New Orleans’ Upstairs Lounge still burns

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It is June 24, 1973, and you are about to enter your favorite spot in all of New Orleans. You glance around, just in case, before you open the door to the stairway and make your way up to the bar.

As always you exchange a friendly hello with the bartender, Buddy, and give his partner Adam a hug. On your way over to your regular spot by the white baby grand, you are stopped by Jimmy who is sitting at a table with his brother Eddie and an older woman. Jimmy and Eddie are excited to introduce you to their mother who has joined them for an evening of family fun. You think about how wonderful is must be for those two gay boys to be able to bring their mother out to a ‘queer’ bar. Just then you hear a loud laugh and know that Rev. Bill Larson of the local MCC must be around. Turns out almost the entire congregation is here, thanking a benefactor for the air conditioner he had recently donated. It’s just another night at The Upstairs Lounge and then someone rings the door buzzer.

It rings again, and again, and again. Finally Buddy grows annoyed and asks someone to go downstairs and see who it is. You are only half-way paying attention as your friend Luther gets up to open the steel door. You are startled as a large fireball knocks Luther to the ground and surges through the now open doorway. You move quickly toward the large floor-to-ceiling windows, as they are the most apparent escape. You barely squeeze through the 14-inch gap between the sill and the protective bars (there to keep patrons from falling out). You then slide halfway down a drainpipe before losing your grip and crashing to the ground. When you stand-up you are dazed, you hear the screams of your friends still inside the bar and you watch someone you don’t recognize jump from a window in flames. Then you hear a familiar voice, Rev. Bill Larson, cry out “Oh, God, no!” and turn just in time to see him burn to death, his body fused half-way out the window. 

Rev. Larson’s body would be visible for hours as the scene was cleared. The image of his lifeless, doll-like appearance, frozen in a vain struggle for escape would haunt those who witnessed the tragedy for years to come. The disaster at the Upstairs Lounge was the deadliest fire in the long history of New Orleans, a city that has burned to the ground twice. It is also, perhaps, the greatest mass murder of GLBT folk in the history of the United States. Still, you most likely have never heard of it.

Jimmy, Eddie, and Inez were among the dead. Buddy survived, saving 20 others in the process, but his partner Adam didn’t. Luther made it out but later succumbed to his wounds. Over a quarter of the local MCC congregation also perished in the fire. The impact on New Orleans’ gay community was devastating. Yet, some people feel that the fire galvanized gay rights activists in the south and led to a new era of activism in New Orleans. Others still hold that it was nothing more than a tragedy that has been essentially forgotten.

The cause of the fire was never officially determined, but ask anyone who is familiar with the incident and they will tell you it was arson. They will even tell you the name of who set the blaze. The number one suspect, and really only suspect, was a hustler and troublemaker who had been tossed out of the bar earlier in the evening. Using some lighter fluid he bought from Walgreens he doused the steps and lit them on fire. He would later brag about this while drunk. However, he was never charged and eventually killed himself.

Is that why we don’t remember this disaster? Is it because the murderer was not a bigot determined to wipe us of off the face of the earth? Does his lack of a specific, prejudice driven, motivation make the horrific deaths of those involved less important to our community?

The remembrance of past tragedy is essential to the progress of any population. We might not be able to draw any direct lines to the Upstairs Lounge fire and ourselves today, but it would be silly to suggest that it had no impact on our movement. It might have led to revival of Southern activism or just been an essential part of the anger that would lead others to fight for change. Whatever the ultimate impact, June 24, 1973, and the people that perished, should not be forgotten. 

I want to thank several current and former residents of New Orleans. Finding reliable information was difficult and at times the information was contradictory. Historian Roberts Baston and author Johnny Townsend both shared with me their research on the fire. The City Archives at the New Orleans Public Library provided access to source material. I also used information from James T. Sears’ book, "Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones." I must also thank John Nicholson and the "NFPA Journal."

You can view news coverage of the fire at. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cvvRJNQolYM