MERRILLVILLE | A fire caused the evacuation of the Star Plaza Theatre on Wednesday night during a performance of "Shanghai Circus Live."
About 1,800 people were safely ushered out of the building in minutes after a red velvet curtain on the right side of the stage caught fire about 8:10 p.m., Ross Township Fire Chief Ed Yerga said.
He said the cause of the fire is under investigation, but speculated "it could have been a stage light or audio equipment."
He said there were no pyrotechnics being used in the show.
He said the performers also were safely ushered out.
"The sprinkler system actually put the fire out," Yerga said.
Firefighters remained on the scene to make sure the building was properly ventilated.
"The bigger the building, the longer it takes to get the smoke out," he said.
The adjoining Radisson Hotel was not affected by the fire.
Yerga praised Star Plaza employees for following proper protocol.
"The Star did what they were supposed to do," he said. "They turned on the house lights and evacuated everyone."
He said the fire damage was limited to the stage area. There was moderate smoke and water damage to the first 10 rows.
Audience member Lincoln Hoole, of Lansing, said he saw one of the stagehands approach a smoky area on the stage before the curtain caught fire.
"He came out with a fire extinguisher and everything just kind of caught, and the flames just traveled up the curtains," he said.
Krystal Turner, of Chesterton, said she was shaken by the situation.
"It was scary. I saw the curtain light on fire and some guy tried to extinguish it," she said. "Obviously it didn't work. ... The flames took over the curtain and people were taking their sweet time trying to get out. And then the curtain started falling, and I just got out of there."
Hector Palomo, of Merrillville, took his nephew to the show.
"We were watching the act. We were at the front of the stage. ... All of a sudden, we saw smoke behind the curtain. We thought it was a fog machine. I said, 'Look it's a fog machine.' So we didn't pay attention to it. Everybody thought the same thing. All of a sudden, there was sparks and the curtain started going on fire from behind the speakers. I said, 'Oh that's not a fog machine. This isn't right.'
"... everybody started panicking and going to the exits," he said. "Even the workers. There was a lady with no coat. There was a lady in a wheelchair. They had to get out and somebody took their coats. ... They said the building is filled with smoke and they wanted us to be outside."
Kathy Podgorski, of Lansing, said she saw the sprinkler system kick on after the fire started.
"The sprinklers came down on the stage. The 'Shanghai Circus' with the spinning plates was still going on," she said. "They stopped when the sprinklers came on. That kind of ended the show."
Star Plaza Theater management couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday night.
- Times staff writers Molly Woulfe and Kathleen Quilligan contributed to this report.