The Widdershins

REMEMBERING A NEW ORLEANS TRAGEDY

Posted on: June 25, 2013

Upstairs Lounge3

Monday marked the 40th anniversary of a terrible tragedy in New Orleans; the arson fire at the Upstairs Lounge in the French Quarter.  Twenty-eight men died at the scene of the fire, one died on the way to the hospital and three died later from their wounds so a total of 32 people died as a result of this arson.  All but one were men.

This post is going to have a lot of quotes pasted in so I hope you don’t mind that.  But the story needs to be told outside of nola and some of you might consider it a history lesson, while some of us lived through the times.

Essentially, here’s the story.  The Upstairs Lounge was a gay bar in the French Quarter.  This was 1973.  A lot of people (hell most people) were not out back then.  The French Quarter itself was different back then.  If you’ve been there, it wasn’t the elegant (Royal Street and its antique stores) touristy area it is now.  Rather, think in terms of what you saw if you saw the movie A Streetcar Named Desire.  It was a rundown area, filled with, as one person said, “thieves and queers”.  Many times, gay men carried fake i.d.s to the bars, not so much to prove they were over the age of 18 (the drinking age in La at the time), but in case there was a bust at the gay bar, so their real names would not be printed in the paper.

According to Frank Perez, a writer for Ambush magazine in New Orleans,

“The way things were at the time was really pretty bad. Raids of gay bars were very high and discrimination was profound,” Perez said.

A description of the Upstairs Lounge was given this way:

In 1973, the gay and lesbian scene in New Orleans was still largely underground, and patrons remember the UpStairs Lounge as not just any bar, but as a gay community hangout where locals could gather without fear of social persecution.

Songs were sung around a piano, “nellydramas” were performed with the help of local playwrights, and couples competed in tricycle races, according to former 9th Ward resident Johnny Townsend, the author of “Let the Faggots Burn: The UpStairs Lounge Fire,” a comprehensive retelling of the events of that night in 1973.

The walls of the French Quarter watering hole were covered with flocked wallpaper, adorned with memorabilia including an iconic Cosmopolitan magazine spread of Burt Reynolds lying naked on a bearskin rug.

To get into the bar, you had to ring a buzzer at the entrance on the ground level and then after you were let in, you went upstairs to the bar.  The gist of the story of the arson is this:  A local hustler and regular Rodger Nunez, had been thrown out of the bar and it was said that he remarked, “I’m gonna burn y’all out.”.  (Note: Nunez committed suicide the next year and an acquaintance of his said that when he was drunk he confessed to setting the fire but denied it when he sobered up)  The fire was determined to be arson but no one was ever arrested or convicted of the crime.

That night:

about 60 people held court at the French Quarter bar. A weekly “beer bust” had just ended, a jukebox was blaring near the entrance and people were gathered around the bar’s piano, where two men took turns banging away on the keys, as patrons joined in and sang along to “United We Stand”.

An incessant buzzing at the bar’s door, however, got the attention of bartender Buddy Rasmussen, who eventually asked 47-year-old Luther Boggs to go answer it. The buzzer was located at the street level where another door entered onto Iberville Street. Upon pushing open the lounge door, Boggs was met with a wall of fire that had been building in the stairway, causing flames to explode into the bar, instantly setting the whole place ablaze.

Rasmussen, an Air Force veteran, was able to lead about 20 people to safety through a rear door near the stage, which led out onto the roof of the building.

The rest were not so lucky.  The building had “burglar bars” on the windows and as the fire raced up the stairs, exploding into a backdraft when the door was opened by Boggs, the majority of the people inside were trapped.

As firefighters Terry Gilbert and Arthur Lambert recall:

Flames shot from the building like “blowtorches” into the night, Lambert said. Men could be seen struggling hopelessly against the security bars on windows, escape impossible. People on the street screamed for help. A sickening smell hung in the air.

The fire was quickly brought under control, the firefighters said, but so much damage and misery had already been caused.

“It was horrible,” Gilbert said. “These people, they were literally roasted alive. When your skin is exposed to open flames, you just melt, like candle-wax. It’s horrific.”

Gilbert, who had just returned from a tour in Vietnam, was almost in shock.

“I don’t think anything could have prepared you for something like that,” he said. “No one deserves to die like that.”

Once they were able to get inside the charred lounge, a grisly task lay ahead for the firefighters and volunteers helping out at the scene. A pile of bodies lay heaped on the floor near the windows facing Chartres Street.

“The chief told me, ‘I’m not gonna tell anybody that they have to do this, but there ain’t none of us leaving until it’s all done,'” Lambert recalled, adding that most of the men began pitching in just to hurry the process.

Fire-Upstairs Lounge3

A burned body by one of the windows

The fire is still often overlooked by scholars and historians on a national level, Perez said, because it was never considered a hate crime and therefore received less attention than other more notorious incidents.

However, in New Orleans, many by now know the story of the tragic blaze that took so many lives, and Perez said the activism and awareness in New Orleans alone is reason for hope.

“Forty years ago, nobody would talk about it, nobody wanted to pay attention to it. The fact that now it’s getting all this coverage — and respectful coverage at that — is a testament to how far we’ve come,” Perez said.

But back then it was different.

New Orleans in the early 1970s was extremely homophobic. Police raids of gay bars were common, discrimination based on sexual orientation (both in housing and employment) was de rigueur and homosexuality was still considered a mental disorder by the medical establishment.

Initial media reports and the police response to the UpStairs Lounge fire were less than sympathetic. Out of fear and shame, some family members of the deceased refused to claim the ashes of their “loved” ones. Radio commentators joked the remains should be buried in fruit jars. On the issue of identifying the victims, Major Henry Morris, a detective with the New Orleans Police Department said, “We don’t even know these papers belonged to the people we found them on. Some thieves hung out there, and you know this was a queer bar.” At the time, many gay men routinely carried false identification to gay bars in order to avoid being outed in the newspapers in the event they were arrested during a police raid.

While the media coverage was cruel and the police response was dismissive, the religious establishment’s reaction was downright hateful. Church after church after church refused the use of their facilities for a memorial service. Father Bill Richardson of St. George’s Episcopal Church, however, believed the dead should have a service. He graciously allowed, over the protest of many parishioners, the use of St. George’s sanctuary for a prayer service, which was attended by roughly 80 people. He was subsequently chastised by his bishop and received no small amount of hate mail. Days later a Unitarian Church also held a small memorial service. A larger service was held on July 1 at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church on the edge of the French Quarter.

Regarding Father Richardson of St. George’s Episcopal, he did catch flack from the Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana, the late Iveson Noland.  Fr. Richardson explained it this way:

He [Noland] said, “Bill, this is the Bishop. Have you read the morning paper?” I said, “Yes, Bishop, I have.” “Is it true that the service was at St. George’s Episcopal Church?” “Yes, Bishop, it was.” “Why didn’t they have it in their own church?” he asked. I replied, “For the simple reason their own small church holds about 18 persons. Without any publicity we had over 80 present.” “What am I to say when people call my office?” I replied, “You can say anything you wish, Bishop, but do you think Jesus would have kept these people out of His church?” I heard later the Bishop had a hundred calls, and I got hate calls and letters. Only one member of our vestry supported me. Later, I was stopped on the street by many persons thanking me for doing such a Christian thing.

Fire-Upstairs Lounge2Their own church being the Metropolitan Community Church.  Another reason they couldn’t hold a service in the MCC church was because MCC Pastor, Bill Larsen, and his assistant, Duane Mitchell were both killed in the fire at the Lounge.  It was said that at the memorial service, a lot of the people who attended chose to leave the church from a side entrance so they would not have to face the cameras of the local media.

New Orleans has progressed since then.  If you walk around the Quarter today, you’ll see rainbow flags draped over balconies and also flying in the breeze.

The gay community in New Orleans has come a long way in 40 years. Gay political organizing began to yield dividends in the 1990s, and police harassment of gay bars is a thing of the past. Southern Decadence is celebrated with a mayoral proclamation and has an annual economic impact of $125 million. Rainbow banners adorn North Rampart Street during Gay Pride month, and the city of New Orleans leads the South in extending civil rights to gay city employees.

I might add that I believe Tulane University also offers spousal benefits to their gay employees and Tulane is the largest private employer in the city.

As Father Richard Easterling of St. George’s today said:

As we approach the 40th anniversary of these things, I cannot help but marvel at how very far we’ve come. Nationally, folks often look to Stonewall as the beginning of the gay liberation movement, but I would offer, as I have heard in the past, that with fire comes change. I believe that this event, this fire and its aftermath have shaped us, and this city, and this Church. We bear its indelible scars and amid its soot and ashes we find new growth.

A Requiem Mass was held at St. George’s Episcopal church on Saturday, June 22nd 2013.

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Requiescat In Pace

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Note:  Clancy DuBos, the owner of Gambit Magazine, writes of his recollections here as a cub reporter who covered the fire.

A graphic of the layout of the bar can be found here.

A copy of the front page of the Times-Picayune headline of the story can be found here.

This is an open thread; comments need not be on the topic of this post.

LATE ADDITION:

Courtesy of Towelroad I was able to find a link to a youtube vid that showed a couple of segments on the fire that made the national news.

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22 Responses to "REMEMBERING A NEW ORLEANS TRAGEDY"

How quickly we forget.
Here’s the latest from the Supremes: Section 4 of the VRA was stricken, Section 5 upheld. Go figure.

Fredster, I’m ashamed to say I was unaware of this tragedy. I was pretty young when it happened but that is no excuse for not knowing about it. It’s just shocking.

Thank you for the history lesson.

Beata@2: Nothing to be ashamed about. This did not get a lot of national attention back then as you could see from the youtube vid. And the attention it got locally was far from complimentary. So in retrospect we have made a lot of progress even though it doesn’t seem like it at times.

This was on nola.com and unfortuantely it’s not an embeddable video but you can go to the link to watch this. It’s a jazz funeral type thing they did for the victims of this fire.

http://video-embed.nola.com/services/player/bcpid1949030309001?bclid=0&bctid=2503670614001

You’ll see a couple of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, New Orleans house in the vid.

Excellent post Fredster. Thank you for posting it.

As horrific and unspeakable as this event was, it is emblematic of the “fear of difference” and the sociological palliative of pecking orders. It is truly instructive that when tolerance is “monetized” it alleviates the fear and evens out the pecking order. An uglier lesson about human nature is hard to conjure.

Thank you Prolix. It is difficult for me to think about a time when a gay person had to carry around a false i.d. just so that if they were busted in a bar their true identity would be concealed. As the Virginia Slims commercial used to say “You’ve come a long way baby” (but not far enough yet!).

Fredster, you have written beautifully about this heartbreaking story. I’m going to have Laker read it. He has asked me many times about what it was like for gays back when we were young and I have told him how harsh it was back then. Thank God for progress, anyway. Still a long way to go.

Still no word from the Supremes on the gay cases, but they just gutted the Voting Rights Act, 5-4, predictably, so it may not look good for gay marriage.

Fredster thanks for reminding me of the importance of today I hope after forty years the souls that perished in that fire can finally get some peace. knowing they are properly remembered and seeing how far we have come!

socal@7: Thank you so much. Yes it might be a good idea for Laker to see what it was like back then, especially, the two gay men who spoke to local reporter Bill Elder but who would not identify themselves.

fuzzy@9: That was a summer I was home from college and was barely even acknowledging myself as a gay person. I remember the story and it terrified me thinking that people had to hide who they were.

socal@8: yeah I don’t completely understand their reasoning on the Voting Rights Act. And to even think of throwing this back to Congress is a joke. Those jerks will nevah, evah, get their act together to be able to come up with another bill on it.

Fredster I think there are a lot of states outside the south that need justice department supervision Michigan’s Republican Governor has disenfranchised at least 51% of the states African America Voters and look out west at the attempts to disenfranchise Latino voters in Arizona and Nevada. If the Republicans want to win over minority voters they better attend to this or they will become a footnote in history by 2035.

fuzzy said: I think there are a lot of states outside the south that need justice department supervision

Oh you are exactly right. And wasn’t it Ohio that messed around with the early voting rules and requirements, plus the amount of time early voting was available?

At the rate the Repubs are going, they are going to cease to be a national party of any importance.

Hey Fredster, I recently watched a documentary on PBS about being gay in America, and this awful story rings a bell. What a horrible thing to happen, and thanks for enlightening us about the details.

What is the deal with the VRA? I am so crazy busy I haven’t been following the ins and outs…

Besides the VRA, they are still trying to get rid of legal abortion:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/25/wendy-davis-filibuster_n_3498699.html

@15: They have pitched Title IV, which singled out various states, counties, and cities for judicial review prior to making any changes in voting procedure, but left Title V intact. The Supremes feel that the world has changed since 1965.

mb said: What a horrible thing to happen, and thanks for enlightening us about the details.

Yeah, it was terrible and those days weren’t so good. I can’t imagine going out to a bar with your friends or to meet friends and having to worry about it being raided. Pretty bad.

Thanks, Chat! 🙂

Socal, that woman is my hero! A 13-hour filibuster all by herself. Awe-inspiring!

No big surprise here, Ed Markey projected to win the Sen. seat in Ma.

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