100 years ago today, shortly before 4:00 PM on Thursday, July 6, 1916, nitrate film exploded in the operating booth of the Grand Theater at 72 Main Street, in Batavia, NY on July 6, 1916 which was owned by T. G. Thompson, Jr., of Rochester, and managed by George F. Flaherty of Batavia and was the only theater in the city licensed to show Metro pictures.
Because chief film operator Linn W. Hagen was away on his honeymoon, 20 year old regular assistant operator of the moving picture machines George Plock and 18 year old newly assigned assistant film machine operator Lamont D. Gillons, who had worked in various positions at the theater for the last three years and who regularly ran the machines for the supper hour showings, were caught in the fire but within a minute of the explosion were able to exit the booth.
"I was operating the machine at the time of the accident," said Plock "and Gillons was busy with the films that were In the box. Nothing happened to the machine. When I saw that there was a fire I shut off my machine and grabbed a fire extinguisher nearby. I also used two pails of sand, but could not do anything towards extinguishing the blaze. I had to run past the fire to get out of the booth and I think the reason I was not burned as badly as Gillons was that I had on more heavy clothing and that I did not take hold of any of the burning films. We were in the booth only an Instant after the fire started because we could not breathe on account of the fumes."
Theater manager Flaherty, who was not at the theater at the time of the explosion but arrived shortly after the flames had been extinguished, said the next morning on July 7, 1916 that "the cause of the accident was the dropping of a piece of hot carbon Into a box of films. He said that Gillons was engaged In removing the carbon from the machine and that accidentally a piece of this carbon slipped from "the pliers into the box where he had a partially unwound film. The conflagration spread immediately to the other films, which are of highly combustible material.". He called attention to the fireproof construction of the machine booth and said it explained the fact that the fire did not spread to the theater. "There are automatic shutters at the openings from the booth into the theater through which the pictures are projected. When the temperature in the booth reaches a certain point metal stops are melted and the shutters are released, effectually closing the openings and preventing fire from communicating to the auditorium.".
Gillons ran outside past the ticket booth in the lobby manned by Ethel Snow who saw that his hair and clothing were still on fire. She said he was yelling "someone put me out" and then he ran out into the street where 22 year old tourist Smith Johnson from Attica, New York, who was helping someone get out of his car in front of the theater, pulled off his own jersey and wrapped it around Lamont, trying to smother the flames and in the process got the hair on his own head singed and on his arms burned off. With three or four other people helping Johnson, they got Lamont back into the lobby and lay him down on the tile floor where they were able to finally extinguish the still burning flames on Gillons.
Plock, who initially thought himself unharmed even though he had burns on both arms above the elbows, the back of his neck, the left side of his face and his eyebrows, ran into the theater and helped open the fire doors and assisting patrons to safety. He wounds were later dressed and he was released because were "not of such a serious nature as to cause great suffering".
Box 74, on Main Street opposite State Street, was pulled to notify the firemen who quickly arrived. Chief McBride directed the stringing of a line of hose into the theater from a forty-gallon chemical tank on the fire truck which was sufficient to almost instantaneously extinguish the blaze in the projection booth.
Though the theater quickly filled with dense dark brown and grayish smoke, the approximately 50 patrons, mostly women and young girls, in the house at the time made their exit through the fire doors nearest Main Street on the east side of the theater onto Russell Place with little confusion and no mishap.
To avoid getting in the way of the firemen, Gillons was moved to the entrance of the Woodward shoe store just east of the theater and then was loaded onto the town's automotive mail wagon by direction of Postmaster John F. Ryan who rode in the wagon, driven by William J. Cummerton, with Gillons and was accompanied by Ryan's brother Thomas J. Ryan and Fred W. Van Auken, to Batavia Hospital at 127 North Street, Batavia (currently the location of Genesee Memorial Hospital). During the drive, Gillons remained conscious and repeatedly asked about the welfare of the patrons and hoping no one was hurt.
Upon arrival at the hospital, Gillons was placed on a operating table and sedated. He was attended by three physicians including chief surgeon Dr. William Johnson.
Gillons' hands, wrists, chest, and neck were terribly burned and his across his abdomen the burns looked to be in the exact shape of a strip of film which Gillons may have pressed against his body trying to extinguish it.
Theater manager Flaherty was able to quickly get new projectors and prints of so that the theater reopened the next day on Friday, July 7, 1916 for a advertised evening show at 7:00 PM for a program that special music by the theater's band and showing of episode number 4 of "Gloria's Romance" entitled "The Social Vortex", starring Billie Burke and introducing Richard Barthelmess, as well as all five parts of "A Youth Of Fortune" starring Carter DeHaven and Flora Parker DeHaven.
Initially it was thought Gillons would probably not need skin grafts and would survive due to his age and strength, but after the effects of shock set in the next day on July 7, 1916, his situation turned critical shortly before 5:00 PM when his heart no longer responded to strong stimulants and he was pronounced dead at 6:00 PM.
The next day on Saturday, July 8, 1916 theater manager George F. Flaherty with the approval of the theater's owner T. G. Thompson, Jr., announced in an advertisement that "on account of the lamentable death of Lamont D. Gillons the Grand Theater will remain closed until after the funeral has been held.".
All the 48 members of the class of 1916 of the Batavia High School, of which the deceased was a member, attended the services at the house and the church in a body. The bearers were Herbert T. Booth, Jr., William Gilboy of Auburn, Robert Harris, Francis B. Steele, Earl Williams and Tracy White of Byron. Flower bearers were Clarence Bohm, Lewis S. Collins, Lawrence C. Hopp, Douglas D. Judd, F. Harold Kelly, Harry E. Loomls, Paul J. Manning and Harry E. Poultridge.
Among the flowers were pieces from the class of 1916, B.H.S.; class of 1919, B.H.S.; St. James's vestry; acolytes and Knights of St. James; Junior auxiliary or St. James's choir boys of St. James's; young men's Bible class of St. James's, the Grand Theater, orchestra of the Grand Theater, and employes of the Grand Theater, the Family Theater, Majestic Lodge, I.O.O.F., and the 1915 B.H.S. football team.
St. James's vested choir, of which the deceased was a member, sang at the church under the direction of William I. Lyon. During the services the Family Theater, as well as the Grand Theater, was closed. The interment was in the Elmwood cemetery" on Harvester Avenue.
After the funeral, The Grand Theater reopened that night for a 7:00 PM showing of Harold Lockwood and May Allison in "The Comeback" in five acts and Hobert Henly in "The Devil's Image" in three acts and ran an advertisement that was a special invitation for the citizens of Batavia to visit the theater the next day, Tuesday, July 11, 1916 between 11:00 AM and 5:00 PM "and make a thorough inspection of its service equipment. See our two new machines. Most modern equipment for fire prevention. This is the Fire Proof House. We want to demonstrate to you that when you come here you are absolutely safe. We sincerely hope you will accept our invitation to visit the theater Tuesday.".
Insurance of $3,000 (with inflation, the equivalent of $66,120 in 2016) was paid out. Lamont's parents received what was reported as at least $200 (approximately $4,408 in 2016) in a settlement.
On Thursday, March 22, 1917, Nikitas Dipson, owner of The Family Theater, bought The Grand Theater from T.G. Thompson who had opened it four years earlier. Dipson said the competition between the two theaters had ending up costing him and Thompson about $40,000 (approximately $881,600 in 2016) over the past four years and he hoped that now he would be able to negotiate better prices from the major studios. Within a few days, manager George F. Flaherty, who had run the theater since it opened, left the employ of Dipson after helping organize the theater's affairs for him.
In Lamont's memory, a statue carved of black walnut in the image of Christ, and keeping with the general design of the other statuary in the church, was presented to St. James' Episcopal Church by his parents, City Assessor Edward Lamont Gillons and Martha May Redshaw Gillons, who were also members of the church, on Sunday, April 1, 1917. The statue was made by The Batavia & New York Woodworking Company and is nearly five feet in height. It was hoped to have been placed in the center niche in the rear of and above the main altar in time for the Easter Services on April 8, 1917.
According to Barb King, current director of the church, who took a flashlight and a ladder to reach the statue and read the dedication plate, the statue still exists and is still in the center niche behind the altar.
On Arbor Day, Friday, April 27, 1917, a tree was planted at Batavia High School (which at the time was at 260 State St, in Batavia, NY) in Lamont's memory. Francis L, Casey, the senior class orator, delivered the dedication oration and in behalf of the class of 1916, Harry E. Poultridge delivered the eulogy. The singing of "The Star Spangled Banner" and the sounding of taps by Arthur W. Curtis concluded the program. It is not known if the tree still stands but the school itself was demolished and two new locations have been built since 1917.
Arbor Day Oration
FRANK L. CASEY
On Arbor Day for years past, it has been the custom in our school to plant a tree and dedicate in to the memory of one whom the Creator has called. As the little tree grows and springs forth into full maturity so the memory of our friend, therein commemorated, will become dearer and more cherished.
Lamont Douglas Gillons was born November 8, 1897. He attended the Washington Avenue Grammar School in this city and was graduated from Batavia High School, June, l9l6.
Fellow students, you knew Lamont. He was one of us. He had one of those rare dispositions that one cannot resist liking in a fellow. Wherever he was or under whatever conditions, he always brought his large share of sunshine and cheerfulness. He left us in the springtime of his life, but the memory of him will linger forever. I know of no way more fit than this to commemorate and preserve the memory of our deceased comrade.
"The clouds that gather 'round the setting sun,
Do take a sombre coloring from an eye
That hath kept watch o'er man's morality,
Another race hath been, and other palms are won.
Thanks to its tenderness, its joy and fears,
To me the meanest flower that grows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears"