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Tivoli fire tragedy of 1945
A Hero’s Personal Account
Variety Today, 1992
(NB: The Tivoli was the major outlet for variety theatre and vaudeville in Australia for over 70 years after its establishment in 1893)
FRANK (TEX) GLANVILLE, considered in his time to be one of the best rope spinners in Australia, has also etched his name in history as a `hero’ in the tragic Tivoli Fire of 1945. The following letter was forwarded to Variety Today by the late Tex Glanville’s widow, Catherine. It was written by Tex to his wife, just a day after the tragic fire and provides graphic detail of the events which transpired. A moving account which brings the horror story to life after 47 year. It really is compelling reading.
Sunday night, September 2, 1945
Tivoli Theatre, Sydney
My darling wife,
Well, Shaws were right after all. I finally got myself into `Truth’ this week, photo and all, for chasing after a couple of girls. Things were a bit too hot at the finish and it got into the papers. I am enclosing a cutting from `Truth’ but it was in the other daily papers too.
But to cut out the rot, we had a pretty awful experience on Saturday night. Some of it was probably in the Melbourne papers but what happened tome was too fantastic for words. the whole thing was too melodramatic to be real life but it actually happened, and to me too. If I’d seen it in a picture I’d have walked out as being too far fetched.
The show was going on as usual on Saturday night and I had finished my act. Interval came and the three from my room went up and had a cup of coffee with the girls in Jack Romano’s wife’s room just above us.
The show started again and I went down onto the stage to see a new act `MO’ was to put in. He didn’t do it but I stopped to watch his old act which is funny, when half way through we heard a scream faintly from upstairs, and everyone thought it was the girls acting the fool. Then came another, and then a horrible prolonged hysterical screaming. I ran like mad upstairs and as I did so a girl yelled out:”Look! The theatre is on fire!”
I reached our floor and on the landing I found Jack Romano trying to cover up one of the showgirls. All she had left on was a pair of pants, the rest of her dress had burnt off her and Jack had torn most of it off as it was flaming. I couldn’t do much for her and I tore up to the next landing. There the room was ablaze, and two other showgirls were on the ground, burnt to hell, with a couple of chorus boys trying to help them, although there was little they could do. The sprinkler system had started in the room and smoke was pouring along the corridor.
Suddenly, I don’t know who, called out: “Two girls have got out the window”.
“My god! I thought, for we had a couple of days before looked out in the light-well, and there is a drop of at least three floors and nothing there but two water pipes running down the wall.
“Which window,” I asked. “The ballet girls window,” they told me.
I rushed down the stairs again and found the ballet girls’ door was locked. I put my shoulder to it and on the second attempt burst it open, rushed to the window and threw it up. They were not outside that window at all, but half way down the pipes between the two storeys above.
They had seen flames at both ends of the corridor when they had looked out of their door and thought they were trapped, so they decided to shin down the pipes. They had gone half way down the pipes and then could not get up again and could go down no farther. The pipes are fairly big and they couldn’t get their hands round them to get a good grip. The only grip they had was a toe-hold between the bricks, which was next to nothing. As it was a light-well, it would have been impossible to get a ladder to them and if they fell they would be smashed to bits.
I flew out of the room, dived into my room next door, grabbed the first handful of ropes I could lay my hands on and dashed up to the room above them. Before this, when they saw me at the ballet girls’ window they called to me: “Oh Tex, do hurry, we can’t hang on much longer!”
I found I had picked up the two ropes which I do my big double spin with. I picked up the first one (the smaller of the two) and the girls were crying: “Oh do hurry Tex, we’re losing our grip.”
I threw the first rope and it landed round Amy Romano’s neck. I told her to try to put it round her waist. After a while she managed it, and she looked up at me when I told her I was going to pull her up, and still clinging to the pipe she said: “Oh Tex, are you sure it will hold me?”
“It will hold you all right,” I said, although I was none too sure. I knew the rope wouldn’t break, but I wasn’t sure that the ronda in the end was strong enough for such a strain. I’d never tied them for that work.
At this moment a big policeman and one of the stage hands grabbed me by the legs and held me. I started to pull Amy up and she swung away from the pipes and under me. I didn’t even feel the weight in the excitement and pulled her up as though she were a baby. The others helped me pull her through the window. We got the rope off her and poor Bunty Leech called out faintly: “Please hurry tex, I’m too tired to hang on much more.”
I threw the rope but she was further away than Amy had been and although the rope touched her, it was too short and, anyway, she dare not let go one hand to reach for it.
I sang out for my longer rope, and we found in the struggle of getting Amy through the window it was tangled round some woodwork.
Poor Bunty is crying out to me to hurry as she is about done, and I finally got the rope and carefully looped and coiled it. The fellows grabbed my legs and I took careful aim and threw it. It was a beautiful throw and landed on her shoulders and swung under her behind and then, before it tightened, Bunty lost her grip and plunged down.
Kit, I don’t know how I held her. she is a big girl and Amy reckons she goes between 10 and 11 stone, and there she was swinging like a pendulum with a 50 foot drop under her. I don’t even remember feeling a great strain but I noticed a beam a few feet below her to one side and I lowered her gradually and she swung on to it as neatly as you like, though she was trussed up like a fowl.
I sang out to her to keep still and rest and the fellows rushed down and found they could reach her from another window. Talk about the old silent serials! They had nothing on this. I wouldn’t like to have to do it again.
I didn’t sleep a wink last night. All the time I could see the faces of those two girls looking up at me out of the dark and hear them say as plainly as anything: “Oh Tex do hurry, we can’t hang on any more.” But, I’m tired tonight, and I think I’ll sleep anyway.
The three showgirls that are burnt are critically ill in Sydney Hospital. They didn’t think one would live through last night, but she is a little improved today. But the two others have now taken a turn for the worse. None of them is burnt on the face but their legs, backs, hands and arms caught it worst, while two had most of their hair burnt off. They will be months under treatment, if they recover. We are thinking of running a benefit show for them.
Well dear, I never thought the old roper would ever save a couple of girls’ lives, but if I’d never earnt a penny with them it would have been worth all the practise.
Keep the press cuttings for me dear and I will write you another letter later with other news in it. I don’t feel like it just now. It’s knocked the comedy out of me for a while. All my love my sweetheart.
Your two-bob hero, Tex