1944 Gene Kelly film burns at Stanford Theatre

Gene Kelly, Rita Hayworth 'Cover Girl' film jams in projector, catches fire -- but sprinklers douse blaze

The 1944 film "Cover Girl," starring Gene Kelly and Rita Hayworth, caught fire Thursday night about 10 minutes into the film at Stanford Theatre in downtown Palo Alto, forcing evacuation and temporary closure of the 1920s theater.

"We cauld see the flickering light from the flames from the orchestra" area near the front of the theater, audience member Kenneth Allen said of the 7:35 p.m. incident.

The theater, at 221 University Ave., was closed for repairs, primarily from water damage from overhead sprinklers that doused the flames.

Fire Battalion Chief Niles Broussard said no one was injured.

Allen said in an e-mail to the Weekly and some individuals that the film apparently jammed in the projector and caught fire.

"The downtown Stanford Theatre caught fire tonight when the nitrate film jammed in the projector and burst into flames. We along with all other patrons safely evacuated, and it looked like the fire did not spread, but fire trucks were still rolling a half hour after the first alarm," he said.

The subject line of his e-mail was, "It was okay to yell 'Fire' in a crowded theater."

Broussard said the blaze was controlled by the theater's sprinkler system in minutes, and the fire damage was limited to the projector.

But he said the theater sustained between $5,000 and $10,000 in water damage.

-- Bay City News/Palo Alto Weekly staff


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Posted by Ted
a resident of another community
on Apr 6, 2009 at 1:22 pm

Glad nobody was hurt... and very sorry to hear about the fire and water damage... but...

When does a theater catch fire when the flames are limited to the projector?

The former newsman in me gets a bit tee'd off when there's a blatant inaccuracy in the writing of a story... or in this case, the patron's e-mail.

And since water doesn't put out burning nitrate film... what caused the burning film to extinguish?

Was it indeed nitrate, or a print on acetate safety film? And how would the patron know?

How much of that reel of film was lost?

Was the water damage confined to the booth, or does the theater's sprinkler system turn on sprinklers everywhere when there's an activation in just one part of the building?

The theater's website and answering machine don't mention the fire or being closed... and the website at shows the theater as being closed on Wed. and Thurs. the 2nd and 3rd.

So... what's the REAL story... and were any films on-site affected, aside from the reel in the projector?


Like this comment
Posted by Steve
a resident of another community
on Apr 6, 2009 at 8:58 pm

Water DOES help to extinguish a nitrate fire by cooling things. Nitrate generates its own oxygen so you won't put it out by occluding air but cool it enough and it will go out.

Sprinklers activate individually from heat, not all over as is often erroneously shown in TV and movies.

Obviously the theatre itself did not catch fire. That theatre is appropriately equipped to run nitrate prints (which haven't been made in well over half a century). I don't know anything about this incident so cannot say if everything worked the way it is supposed to--it does sound like they lost part of a reel and not just the strip of film passing through the projector and soundhead since I don't know if a sprinkler would trigger otherwise.

But then again I don't know how well the so-called fire trap rollers that isolate the enclosed feed and takeup magazines ever did work in the best of circumstances.

But overall, water damage aside it sounds like things were handled ok. Nitrate film was successfully handled in thousands of theatres across the country and around the world for half a century. Fires sometimes happened...sometimes far worse than this. It's part of our movie heritage. I hope it doesn't disappear entirely, even with the risks.

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Posted by Micah
a resident of another community
on Apr 7, 2009 at 10:43 am

After working with nitrocellulose film for many years, I must say that water will only make a nitrate fire seem worse due to steam generated. It is also dangerous to douse a projector with lots of water. It will not help extinguish the fire. It is best to let it burn itself out. If the (legally required for running flammable film stocks) reel magazines and fire trap rollers are in proper condition and used appropriately the fire won't last long. A substantial piece of nitrate film will burn even if put at the bottom of a bucket of water. How quickly and furiously the fire burns is also a direct result of the level of decomposition of the film.

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Posted by Micah
a resident of another community
on Apr 7, 2009 at 11:01 am

When I just re-read my previous post, I left something very important out; That is that water is useless on a nitrate fire WHILE PROJECTING! Water from sprinklers is effective at stopping or reducing the effects of nitrate fires in film storage cabinets and vaults, or even out on the rewind bench. While the film is running through the projector though, it is best to step aside while it burns out.

Like this comment
Posted by ron genauer
a resident of another community
on Apr 8, 2009 at 12:12 am

calls to mind "cinema paradiso"

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