Documentary film of 1913 strike to premiere Friday

CALUMET – “Red Metal: The Copper Country Strike of 1913,” a documentary that will soon air nationally on PBS, will premiere locally tonight at the Calumet Theatre, just around the corner from the site of the 1913 Italian Hall Disaster, the tragedy that thrust the strike before the nation’s attention.

Seventy-three people, mostly striking miners’ family members, died inside the hall after someone falsely yelled fire during a union Christmas party Dec. 24, 1913.

The disaster became a galvanizing moment for the national labor movement in the decades that followed, according to “Red Metal” director and producer Jonathan Silvers.

“This, in 1913, was an incident that changed the nation’s history,” Silvers said.

Steve Lehto, historical advisor to the film and author of “Death’s Door,” a book focusing on the Italian Hall Disaster, agreed, noting that it was in the years shortly following 1913 the federal government began enacting laws regulating minimum wages and hours, child worker laws, and safety.

“It’s hard to imagine today that people would be killed on the job on a weekly basis,” he said.

Lehto said that while the 1913 strikers were forced eventually to return to work without a wage increase, the nationwide working-condition improvements of following years show they may have “lost the battle but won the war.”

“It was one of the first big battles in labor history,” he said.

Silvers said one of his biggest surprises when he filmed in the Calumet area were the intensity of locals’ responses to the strike and tragedy, even after 100 years.

“It’s amazing how fresh the wounds are, how immediate the response,” he said, noting that even people with no direct connection to the 1913 events quickly related them to their own experiences and beliefs regarding labor and management, and about the larger history of mining in the region.

Calumet Theater Executive Director Laura Miller said she felt privileged to host the “Red Metal” premier, 100 years after strikers marched down Sixth St. and the theater played its own small role in the Italian Hall Disaster.

The night of the disaster, she said, bodies of victims were brought for identification to the then-theater banquet hall, a part of the building that now houses the village fire department.

Friday’s premiere of the one-hour film will be followed by a question and answer period with Lehto. Admission is free; donations are being taken to support the theater and the Michigan Technological University Archives, which shared over 100 images that were used in the documentary.

Red Metal will also be shown at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Finnish American Heritage Center at Finlandia University. It will broadcast on PBS at 8 p.m. Dec. 17.