NEW ORLEANS – Forty years ago today, 32 people perished after an arsonist set fire to a gay bar in New Orleans. Many of the victims burned to death, unable to escape the flames that consumed the second-story bar in the famed French Quarter. The others died from smoke inhalation.
Fifteen people suffered gruesome injuries but survived. About 30 others were guided to a little-known exit door, where they fled to safety on a neighboring rooftop.
The torching of the Upstairs Lounge has been called the “largest gay mass murder in U.S. history.” And until Hurricane Katrina devastated the Crescent City in 2005, the Upstairs Lounge tragedy remained the deadliest event in the city’s long history.
To this day, nobody has been convicted of mass murder at the Upstairs Lounge. The prime suspect killed himself about a year after the fire.
Shamefully, the horrific arson fire on June 24, 1973 was largely ignored or downplayed by the mass media, which in those days care little about reporting on any news involving the LGBT community. In those times, homosexuality was still classified as a mental disorder and LGBT Americans were often persecuted as criminals.
The tragic story of the Upstairs Lounge is the subject of a dramatic musical by Orange County playwright Wayne Self, and his “UPSTAIRS: A New Dramatic Musical” is having its world premiere June 20-24 at Café Istanbul in New Orleans.
And documentary filmmaker Robert L. Camina – who won FilmOut San Diego’s 2013 Freedom Award for “Raid Of The Rainbow Lounge,” which also was named Best Documentary – says his next project will be a documentary called “Upstairs Inferno: The Forgotten Story About The Largest Gay Mass Murder in U.S. History.” Camina is currently fundraising on Indiegogo.
The inferno occurred on the final day of Gay Pride weekend in New Orleans in 1973, and a large group of members of the local Metropolitan Community Church were meeting at the bar and planning a fundraiser for the Crippled Children’s Hospital when the arson fire began.
Someone doused lighter fluid in the stairwell leading up to the second-floor bar and set it afire. The flames grew intense, but nobody but the arsonist knew the stairwell was on fire. Because of security reasons due to frequent police raids, which was common in those days, nobody could enter the bar without being buzzed into the club. According to accounts, the buzzer sounded at 7:56 pm that night, and when the door was opened, the inferno swooped into the bar.
In the wild panic that ensued, bartender Douglas “Buddy” Rasmussen led a group of about 30 people out a back exit to safety, but the remainder of the patrons became trapped. The heroic Rasmussen returned to the inferno in an attempt to rescue more of his patrons, but succumbed to the smoke and flames.
The second-floor windows had security bars on them, and only one man was able to escape through the metal bars that were 17 inches apart. The Rev. Bill Larson of the local MCC tried to squeeze through the bars but became trapped, and burned to death as horrified onlookers watched and heard him scream in pain, “No, God, no!” Police left the pastor’s charred remains visible for hours as they worked the crime scene, documented by a news photograph.
Another MCC pastor, George “Mitch” Mitchell, initially escaped to safety but returned to rescue his partner, Louis Broussard. Tragically, both died in the fire.
In the aftermath, some churches refused to hold funerals for the victims and some relatives of victims even refused to claim their bodies. The Rev. Williams P. Richardson of St. George’s Episcopal Church conducted a small memorial services on June 25, later getting rebuked by his bishop who had gotten many complaints from parishioners.
Local radio DJs made jokes about the fire and its victims. And what little media coverage that occurred was a tragedy in itself, and that is part of the reason that Camina has made it his mission to bring the story back to life as part of our community’s history that must not be forgotten.
“The Upstairs Lounge story will anger you. The lack of compassion and response by the general public, government and religious leaders will disturb you. Inevitably, you will be shocked to learn that you have never heard about this event before,” he said.
“It is crucial to acknowledge, preserve and honor our history as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people. The LGBT dialogue has changed so much in the past few years. As popular attitudes shift on LGBT issues, we risk losing the stories of the struggles that got us where we are today. It’s our responsibility to honor the memories of those who came before us, including those who died at the Upstairs Lounge,” Camina said. “The men and women who experienced this tragedy paved the way for the freedoms enjoyed by the New Orleans LGBT community of today, as well as the overall LGBT movement. ‘Upstairs Inferno’ intends to honor their forgotten stories.”
Camina said his full-length documentary aims to tell the story primarily through emotional interviews of survivors, families of victims and key players involved with the aftermath. “Upstairs Inferno” will also feature interviews with historians, experts and current leaders of the New Orleans LGBT community.
Police reports, crime scene photographs, personal photographs, newspaper clippings and video clips from local news stations will support the interviews. The film will also feature footage from the 40th anniversary memorial services, which will be held today in New Orleans.
“We don’t want the film to simply be a stagnant exposition of facts. To truly understand the impact of this tragedy, you have to find the humanity in the story and build an emotional connection. The audience will relive the roller coaster of events through the eyes of those who lived through it. A full length film will allow us to not only provide the historical background, but also pay respect to the hearts in the story,” Camina said. “With access to a new leads, the film is pursuing untold avenues of the story! This film will take us on a journey that will educate, enlighten and hopefully lead us to new revelations and possibly some closure.”
Remembering the victims, per Wikipedia listing
The Rev. Bill Larson
Douglas “Buddy” Rasmussen
Duane George “Mitch” Mitchell
George Stephen “Buddy” Matyi
Joe William Bailey
Clarence Joseph McCloskey Jr.
Willie Inez Warren
Eddie Hosea Warren
James Curtis Warren
Dr. Perry Lane Waters Jr.
Douglas Maxwell Williams
Leon Richard Maples
Reginald Adams Jr.
James Walls Hambrick
Horace “Skip” Getchell
Joseph Henry Adams
Herbert Dean Cooley
David Stuart Gary
Guy D. Andersen
Donald Walter Dunbar
John Thomas Golding Sr.
Adam Roland Fontenot
Gerald Hoyt Gordon
Kenneth Paul Harrington
Glenn Richard “Dick” Green
Robert “Bob” Lumpkin
“Unknown White Man”
“Unknown White Man”
“Unknown White Man”
Forty years later, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New Orleans Gregory Aymond speaks out about the tragedy after four decades of silence.
The Archbishop tells Time magazine:
“In retrospect, if we did not release a statement we should have to be in solidarity with the victims and their families.
“The church does not condone violence and hatred. If we did not extend our care and condolences, I deeply apologize.”
For many, the apology came 40 years too late.
Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at [email protected], @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.