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40th UpStairs Lounge Fire Commemoration Ceremony Recap/2013
by Frank Perez, Ambush Mag, Issue 14, July 9-22, 2013
The fortieth anniversary of the UpStairs Lounge fire, which claimed the lives of 32 people in 1973, was commemorated on Monday, June 24 with a special event at the Williams Research Center of the Historic New Orleans Collection and a jazz funeral procession. According to organizers, the goal of the commemoration ceremonies was to raise awareness of the fire, which had gone largely forgotten in the city’s collective memory, and to afford the victims of the fire the dignity and respect they were denied at the time of the tragedy. By all accounts, those goals were achieved and the event was a resounding success.
One week before the ceremony, the Advocate, New Orleans edition, ran a front page story on the fire with the headline, "4 decades later, fire on margins of state history." The story also ran in the paper’s Baton Rouge edition, although not on the front page. Later in the week, the Times-Picayune also ran several stories about the fire and commemoration ceremonies and on Sunday ran two op-ed pieces titled, "Honoring UpStairs Lounge victims," and "New Orleans has come a long way since the UpStairs Lounge tragedy." The Gambit also ran two stories about the fire and a number of local themed and gay related news blogs also covered the event. Time, the national weekly news magazine, ran a six page story about the fire. All local television stations also covered the commemoration events.
Coinciding with Pride weekend, the commemoration events began on Thursday when several people took the Gay New Orleans Walking Tour—an interactive stroll through the French Quarter and Marigny which highlights the city’s rich gay history. The tour is offered daily and by appointment by the Crescent City Tour Booking Agency, one of the sponsors of the Commemoration Ceremonies. Call 504.568.0717 for reservations and information about the tour.
Also on Thursday, the new dramatic musical, Upstairs, by playwright / composer Wayne Self made its world premiere at Café Istanbul. The play ran through Monday night to sold-out audiences and critical acclaim. Paul Christopher, a critic for Theater Mania, wrote in his review that the production treated the tragedy with "respect, perspective, and a level of humanity uncommon in the modern musical-theater scene. Weeks before the premiere, locals actively derided the concept of a musical treatment of the tragedy, filling the social networks with angry declamations of trading on the disaster and erroneously assuming that Upstairs would be a frivolous musical comedy. The show . . . quickly changed even the most hardened critics into ardent supporters of the production." Family members of the some of the victims were at a few performances.
On Monday at 3pm, over 200 people gathered at the Williams Research Center of the Historic New Orleans Collection to commemorate the fire. The lecture hall, solemn and dignified with priceless works of art depicting Louisiana history along the walls, was an appropriate venue for the standing room only crowd. At the front of the room was a beautiful bouquet of 32 white roses representing the 32 people who lost their lives in the fire.
Commemoration Ceremonies Chairman Frank Perez welcomed the group to the Williams Research Center and set the tone for the event when he said, "We gather this afternoon to remember, to commemorate, and to celebrate. We remember the deadliest fire in New Orleans history and the worst crime against gays and lesbians in our nation’s history. We commemorate the 32 people who lost their lives on that tragic night. And we celebrate not only their lives, but also the progress we have made as a community in the last 40 years."
Those in attendance listened with reverence and rapt attention as local artist Skylar Fein then presented a slide show of pictures of the fire and the bar before the fire. Fein’s installation "Remember the Upstairs Lounge" debuted at Prospect 1 in 2008 and has recently been acquired by the New Orleans Museum of Art. Fein’s work has been reviewed in notable publications such as Art in America, ArtForum, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and the Times-Picayune. Fein did an effective job of humanizing the victims and conveying the social milieu of the time.
Fein was followed by author Clayton Delery, who is currently finishing up a book about the fire. Delery spoke about the public aftermath of the fire. Delery specifically focused the media’s lack of coverage and local politician’s lack of response, especially when compared to the attention given to two other fires in New Orleans within months of the UpStairs Lounge arson. Delery received a Ph.D. from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Although he began work on his book about the UpStairs Lounge in 2009, he has been interested in the fire ever since the arson occurred in 1973. He lives in Natchitoches, Louisiana, where he is a faculty member at the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts.
After Delery’s talk, Rip Naquin, owner and publisher of Ambush magazine, presented a check for $2,532.00 to the Historic New Orleans Collection in memory of the 32 victims of the fire. The money had been raised through various fundraisers in the gay community and through individual and business sponsorships. HNOC Executive Director Priscilla Lawrence was visibly moved to tears as she accepted the donation and thanked the local lgbt community.
Mark Cave, Senior Curator and Oral Historian at the HNOC, then invited people to visit an exhibit of the Research Center’s archival material concerning the fire. He also informed the meeting of an oral history project he has initiated and invited people with memories of the fire to be interviewed. Cave currently serves as the North American representative on the governing council of the International Oral History Association, and is Chairman of the Emerging Crisis Research Fund which finances Oral History projects that document disaster and human rights crises throughout the world. He has created The New Orleans Life Story Project which has recorded numerous perspectives of the UpStairs Lounge Fire.
After the event, the assembled crowd was greeted outside the Williams Research Center by a brass band and a horse drawn carriage hearse. The bouquet of 32 white roses was loaded into the hearse and a jazz funeral procession wound its way to the site of the fire at Chartres and Iberville Streets. At the site, Father Bill Terry of St. Anna’s Episcopal Church offered a special blessing and Misti Ates solemnly read the names of the 32 victims. A second line parade then commenced. The crowd, which had grown to about 350 by this time, made its way to the Balcony Bar at Café Lafitte in Exile where a celebration of life cocktail / sendoff party was held.
Remembering the Upstairs Lounge Fire
by: Frank Perez, Ambush Mag, April 2013
On Sunday evening, June 24, 1973, the deadliest crime against gays and lesbians in the history of the United States occurred at the Upstairs Lounge in the French Quarter. On that night an arsonist set the gay bar on fire killing 32 people and injuring still more. Many people, then and now, mistakenly believe the fire was a hate crime motivated by homophobia. It wasn’t. Rather, the crime was motivated by anger and revenge.
On that fateful evening, an unruly hustler, Rodger Dale Nunez, was thrown out of the bar for badgering and fighting with a regular customer, Mike Scarborough. Scarborough was in the bathroom when Nunez, who was in the next stall, started harassing him through the glory hole. Scarborough complained to the bartender. As he was being escorted out of the bar, Nunez threatened to "burn you all out." About thirty minutes later, a fire broke out on the stairwell. Then the buzzer in the bar rang which usually meant a cab had arrived. Luther Boggs, a regular at the lounge, opened the door to the stairwell to be greeted by roaring flames. As the fire spread, panic ensued. Bartender Buddy Rasmussen led about twenty people through a rear fire exit which was not clearly marked. Many dashed for the windows but the windows had burglar bars. A few were skinny enough to squeeze through but the others were doomed.
Katherine Kirsch was on her way to buy cigarettes around 7:45pm when she smelled smoke at the corner of Iberville and Chartres. She opened the stairwell, saw the flames and immediately ran to the Midship Bar next door to call the police. Fire trucks arrived about two minutes later. They were met by a grizzly, horrific scene. The lifeless body of Bill Larson, Pastor of the local Metropolitan Community Church, was wedged in the window, his face and right arm protruding stiffly over the street. Buddy Rasmussen saw his boyfriend, Adam Fontenot, knocked off his feet with a blast from a fire hose while he flayed around on fire. George Mitchell escaped the fire but ran back in to rescue his boyfriend, Louis Broussard; their bodies were found intertwined, thereby occupying in death a position they saw often occupied in life. Many of the dead were burned beyond recognition but were ultimately identified through the dental records of local dentist Perry Waters, who also perished in the fire.
Thirty men and two women died as a result of the arson. Nunez, who drunkenly confessed to the crime to friends on more than one occasion, committed suicide the following year. Some believe Nunez killed himself because he was so filled with remorse. Initial media reports and the police response to the fire were less than sympathetic. 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. The States-Item graphically described the aftermath of the fire: "workers stood knee deep in bodies . . . the heat had been so intense, many were cooked together." 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 nonchalant, 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 (himself believed to be a closeted gay man) of St. George’s Episcopal Church, however, believed the dead should have a service and graciously allowed, over the protest of many parishioners, the use of St. George’s sanctuary for a prayer service on Monday night 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. Reverend Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, officiated the service at St. Mark’s along with Methodist Bishop Finis Crutchfield, who would die 14 years later from AIDS. After the service, Reverend Perry pointed out a side entrance for those who wished to avoid the television cameras which waited outside the main entrance. Of the estimated 250 people in attendance, no one took his offer.
The Upstairs Lounge arson attracted gay activists from all over the country to New Orleans. Reverend Troy Perry and others criticized the gay community of New Orleans for its apathetic attitude and general lethargy regarding the gay liberation movement so much in vogue in other American cities at the time. Local bar owners concerned about how all the attention might affect their businesses and prominent gay men who had grown comfortable with their place in the order of things responded by calling Perry and the other activists "carpetbaggers" and "outside agitators."
Despite these objections, the fire motivated a handful of activists to form the Gay People’s Coalition (GPC). The GPC launched a publication, Causeway, and established a Gay Crisis Phone Line. Causeway was edited anonymously by Bill Rushton, then a student at Tulane University, who also edited the Vieux Carre’ Courier. An editorial from the January 1974 edition of Causeway boldly declared, "There are enough gay men and women in N.O. who are able to do anything they wish—be it swinging an election or electing a gay city councilman." This clarion call, while certainly true, fell on deaf ears. As the embers of the fire cooled, so did the ire of the gay community. In what was to become the dominant pattern of gay activism in New Orleans, the GPC, and Causeway, eventually faded away. Former Baptist minister Mike Stark formed the Gay Services Center, located on Burgundy in the Marigny, in 1974. Initially the group enjoyed a flurry of activity, including the publication of a newsletter, the Closet Door. But the group’s promise was never fulfilled; in a familiar pattern, the newsletter and the group were soon moribund.
The Upstairs Lounge fire was a seminal moment in the history of gay New Orleans, the significance of which was even noticed by the arch-conservative Times-Picayune. A month and a half after the fire, the paper published a week-long series of six articles, all written by Joan Treadway, concerning homosexuality, the first of which was titled, "Gay Community Surfaces in Tragedy of N.O. Fire." The tone of the article is surprisingly objective and Treadway even quotes local gay activists who succinctly summarized the multitude of dilemmas facing gay New Orleanians, namely police harassment, job and housing discrimination, and general societal alienation.
In addition to forcing straight New Orleans to acknowledge its gay community, the fire also forced the gay community in New Orleans to confront itself. In this regard, the fire was our Stonewall—a wake-up call that sparked the activism of the 1970s and caused gays and lesbians in New Orleans to mature as a community. Now, 40 years later, our community is planning to commemorate the victims of the fire.
...from The Past
2003>According to www.GayWorld.NET/Memorial, the Upstairs Lounge at Iberville and Chartres Streets was the site of the deadliest fire in New Orleans’ history on June 24, 1973. Thirty-two victims died, numerous individuals were injured./2003
2003>According to the late Ambush columnist Toni Pizanie on the 30th Anniversary of the Upstairs Lounge Fire, in her column Sappho Psalm, Volume 21/Issue 11/2003:
"The Upstairs Fire is to the New Orleans’ Gay movement what Stonewall is to the National Gay movement. The people who died to bring attention to the lack of equality in New Orleans did so never knowing that they changed the face of how Gay men and women were going to allow main stream homophobia to affect us.
We didn’t meet police head-on and fight for our rights with bricks and bottles. We met head-on every homophobic citizen of New Orleans to demand our dead be buried with the full God given rights that straight people never question. Churches locked their doors and the Christian religion founded on love turned its head. Two men of true faith took on the hatred and gave our brothers and sisters a place to worship. The bravest was the Reverend William Richardson of St. George’s Episcopal Church. Opening his church to the parents, friends and a needy Gay community, he shared love and kindness to be rewarded with the fury of his congregation and Bishop.
Days later Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, flew into New Orleans to assist with the healing. St. Mark’s United Methodist Church allowed Perry to hold a memorial service. He worked to join the city’s residents by granting television and radio interviews to explain the place of the Christian church in the Gay community."
1998>According to Ambush Mag Issue 14, 1998:
"On Wednesday, June 24, 1998, the 25th Anniversary of the Upstairs Lounge Fire, members of the Gay and Gay friendly community met together to remember and celebrate the lives of these victims. In 1973, only one member of the New Orleans’ clergy, The Rev. William Richardson of St. George’s Episcopal Church, was brave and GOD loving enough to immediately hold a service for the victims of this horriffic event and their families. Almost a week later, St. Mark’s United Methodist Church allowed Rev. Troy Perry to hold a memorial service.
In 1998, representatives from varied religions and Christian denominations took part in the Memorial Service held at the Royal Sonesta Hotel Grand Ball Room. Gathering with the Gay community to celebrate the lives of those who perished were The Rev. Carole Cotton Winn, District Superintentant of the United Methodist Church, Senior Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn of Temple Sinai, Rev. Kay Thomas from Grace Fellowship in Christ Jesus, The Honorable Troy Carter, City Councilman, and thirty-two members of the New Orleans’ community who represented the thirty-two persons who died in the fire.
The Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, rushed to New Orleans in 1973 to assist with the healing of a community. Rev. Perry returned to New Orleans to speak at the Memorial Service. He also held television and radio interviews to address the questions of the events surrounding the fire and the place of the Christian church in the Gay community.
New Orleans Councilman Troy Carter, District C, led a Jazz Funeral to the site where flowers were placed for each of the 32 dead. A plaque will be placed at the site at a later time. (The plaque was dedicated on the 30th anniversary of the tragedy, June 24, 2003.)
Organizers of the event, The Rev. Dexter Brecht, Pastor of New Orleans’ Vieux Carre Metropolitan Community Church and Toni J. P. Pizanie, Chair of The Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues, wish to thank those who supported the event.
The Names to be Remembered!
Partners, Joe William Bailey & Clarence Josephy McCloskey, Jr. perished together. McCloskey’s sisters and two neices attended the Memorial Service. His neice, Susan, represented McCloskey in the Jazz Funeral.
Duane George "Mitch" Mitchell, assistance pastor at MCC, died trying to save his partner, Louis Horace Broussard.
Mrs. Willie Inez Warren died with her sons, Eddie Hosea Warren and James Curtis Warren.
Pastor of the MCC, Rev. William R. Larson, formerly a Methodist lay minister.
Dr. Perry Lane Waters, Jr., a Jefferson Parish dentist. Several victims were his patients and were identified by his x-rays.
Douglas Maxwell Williams
Leon Richard Maples, a visitor from Florida.
George Steven Matyi
Reginald Adams, Jr., MCC member, formerly a Jesuit Scholastic. Partner of entertainer Regina Adams.
James Walls Hambrick
Horace "Skip" Getchell, MCC member.
Joseph Henry Adams
Herbert Dean Cooley, Upstairs Lounge bartender and MCC member.
Professional pianist, David Stuart Gary.
Guy D. Anderson
Donald Walter Dunbar
John Thomas Golding, Sr., member of MCC Pastor’s Advisory Group.
Professional linguist, Adam Roland Fontenot, survived by Douglas "Buddy" Rasmussen, who led a group to safety.
Gerald Hoyt Gordon
Kenneth Paul Harrington, Federal Government employee.
Glenn Richard "Dick" Green, Navy veteran.
Robert "Bob" Lumpkin
Four men were buried in Potter’s Field, Ferris LeBlanc, Unknown White Male, Unknown White Male, Unknown White Male, the City refused to release these bodies to the MCC for burial.
The Names to be Thanked
Corporate Sponsors: Ambush Mag; Ariodante; The Honorable Troy Carter, Councilman, District C; Crescent City Guest House; FM Books; Impact; NOPD; Perfect Presentations; Phylway Construction; Royal Sonesta Hotel; Royal Tobacconist; Vieux Carre Metropolitan Community Church
Patrons: Dexter Brecht, Rip & Marsha Naquin-Delain, Charles Garrison, Paul Killgore, Donald St. Pierre & Robert Turner, Toni J. P. Pizanie, Robert Udick
Sponsors: Gulf Area Gender Alliance, Crystal Little; Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Issues"
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