This is a fire safety device that is installed in most proscenium theatres. Its purpose is to create a flame retardant barrier between the audience and the stage. They are designed to help prevent the spread of fires from the stage to the house. They take several hours to burn through their specialty fabrics, providing for a larger window of opportunity to evacuate patrons and staff, and for firefighters to extinguish / control a fire. Previously made of asbestos woven fibers, today are of a fiberglass material, the most popular of which is Zetex.
Fire curtains have a device (either mechanical or hand operated) that will raise and lower them for inspection / operation / maintenance. An essential key to their operation is a fusible link in their suspension system. At a specific temperature, this link separates, causing the curtain to lower itself. At no time is the path of a fire curtain to be obstructed by sets, lighting instruments, cables, etc. This would impede the proper operation of the device, causing great potential hazard. The curtain should be regularly tested by releasing the pins that hold it in suspension to ensure its proper functionality.
In the UK, the fire curtain is made of metal, and thus is often referred to as "the iron." [Possible myth, but still a good story]: UK regulations state that the operation of the fire curtain be demonstrated to each audience. Therefore, the iron is down while the audience enters, and is raised just prior to the performance.
See this thread http://www.controlbooth.com/forums/facility/12140-fire-curtain-code-question.html for discussion of proper procedures.
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