Tivoli Fire kills two show girls
Updated: Jun 30, 2022
By all accounts it was a normal Saturday night on September 1, 1945 at the Tivoli Theatre in Sydney.
Post-war crowds were out in full force at the theatre for a night of entertainment. Rope Spinner, Frank Glanville had just performed his act in front of a full house and was taking a break at interval. Showgirls Phyllis Haynes, Dorothy Saltan, June McKenzie and Diana Hartt were a floor above, in their costumes of 'black flimsies, satin coats and pink satin bodices' waiting to perform. Two of the ballet girls, Amy Romano and Bunty Leech were also in their room on the same floor as Frank.
Diana Hartt, one of three girls burnt in the 1945 Tivoli Theatre fire and the only one to survive. Credit: Legacy.com
The atmosphere was jovial and busy, to be expected on a busy night. As interval finished, Frank went back stage to watch comedian Mo do his act, as he was always good for a laugh. Halfway through the act, Frank heard a scream. Not noticeable at first, until it was followed by a prolonged hysterical second scream.
Moments before this, showgirls 15-year-old Phyllis Haynes, 23-year-old June McKenzie and her best friend 19-year-old Diana Hartt were busy in their crowded dressing room, applying make-up and chatting on a range of topics. The night was still chilly and despite the close quarters a radiator with an exposed element, replacing the other one with a wire cover that was being repaired, had been placed in the room for warmth. It was this heater that Phyllis' costume brushed up against, immediately catching fire.
The young girl panicked and screamed and as she ran to escape the flames, they spread to the other clothes in the room, engulfing all in their way. This included June and Diana. Dorothy managed to escape.
At this point, hearing the screams, Frank ran back up to his floor and saw a stagehand who was trying to cover up one of the girls, her clothes all burnt. On the next landing he found two of the chorus boys trying to help two showgirls 'burnt to hell'. By this time the sprinkler system had kicked in and smoke poured along the corridor.
Hearing all the commotion, Bunty Leech and Amy Romano had looked out of their dressing room to investigate. They saw flames at both ends of the corridor they were in and in their panic, decided their best plan of escape was to go out the window, which was three floors up, with only two pipes to hold on to. They eventually got stuck between floors when they couldn't go back up, but could go no further down.
Hearing that the girls had gone out the window, Frank knew they would fall if nothing was done, so raced to his room to get his ropes. He managed to get his rope to Amy, who was able to tie it around her waist. With the help of a police man and stagehand, they dragged Amy back into the window.
Known as the 'Tivoli Girl', Phyllis Haynes' headstone is in Rookwood Cemetery. Courtesy Findagrave
Bunty was going to be a more difficult affair as she was further away and a heavier set girl. Frank threw a successful lasso over Bunty and none too soon, as before the rope tightened, the girl lost her grip and plunged down.
Frank had no idea how he held her, as she swung like a pendulum over a 50 foot drop, but Bunty managed to get her feet to a beam below, that he gradually lowered her on to. Helpers were then able to bring her in to the building via another window.
Sadly, Phyllis and June lost their battle for life while Diana recovered after a number of months in hospital and eventually headed over to America to live. June's husband American army captain Eugene Lamphear was serving overseas and unaware of his wife's death. She was cremated at Rookwood crematorium and Phyllis was buried at the same cemetery.
New legislation regarding fire hoses, heaters and sprinklers was introduced to theatres and dance halls after the fire at the Tivoli, to ensure such an event never occurred again.
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'Extinguishers failed' at fatal Tivoli fire, The Daily Telegraph, Tuesday, 30 October, 1945, Page 11
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