|Theodore Thomas in 1898|
Alfred Cox photo/Rosenthal Archives of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association
Here’s a joke that Chicago residents told immediately after the Great Fire:
Question: Why is Theodore Thomas different than Nero? Answer: Because one fiddled away while Rome burned, and the the other roamed away while his fiddles burned.
Not a thigh-slapper, to be sure. And for the joke to make any sense today, you need to know that Thomas was a famous orchestra conductor. When Thomas played a program of Johann Strauss in New York, critics said he wielded the baton better than the composer himself.
Tickets going on sale for his October 1871 Chicago performance created a furor. The Tribune predicted the concert would be “one of the most notable events in the history of music in Chicago.”
It wasn’t. The performance was set for Crosby’s Opera House on Oct. 9, 1871 — 150 years ago Saturday. By curtain time, Crosby’s, and much of the city around it, would be ash and ruin.
The date of the Great Chicago Fire is remembered as Oct. 8, 1871 because that’s when it began, about 9:30 p.m. in the barn behind Mrs. O’Leary’s home on the near southwest side. But by midnight it was no historic fire; just another blaze on par with a big fire the day before.
The next day — Monday, Oct. 9 — was when it earned the word “great,” leaping across the river, twice, first ravaging downtown, then jumping to the North Side.
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