20 October 2020

Spooky SLC: Fire at the Capitol Theatre

July 4 1949 fire at Capitol Theatre
From Des News 1949-07-05
On the afternoon of July 4 1949, a fire in the Capitol Theatre (50 W 200 South SLC) claimed the life of Richard L. Duffin..

Duffin had started working at the Theatre only 3 weeks previous, soon after graduating from West High School where he was in the ROTC and in the Aviation Club.

Smoke was first detected by Assistant Manager Charles Whitney. He sent two ushers with fire extinguishers into the basement to investigate – 17-year-old Richard Duffin and 19- year-old Herbert Schoenhardt.

Whitney evacuated the 600 theatre patrons who were watching a Rita Hayworth double feature. All 600 people calmly evacuated (one man demanded a refund before he would leave!). 

Soon after, 3 large explosions rocked the building and shattered nearby windows and ruptured a gas line and water main.

The Theatre’s basement was leased as storage space to adjacent firms- the OC Tanner Co stored jewelry manufacturing equipment and the Physicians Supply Co stored surgical supplies and equipment. It is likely that stored oxygen tanks used in jewelry manufacture is what led to the explosions.

Unfortunately, Duffin was still trapped in the basement by a wall of flames. Schoenhardt attempted several times to retrieve his co-usher but he was overcome by the smoke and was rescued and resuscitated by the firemen. Duffin was pronounced dead soon after he was removed from the basement; he died of smoke inhalation.

The flames were mostly confined to the basement of the Capitol Theatre, primarily due to fire-proof construction (built 1912) which includes firewalls, concrete, and steel.

Weirdly, the Grand Opera House (which occupied the same spot as the Capitol Theatre) was destroyed by fire, also on July 4, of 1890. No one was killed in that fire.

Employees of Capitol Theatre say Duffin’s ghost still roams the Theatre.

Sources- Deseret News 1949-07-05; SL Trib 1949-07-05; West High Yearbook 1949

Preservation Note: Although the Capitol Theater is currently owned by Salt Lake County and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building itself has no required preservation status as it is not a SLC Local Historic Landmark Site or located within a SLC Local Historic District.

 Richard Duffin yearbook photo 1949

Grand Opera House which burned 59 years previous. From UDSH.

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