It has burned through twenty presidencies and eight Rocky movies, through mood rings, pet rocks, lava lamps, and disco, through two world wars, two Liz Taylor-Richard Burton marriages, and two World Series appearances by the Texas Rangers.
The Eternal Light of the Palace Theater.
The light’s story begins late in the nineteenth century. Barry Burke was ten years old in 1896, selling newspapers on the street downtown, when a man approached him and asked if he wanted a small role in a play. Burke said yes. He played the character “Toby,” a dwarf who is ground up in a sausage grinder, in The Devil’s Auction.
Fast-forward to 1908. Teddy Roosevelt was president. Barry Burke was twenty-one years old and still in the theater but now working backstage as an electrician at the new Byers Opera House (see Part 1). On September 21 Burke and other Byers employees were readying the theater for its grand opening and its first production: The Land of Nod. A thousand problems, some large, some small, had to be solved before that first curtain went up.
One of the smaller problems was backstage: The door that led to the stage behind the exit curtains was poorly illuminated. Burke screwed three carbon-filament lightbulbs into sockets in the rafters over the door.
As time passed and plays and movies came and went at the Byers, as might be expected, the bulbs that Burke had installed in 1908 began to burn out. But only two of the three. Burke installed replacements. Eventually they, too, burned out. Burke replaced the replacements.
At some point Burke realized that he had never replaced the third of the three original bulbs. Odd. He began to monitor the little light that could.
On it burned.
Year after year.
The lightbulb became an object of wonder, first among theater folk and then electric company folk.
No one could explain why the little light burned on.
It lit the way for Sarah Bernhardt when she performed at the theater in 1911. For Lillian Russell in 1913.
When the Byers Opera House was converted to a movie theater and became the Palace in 1919, the lightbulb kept its job and burned on. The lightbulb wasn’t the only holdover from the Byers: Palace owner E. H. Hulsey, in this folksy open letter, says Barry Burke had been retained as stage manager.
In the remodeled theater the bulb lit the way for J. Frank Norris in 1921, for the wife of bank robber Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, who warned that crime does not pay, in 1934, and for Jimmy Stewart and Maureen O’Hara when they appeared in person on the Palace stage to promote The Rare Breed in 1966.
Eventually newspapers began to notice. For example, in 1952, when Harry Truman was president, Star-Telegram music critic E. Clyde Whitlock mentioned the lightbulb. Forty-four years of service was deemed remarkable.
Clyde, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
The Eternal Light was featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not and Guinness Book of World Records.
As the lightbulb gained notoriety, electricians feared that if the bulb were turned off after so many years, the shock to its system might be fatal. When a bulb is on, its filament is hot. When the bulb is switched off, the filament cools and contracts, resulting in tiny stress cracks. The more the bulb is switched on and off, the larger these cracks grow until eventually the filament breaks.
So, Texas Electric Service Company—rightfully proud of its best goodwill ambassador since Reddy Kilowatt—connected the bulb’s socket to a special feeder circuit, and the on-off switch of that circuit was secured so it could not be accidentally tripped.
The Palace manager, Charles Carden, said, “With this special circuit, everything in the theater could go out on a power disruption, but the light wouldn’t.”
As for Barry Burke, after his humble debut in theater as “Toby,” he remained in theater: He eventually became manager of the Palace. Then for twenty-eight years he was an auditor for Interstate Theaters, the chain that owned the Palace.
Burke told Star-Telegram entertainment columnist Elston Brooks that he had the eerie feeling that when the lightbulb burned out, he would die.
The lightbulb outlived Barry Burke. In fact, it outlived all the managers of the Palace.
The movies The Light That Failed, City Lights, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, A Shot in the Dark, Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? came and went along Show Row.
And on the little light burned.
By 1977, the lightbulb, which had gone on duty when the first of Show Row’s three theaters opened in 1908, had outlived Show Row: The Hollywood had closed in 1976, the Worth had closed in 1971 and was torn down in 1972. The Palace had closed in 1974.
On March 18, 1977, as the Palace Theater itself was about to be demolished, George Dato, a North Side High School graduate who had bought the building from ABC Interstate Theaters, with the help of two industrial scientists slowly decreased the power to the lightbulb, by then burning for sixty-nine years. Dato then gingerly moved the lightbulb to his home and connected it to a rheostat.
He turned up the dial on the rheostat.
Once again, on the little light burned.
That was forty-three years ago.
Through the years Elston Brooks periodically updated readers on the status quo of the Eternal Light: in 1960 (Eisenhower), 1968 (Johnson), 1977 (Carter), 1984 (Reagan).
Today, 112 years after Barry Burke illuminated a backstage door, the Eternal Light is in the care of the folks at the Stockyards Museum.
Drop by and see ’em sometime.
They’ll leave the light on for you.