Winchester's Pastime Theater Disaster

Historic Marker on Main Street, Winchester. Author's collection.
On March 9, 1918, occurred what is often described as “the worst catastrophe in Winchester’s history.” The Pastime Theater, located on Winchester, Kentucky’s Main Street could seat 500, but it was not unusual for folks to stand or sit on the floor. It is estimated that at least 600 attended that Saturday evening’s showing of The Silent Man.

At 7:45 pm on that fateful night one century ago, twelve perished under fallen debris from a collapsing wall.

The Pastime

Main Street Winchester, looking north. The Pastime is near the center of the photo on the left (west) side of the street. Main Street Winchester collection.
Opening night of The Pastime Theater (24 N. Main St.), Winchester's second movie house, was on April 4, 1912. At the time, it could seat 333 patrons. The following year, the theater promoted its ability to show "Kinemacolor" films which was the first technology that colorized films (although the technology was relatively short-lived).

Just three years after the theater opened, its operation was transferred to Vic Bloomfield who took a 17-year lease on the building. By May of 1915, the theater had been remodeled, overhauled, and expanded to its final seating capacity by extending the front of the auditorium some twenty-five feet.  That extension was a single story in height, unlike the remaining parts of the theater.

Public Domain.

Featured Film: The Silent Man

It was toward the end of the evening's first showing of The Silent Man that the tragedy occurred. The silent film was released on November 26, 1917, and was directed, produced, and starred William S. Hart.

Hart plays the role of a gold prospector ('Silent' Budd Marr) who arrives in a town where he promptly is relieved of his treasure; Marr then goes about trying to recover his wealth.

Although portions of the movie were subject to censorship boards across the country, the full feature film can now be watched on YouTube:
A few days before the tragedy, a fire struck the Luman Building which was immediately south of the Pastime. Gutted, the Luman Building's brick north wall (adjacent to the theater) remained unsupported.

On the day of the disaster, a local blacksmith named James Gartland observed that the unsupported brick wall was swaying. He reported this to local officials, but they determined that it posed no risk to the citizens of Winchester. 

That evening, the Pastime was to air two showings of The Silent Man and it was toward the end of the first showing, around 7:45 p.m., that the bricks from the Luman Building's unsupported brick wall came tumbling into the single-story addition which had been added to the building during the recent remodel. 

The front rows of the theater were packed with children and injuries were numerous. The Winchester Sun reported that the cries of the injured could be heard for a block. Within an hour of the collapse, nurses began arriving to care for the wounded from the nearby communities of Lexington, Mt. Sterling, Paris, and Richmond. 
Interior of Pastime Theater, post-collapse. Source.

The Victims

Twelve souls perished in the tragedy; the vast majority were children with their high percentage on account of their being predominately seated under the single-story addition which took the brunt of the damage from the collapsing wall.

Memorial Plaque to the Victims, dedicated in 2013.
Author's Collection.
Abram Field, 52.
Houston Noel, 21.
Coleman Aldridge, 16.
Jesse Adams, 18.
Tommy Thomas, 12.
Rosie Azar, 16.
Andy Henry, 10.
Everett Shindleblower, 33.
Houston Frisbee, 10.
Georgie Frisbee, 8.
Russell Smith, 12.
Robert Baber, 33.

Houston and Georgie Frisbee, brothers, sons of Colonel Frisbee, are buried side by side at the Winchester Cemetery. The Frisbee Boys are noted on the cemetery's walking tour.

George and Houston Frisbee, ages 10 and 8.
Roberta Newell collection.
Rosie Azar and Tommy Thomas were members of a small Lebanese community in Winchester, their parents having immigrated to the United States. They, too, are buried in Winchester Cemetery.

Tommy's sister, Helen Thomas, was a senior White House correspondent for decades. Helen was born in 1920, two years after the tragedy that took her brother's life.

One young man, however, was not among the victims. George "Shanty" Gartland's father, who warned city officials of the swaying brick wall, wouldn't let his son George attend the Pastime that evening because he did not feel it safe.

A plaque remembering the names of the victims, pictured above, was dedicated in 2013. The final line on the plaque is a reminder to us all.

Let Us Never Forget