the three shorts. The final short about a woman who stops at a gas station, only to become the new target of Art the Clown stood out due to being presented as a sort of Grindhouse type movie. For the entire short, it film a lot of imperfections. If nothing else, that was nice just for the sake that it caused the short to stand out from the others. It ended up being my favorite short due to the gore and because it features Art the Clown more than the other shorts. Not to mention, it features one of the few people in horror that knows how to successfully handle a plastic bag being placed over their head. For most anthologies, it seems as if there’s at least one disappointment. The original V/H/S certainly had a dud. That one doesn’t feature any disappointments. Each one keeps the viewer interested as long as the lack of money doesn’t become distracting.

    The actual wraparound story was far more than just a necessity as a means to present the other shorts. The creepiest moments of the film happens in this wraparound. The fact that a child would receive an unmarked VHS tape in his candy bag while trick ‘r treating is really creepy. Forget about the fact that this is a horror movie, imagine it’s the 90’s and your child (Provided you have one) was given a blank tape in their bag. What sort of craziness is going to be featured on that tape? Would you let them watch the tape? Would you even dare watch it yourself? Then there’s this little throwaway line by the young boy in between the shorts. All he does is mentions how you keep checking up on him and how that prevents them from being able to fall asleep. Yet, you haven’t been upstairs. You’ve been watching the movie. That is freaky. It doesn’t matter if the kid is making it up or being mistaken. It would send chills up my spine. The end of the movie features an event that is very rare for horror movies and immediately makes you take notice that you’re watching something serious.

    Overall, I didn’t have the highest expectations for All Hallows’ Eve. I heard some good things, but with it’s low IMDb rating and how cheap it looked, I had reservations. I had a ball with the movie. I literally had a big grin on my face when the credits came up. While not quite as good as Trick ‘r Treat, I do believe it deserves to have the sort of cult classic reception that Trick ‘r Treat has. If you go into All Hallows’ Eve with an open mind, I think you’re going to have a blast with a movie that will hopefully become a Halloween tradition.

    I’d give it an 8. Big shout out to Jay and Dr. Shock for their review of this movie on an early episode of HMP. I would have never even heard of this without that review.

    • Bonus review

      (Contains spoilers)

      Day 31 – Halloween 4 (1988)

      Halloween 4 is an extremely special horror film to me. It’s the movie that took a series that I enjoyed and transformed it into my favorite horror series. That helped my love of horror grow even larger. I can remember buying the VHS and having the tape displayed on my entertainment center, but later having to lower the case because seeing Michael Myers’ mask was a little too creepy. If there’s one movie, horror or otherwise, that I can repeat the most likes for, it’s Halloween 4. I fully recognize that it has faults and isn’t even the best film in the Halloween series, yet I can honestly say it’s my favorite movie.

      Part of the whole geekdom for the film thinking and talking with others about such meaningless aspects of the film. Rachel’s mom? Totally deserving of being stabbed at the end of the movie because she dared to cook eggs instead of making french toast like Rachel had promised Jamie. This weird fandom for Bucky. Coming up with wild and off the wall theories about Rev. Sayer. Of course there’s been plenty of talk about the infamous scene in the school where Michael appears to have blonde hair. Likewise, every Halloween 4 fanboy has their own opinion about whether Rachel’s friend, Lindsay, is the same Lindsay that appeared in the original Halloween. For the record, I don’t believe she is.

      At it’s heart, the major strength of Halloween 4 comes from the strength of it’s stars. First of all, you really have to give a hand to Danielle Harris for her role as little Jamie Lloyd. By child actors standards, she was fantastic. You were never annoyed by her and you just wanted her to be saved. Rachel’s an unique female lead in that there’s two sides to her. When she’s with a male, whether Brady or someone else, she’s your typical over emotional and needing to be saved female that horror had been created on since the dawn of time. Yet, take away some male help and leave Rachel alone with Jamie and Rachel stops the crying because it’s time to get into bad ass mode. She realizes that she’s Jamie’s only hope and like hell will she let anything happen to this poor little girl. It’s awesome. The fact that she’s so likable makes the decision to kill her off in the early going of Halloween 5 even more baffling. Lastly, there’s Dr. Loomis. This time around, he’s at the end of his rope. He can’t bare to witness another slaughter at the hands of Myers. As a result, Loomis ends up going a little crazy a couple of times, although not nearly as bad as he does in Halloween 5.

      The relationship between Michael and Dr. Loomis has always been an interesting one to me. To me, there’s a lot of respect there. Michael may not care for another soul on this planet, but I do believe he respects his former doctor. We get shown little evidence of this with Myers never killing Loomis. He has opportunities, but he doesn’t take it. As he does show in other entries of the Halloween series, he is willing to stab Loomis if Loomis won’t leave him alone. Even then, for someone who has killed such a large group of people, he wasn’t very successful at killing Loomis. Here, the respect theory mostly came at play when Loomis first runs into Myers again at the rest stop. Even though Loomis is shooting at Myers, Michael doesn’t try going after Loomis. When Myers leaves in the truck, he could easily hit or run over Loomis, but he doesn’t even do that. All he actually does is drive a bit recklessly to cause Loomis to jump out of the way. Yet again at the school, it should be an easy kill opportunity for Michael, but he doesn’t attempt it. This relationship between Loomis and Myers mirrors a father/son relationship. Despite his age and poor health, Loomis keeps going after Myers because he feels responsible for Myers’ actions. Myers is the troublemaking kid who is willing to do absolutely anything, except kill off this father figure.

      For the first time while watching this, I began wonder why Michael goes after Jamie. After all of these years, I just assumed Michael goes after his niece because he just likes killing his family. Yet, what if that isn’t the actual reason? All we know at this point in the series is that Michael loves going after his sisters. We don’t know why, but he just does. Looking back at the first Halloween, he didn’t attempt to attack his parents when they got home. What if he doesn’t actually have a problem with his family? If the only reason why he went after Jamie in the first place was due to the anger of finding out that Laurie died in a car accident? It’s only after learning about all of this that Michael comes out of his coma. Michael isn’t able to kill Laurie, but damn it, he’s going to kill Laurie’s daughter so he can at least say he killed some part of his sister.

      Another fun element of the film are all of the characters. I’m not talking about the major characters, but rather the brief minor characters where we only see them for a single scene. For whatever odd reason, I love these odd characters and wished we could have had more scenes or future movies with them. At the top of that list is Dr. Hoffman. Besides the actor having this great raspy voice, this man has an unique relationship with Dr. Loomis. When Michael gets taken away from Ridgemont, Hoffman looks into the ambulance with a look in his eye that makes me think that for as much as he denies it, he sees the truth about Michael, just as Loomis does. He knows something is going to happen. Then there’s the AMAZING character of Rev. Sayer. He’s such an oddball and provides some rare comedic relief. Personally, I’ve always loved Loomis’ look when Sayer offers him a drink. With Sayer’s crusade against evil, I’m disappointed that we never saw a spinoff to see what Sayer was actually up to during this time period. Then there’s Brady’s dopey buddy, Wade. He had “Future victim” written all over him when we’re introduced to him in the drugstore, but he just vanished. It seems as if he took Kelly’s decree of “Fuck off, Wade” to heart. Poor guy. Raymond O’Connor (He’s one of those actors where you don’t know his name, but you’ve actually seen him in a ton of movies) plays a security guard at Ridgemont and again, he’s so entertaining that I wished we could have had that character come back for another movie.

      One of the main criticisms for Halloween 4 is the new look for Myers’ mask. Don’t get me wrong, it is a lame looking mask. Easily Michaels’ worst of the series. Yet, I don’t have an actual problem with it because Michael grabbed it from a cheap drugstore. To me, a cheap, crappy looking mask is the exact kind of mask that Michael should have been forced to take from that store. It works for me, despite not liking the mask, because it’s believable.

      The finale is one of the best of the entire series. There’s even times when I prefer it. The big reveal of it actually being Jamie that stabbed Rachel’s mother was shocking. In this final minute, she’s no longer this cute little kid. She’s a terrifying would be murderer. Everyone’s reaction to this sight is great. Loomis flat out loses his mind. He can’t handle it and just crumbles on the stairs. Sheriff Meeker is completely shocked. Others can’t understand what they’re seeing. All of this goes back to when Jamie left the pick-up truck and held the hand of her nearly dead uncle. It’s kind of a heartbreaking scene because this truly signifies how alone Jamie feels in the world when she tries to gain some sort of connection to the one family member that she has left, even if that family member would want nothing better than to cut her into pieces. Sadly, as great as this final scene was, it ultimately didn’t mean anything as Halloween 5 nixed the whole idea of Jamie being the killer. Shame too because that would have made for an interesting concept.

      Before I wrap up this review, I want to give a mention to the single worst children in the history of the world. You have this sweet kid in Jamie, who has gone through far too much crap in her life. Yet, she has to endure these three bullies at school that actually taunt her by chanting, “Jamie’s an orphan! Jamie’s an orphan!” What the hell?! That is so mean! These children are only seven to eight years old, yet they’re saying such awful things to another child that seemingly never goes after anyone else. I’ve never wanted a horror icon to kill movie kids as much as I wanted to see these three bullies end up in a similar fate as Kelly and Brady.

      Overall, Halloween 4 is a classic to me. I’ve seen it more than any other Halloween film and maybe even more than any other horror film. The main leads are really likable and get me to root for them. Despite the limitations by the MPAA, the death scenes weren’t hurt. In fact, we even get a very unique slasher kill where a shotgun is involved. If nothing else, Halloween 4 is a quality slasher sequel that won’t make you suffer if you want to watch the sequels to Halloween.

      It’s my favorite all time movie. It’s a 10 for me if it isn’t for anyone else.

  4. Day 31: The Body Snatcher (1945)
    I’ve seen this before but it was so long ago that I forgot most of it, so I’m counting this as a new watch. Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Val Lewton make a great combo for Halloween! I’m posting this like 5 days later but I did watch it on the 31st.

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