UpStairs Lounge arson attack

The UpStairs Lounge arson attack, sometimes called the UpStairs Lounge Fire, occurred on June 24, 1973, at a gay bar called the UpStairs (or Up Stairs) Lounge located on the 2nd floor of the 3-story building at 604 Iberville Street in New Orleans, Louisiana, in the United States.[2] 32 people died and 15 were injured as a result of fire or smoke inhalation.[3] The official cause is still listed as "undetermined origin".[4] The primary suspect, a gay man with a history of psychiatric impairment named Roger Dale Nunez who had been ejected from the bar earlier in the day, was never charged and died by suicide in November 1974.[5][6][7]

UpStairs Lounge arson attack
Part of violence against LGBT people in the United States
Site of the UpStairs Lounge, 2019
Location604 Iberville Street, New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.[1]
Coordinates29°57′13″N 90°04′03″W / 29.9535°N 90.0675°W / 29.9535; -90.0675
DateJune 24, 1973
7:56 – 8:12 p.m. (CDT)
Attack type
Arson, mass murder, androcide

Until the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, in which 49 people were murdered, the UpStairs Lounge arson attack was the deadliest attack on a gay club in U.S. history.

Background edit

The club was located on the 2nd floor of a 3-story building at the corner of Chartres and Iberville Streets. Members of the Metropolitan Community Church, a pro-LGBT Protestant denomination, were there after service. The MCC was the United States' first national gay Christian fellowship, founded in Los Angeles in 1968; the local congregation had held services in the UpStairs Lounge's theatre for a while.[8][9]

The fire was the 3rd arson attack to affect the MCC,[10] following a January 27, 1973, arson at the church's headquarters in Los Angeles (resulting in the destruction and collapse of the building with no injuries) and another 1973 arson at an MCC church in Nashville, Tennessee (also with complete destruction of the church and its furnishings but no injuries).[11][12]

Incident edit

On June 24, 1973, the regular "beer bust" drink special attracted its usual blue-collar gay crowd to the UpStairs Lounge.[13] That night's beer bust, from 5:00-7:00 pm, attracted approximately 110 patrons. After the drink special ended, about 60-90 patrons remained; they listened to pianist George Steven “Bud” Matyi perform and discussed an upcoming MCC fundraiser for the local Crippled Children's Hospital.[14][15]

At 7:56PM, a buzzer from downstairs sounded, and bartender Buddy Rasmussen, an Air Force veteran, asked Luther Boggs to answer the door, anticipating a taxi cab driver. Boggs opened the door to find the front staircase engulfed in flames, along with the smell of lighter fluid.[6] Rasmussen immediately led some 20 patrons out of the back exit to the roof, where the group could access a neighbouring building's roof and climb down to the ground floor. Others saw the floor to ceiling windows as the most promising means of escape despite the fact that there were safety bars on the windows with a 14-inch gap between them to prevent dancers from breaking through the glass. Several people managed to squeeze through, some still burning when they reached the ground below. Luther Boggs was one who came through the window in flames after pushing his female friend through the gap. The flames on Boggs were extinguished by the owner of a neighbouring bar, but he died on the 10th of July (16 days later), from 3rd degree burns to 50% of his body.[16]

Reverend Bill Larson of the MCC removed an air conditioning unit from the bottom of one of the floor to ceiling windows and was attempting to get out when the upper pane of glass fell on top of him, pinning him to the window frame half in the building and half out. His charred remains would be visible to onlookers for hours afterward, recorded in many pictures taken of the front of the building in the aftermath of the 16-minute fire. MCC assistant pastor George "Mitch" Mitchell managed to escape, but returned in an attempt to rescue his partner (they considered themselves married based on a civil ceremony they had 2 years previously), Louis Horace Broussard. Both died in the fire, their remains found clinging to each other. Mitchell's children were visiting from out of town and watched the same movie 7 times as they waited for their father's return. Eventually, a friend took them to the airport and sent them home to their mother without telling them what happened to their father and his partner.[17]

Firefighters stationed 2 blocks away found themselves blocked by cars and pedestrian traffic. One fire truck tried to maneuver on the sidewalk but crashed into a taxi. They arrived to find bar patrons struggling against the security bars and quickly brought the fire under control.[5]

Victims edit

List of fatalities
  • Joseph Henry Adams
  • Reginald E. Adams[18][19]
  • Guy D. Andersen
  • Joe William Bailey
  • Luther Boggs
  • Louis Horace Broussard
  • Herbert Dean Cooley
  • Donald Walter Dunbar
  • Adam Roland Fontenot
  • Larry Norman Frost[9]
  • David Stuart Gary
  • Horace “Skip” Getchell
  • John Thomas Golding, Sr.
  • Gerald Hoyt Gordon
  • Glenn Richard “Dick” Green
  • James Wall Hambrick
  • Kenneth Paul Harrington
  • Rev. William R. Larson
  • Ferris LeBlanc
  • Robert “Bob” Lumpkin
  • Leon Richard Maples
  • George Steven "Bud" Matyi
  • Clarence Joseph McCloskey, Jr.
  • Duane George “Mitch” Mitchell
  • Larry Stratton
  • Eddie Hosea Warren
  • James Curtis Warren
  • Willie Inez Warren
  • Dr. Perry Lane Waters, Jr.
  • Douglas Maxwell Williams
  • Unidentified White Male
  • Unidentified White Male

Source: [20]

28 people died at the scene of the 16-minute fire, and one died en route to the hospital. Another 18 suffered injuries, of whom 3, including Boggs, died.

Funerals and memorial services edit

Many churches refused to hold funerals for the dead. Reverend William P. Richardson[21] of St. George's Episcopal Church agreed to hold a small prayer service[22] for the victims on June 25. Approximately 80 people attended the event. The next day, Iveson B. Noland, the Episcopal bishop of New Orleans, rebuked Richardson for hosting the service. Noland received more than 100 complaints from parishioners concerning the service, and Richardson's mailbox filled with hate mail.[21]

Soon after two additional memorial services were held on July 1 at a Unitarian church and St. Mark's United Methodist Church, headed by Louisiana's Methodist bishop Finis Crutchfield and led by MCC founder Reverend Troy Perry, who came from Los Angeles to participate. Mourners exited through the church's main door rather than an available side exit, a demonstration of a new willingness to be identified on camera.[5] Several families did not step forward to claim the bodies of the deceased. A few anonymous individuals stepped forward and paid for the three unknown men's burials, and they were buried with another victim identified as Ferris LeBlanc in a mass grave at Holt Cemetery. LeBlanc's family would not learn of his death in the arson attack until January 2015.[23] In 2018, Robert L. Camina, director of the UpStairs Inferno documentary, announced in The Advocate that, after extensive research, one of the three unknown victims could finally be identified as 32-year-old Larry Norman Frost.[9] This announcement and its underlying research received a negative peer review in The Advocate from fellow UpStairs Lounge scholars Clayton Delery and Robert Fieseler. These scholars pointed to a lack of forensic evidence, the omission of historic materials contradicting Camina’s case and the absence of comment from the coroner as reason for Frost to remain “a possible Up Stairs Lounge victim or even a probable one with an asterisk.” [24]

In June 1998, the 25th anniversary of the fire, as part of Gay Pride celebrations, a memorial service was organized by Rev. Dexter Brecht of Big Easy Metropolitan Community Church (also known as Vieux Carre MCC) and Toni J. P. Pizanie.[25] It was held at the Royal Sonesta Hotel Grand Ball Room and attended by New Orleans Councilman Troy Carter, Rev. Carole Cotton Winn, Senior Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn of Temple Sinai, Rev. Kay Thomas from Grace Fellowship in Christ Jesus, Rev. Perry, and 32 members of the New Orleans community representing the victims. Carter then led a jazz funeral procession to the building on the corner of Chartres and Iberville Streets, the site of the club, and members of the local MCC laid a memorial plaque and wreaths at the grave. Among the attendees was the niece of victim Clarence McCloskey.[26]

Investigation edit

The official investigation failed to yield any convictions. The only suspect in the attack was Roger Dale Nunez, who had been ejected from the bar earlier in the evening after fighting with another customer.[6] Police attempted to question Nunez shortly after, but he was hospitalized with a broken jaw and could not respond. When questioned later, police records show, he did not appear nervous. Nunez had a witness who claimed that he had been in and out of the bar during the 10–20 minutes before the fire, and that he had seen nobody enter or leave the building. Because police observed that the witness was stressed, they dismissed the witness as a liar.[4]: p.122 

Nunez was diagnosed with "conversion hysteria" in 1970 and visited numerous psychiatric clinics. He was released from a treatment facility in the year before the fire.[4]: p.127  After his arrest, Nunez escaped from psychiatric custody and was never picked up again by police, despite frequent appearances in the French Quarter. A friend later told investigators that Nunez confessed on at least four occasions to starting the fire. He told the friend he squirted the bottom steps with Ronsonol lighter fluid, bought at a local Walgreens, and tossed a match. He did not realize, he claimed, that the whole place would go up in flames.[6] Nunez died by suicide in November 1974.[5]

In 1980, the state fire marshal's office, lacking leads, closed the case.[5]

Aftermath edit

The space on the second floor formerly known as the UpStairs Lounge now contains business offices and a kitchen for the Jimani Lounge (established 1971), which is located on the first floor. The current owner, Jimmy Massacci, and his father, the former owner, personally witnessed the fire and its aftermath. The third floor, then owned by the UpStairs Lounge, remains unused and partially damaged. The building itself dates back to at least 1848, when the earliest-known sale of the building is documented.[27]

Legacy edit

The 45th Anniversary Memorial Procession in New Orleans

In 1998 the reconstituted MCC congregation in New Orleans (Big Easy Metropolitan Community Church, since renamed again to MCC of New Orleans) held a 25th anniversary service to commemorate the arson and its 32 deaths. This event is significant because, unlike the one it memorialized, the 300 members of the congregation refused to hide their faces and instead insisted on entering and leaving the event through the church's front doors.

In 2003, a memorial plaque was placed in the sidewalk on the site of the fire; in 2019 it was refurbished.[28] In April 2024, the plaque was stolen.[29]

In 2008 The North American Convocation of Pro-LGBT Christians planned to hold its "Many Stories, One Voice" event in New Orleans to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the conference (and the 35th anniversary of the tragedy), but eventually canceled the conference for the year due to Hurricane Gustav.[30] In 2008 local artist Skylar Fein constructed an art installation titled Remember the Upstairs Lounge.[31] The New Orleans Museum of Art has since acquired Fein's art exhibit, which includes a reproduction of the bar.[25]

In 2013, noting the 40th anniversary of the fire, the Archbishop of New Orleans, Gregory Michael Aymond, issued a statement of regret that his predecessor, Archbishop Philip Hannan, and the local church leadership ignored the arson attack. Aymond wrote to Time magazine that "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."[32]

Depiction in media edit

Coverage of the fire by news outlets minimized the fact that LGBT patrons constituted the majority of the victims, while editorials and talk radio hosts made light of the event. No government officials or major religious figures made mention of the fire for several days, if not weeks. After returning from a trip in Europe, New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu held a routine press conference on July 11, 1973, where a gay reporter questioned him about the “homosexual angle” to the tragedy affecting community response. Landrieu stated that he was “not aware of any lack of concern in the community.” New Orleans Archbishop Philip Hannan, silent for weeks, offered brief remarks at the end of a column about human rights in the archdiocesan newspaper The Clarion Herald in mid-July 1973.[33] As Robert L. Camina, writer/director of a documentary about the fire (Upstairs Inferno), said in 2013, "I was shocked at the disproportionate reaction by the city government. The city declared days of mourning for victims of other mass tragedies in the city. It shocked me that despite the magnitude of the fire, it was largely ignored."[25]

Film and television edit

In 2013, Royd Anderson wrote, directed, and produced the first film (a documentary) about the tragedy titled The UpStairs Lounge Fire.[34][35][36]

In 2015, Upstairs Inferno, a feature-length documentary written, directed, and produced by Robert L. Camina, had its World Premiere in New Orleans at the historic Prytania Theatre.[37] The film's narration was provided by best selling author Christopher Rice (son of novelist Anne Rice).[38] Upstairs Inferno was invited to screen at the Library of Congress on February 16, 2017.[39]

In 2018, the national ABC News investigative unit released a documentary entitled Prejudice & Pride: Fire at the UpStairs Lounge.[40] The documentary won the Al Neuharth Award for Innovation in Investigative Journalism from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA) and was a finalist for the Mosaic Award from The Deadline Club.[41][42]

A TAPS group in episode 15, Season 8 of Ghost Hunters visited the lounge to encounter alleged ghosts of the fire's casualties. The episode identified the event as the "Jimani Lounge Massacre."[43]

Theater edit

Also in 2013, Wayne Self (a playwright and composer from Natchitoches, Louisiana), first presented a musical called Upstairs about the tragedy.[44][45] In 2014, Melange Dance Company of New Orleans performed a tribute show as part of the New Orleans Fringe Festival. 'The UpStairs Lounge' show aimed to uplift with a combination of dance and film that celebrate the Lounge, its patrons, and the strides taken towards Human Rights since the incident.[46] In 2015, Melange Dance Company of New Orleans presented an extended performance of 'The UpStairs Lounge' show originally performed as part of the 2014 New Orleans Fringe Festival.[47] In 2017, an Off-Broadway musical called The View Upstairs about The UpStairs Lounge opened at The Lynn Redgrave Theater in New York City.[48]

Books edit

In 2014, McFarland & Company released Clayton Delery-Edwards' account of the arson, The Up Stairs Lounge Arson: Thirty-Two Deaths in a New Orleans Gay Bar, June 24, 1973. The book was selected as one of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities 2015 Books of the Year.[49] In 2018, Liveright Publishing released historian Robert W. Fieseler’s debut book Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation, which received multiple prizes including the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America and the Louisiana Literary Award from the Louisiana Library Association.[50] For his research, Fieseler was named the 2019 National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA) "Journalist of the Year.”[51] In 2019, The New York Times featured Bill Larson, a victim of the UpStairs Lounge arson attack, in their obituary feature Overlooked.[52] On June 14, 2021, the book The Mayor of Oak Street, written by Vincent Traughber Meis, was published by NineStar Press. It is dedicated to the victims of the UpStairs Lounge arson attack. In 2021, Casey McQuiston published One Last Stop, which features the UpStairs Lounge arson attack.[53] Elizabeth Dias and Jim Downs published an article, "The Horror Upstairs", in Time magazine, July 1, 2013[54]

See also edit

References edit

  1. ^ "Family solves mystery after learning uncle died in infamous up Stairs Lounge Fire 40-plus years ago in New Orleans". June 10, 2015.
  2. ^ "Upstairs Lounge Fire Memorial, 40 Years Later". Nola Defender. Archived from the original on July 29, 2017. Retrieved September 21, 2014.
  3. ^ "From the ashes: New book looks at impact of 1973 up Stairs Lounge fire in the French Quarter". June 23, 2018.
  4. ^ a b c Delery-Edwards, Clayton (2014). The Up Stairs Lounge Arson: Thirty-two Deaths in a New Orleans Gay Bar, June 24, 1973. McFarland. ISBN 978-0786479535.
  5. ^ a b c d e Freund, Helen (June 22, 2013). "UpStairs Lounge fire provokes powerful memories 40 years later". New Orleans Times-Picayune. Retrieved June 26, 2013.
  6. ^ a b c d Townsend, Johnny (2011). Let the Faggots Burn: The UpStairs Lounge Fire. BookLocker. ISBN 9781614344537.
  7. ^ Pearl, Mike (June 25, 2015). "Revisiting a Deadly Arson Attack on a New Orleans Gay Bar on Its 42nd Anniversary". Retrieved September 6, 2019.
  8. ^ Fieseler, Robert W. (2018). Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation. New York / London: Liveright. p. 27. ISBN 9781631491641.
  9. ^ a b c Camina, Robert L. (November 15, 2018). "Unknown Victim of Deadly 1973 Arson in Gay Bar Finally Identified". The Advocate. Retrieved November 16, 2018.
  10. ^ Vicki Lynn Eaklor (2008). Queer America: A GLBT History of the 20th Century. Bloomsbury Academic. p. 136. ISBN 9780313337499.
  11. ^ Dudley Clendinen; Adam Nagourney (June 5, 2001). Out For Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America. Simon and Schuster. p. 181. ISBN 978-0-684-86743-4. Retrieved December 13, 2012.
  12. ^ The Rev. Elder Troy D. Perry; The Rev. Elder Nancy Wilson (November 1, 1997). Report to the President for the White House Conference On Hate Crimes (PDF). UFMCC.
  13. ^ Fieseler, Robert W. (2018). Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation. New York / London: Liveright. pp. 53. ISBN 9781631491641.
  14. ^ Delery-Edwards, Clayton (2014). The Up Stairs Lounge Arson: Thirty-two Deaths in a New Orleans Gay Bar, June 24, 1973. McFarland. Pp. 35, 43. ISBN 978-0786479535.
  15. ^ Fieseler, Robert W. (2018). Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation. New York / London: Liveright. pp. 69. ISBN 9781631491641
  16. ^ "Luther Boggs · LGBTQ Religious Archives Network". Retrieved September 23, 2020.
  17. ^ Eric Newhouse, Associated Press (June 25, 1973). "Arson Eyed in New Orleans Fire". Abilene Reporter-News, Texas. Archived from the original on December 3, 2021. Retrieved November 8, 2021.
  18. ^ Preparatory School of Dallas, pp. 27.
  19. ^ Townsend, Johnny (2011). Let the Faggots Burn: The UpStairs Lounge Fire. BookLocker. ISBN 9781614344537.
  20. ^ Allman, 1272836 Kevin (June 15, 2018). "Remembering the Up Stairs Lounge: upcoming memorials and panels". The Advocate. Retrieved September 6, 2019.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  21. ^ a b "William P. Richardson | Profiles | LGBTQ Religious Archives Network". Retrieved September 6, 2019.
  22. ^ "Bill Richardson — rest in peace and rise in glory". Archived from the original on February 1, 2016. Retrieved February 18, 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  23. ^ "Family solves mystery after learning uncle died in infamous UpStairs Lounge Fire 40-plus years ago in New Orleans". The New Orleans Advocate, June 6, 2015. Retrieved June 20, 2016.
  24. ^ Delery, Clayton and Fieseler, Robert. (September 15, 2019). "Op-Ed: It's Too Soon to Identify the UpStairs Lounge Fire's Unknown.” The Advocate.
  25. ^ a b c Anderson-Minshall, Diane (November 15, 2013). Remembering the Worst Mass Killing of LGBT People in U.S. History. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  26. ^ "The Upstairs Fire – June 24, 1973 – 25th Anniversary Memorial Service". Retrieved September 21, 2014.
  27. ^ "The Building". The Jimani Lounge.
  28. ^ Perez, Frank (July 30, 2019). "Up Stairs Lounge Commemorative Plaque Restored". Ambush Magazine. Retrieved May 2, 2024.
  29. ^ Lowrey, Erin (April 30, 2024). "New Orleans police investigate after Upstairs Lounge memorial plaque stolen". WDSU. Retrieved May 2, 2024.
  30. ^ "Pro-LGBT Christians to mark 35th anniversary of deadliest fire in New Orleans' history". Archived from the original on March 7, 2012.
  31. ^ Doug MacCash (November 2, 2008). "Skylar Fein: Installation reignites memory of a deadly fire". The Times-Picayune. Archived from the original on September 18, 2012. Retrieved June 26, 2011.
  32. ^ "The Upstairs Lounge Fire: The Little Known Story of the Largest Killing of Gays in US History". Time. June 21, 2013. Archived from the original on June 24, 2013. Retrieved June 25, 2013.
  33. ^ "Up Stairs Lounge Fire". 64 Parishes. Retrieved June 22, 2023.
  34. ^ "Mass killing at New Orleans gay lounge remembered 40 years later". Nicole, Erin. WGNO-ABC. June 24, 2013.
  35. ^ "The UpStairs Lounge Fire (2013 trailer)". Royd Anderson Productions. Retrieved June 16, 2013.
  36. ^ "Acadiana Pride Festival, "a celebration of culture"". Berry, Brheanna. KLFY-CBS. March 29, 2015. Archived from the original on April 2, 2015. Retrieved April 2, 2015.
  37. ^ "Top Festively Gay Things to Do This Week (June 22 - 28, 2015) | NOLA on Review". June 20, 2015. Retrieved July 9, 2020.
  38. ^ "Christopher Rice". IMDb. Retrieved July 9, 2020.
  39. ^ "Deadly 1973 hate crime recalled in new documentary". Washington Blade: Gay News, Politics, LGBT Rights. February 9, 2017. Retrieved July 9, 2020.
  40. ^ "City of New Orleans quietly launches search for lost remains of UpStairs Lounge fire victim". ABC News. Retrieved June 22, 2023.
  41. ^ "NLGJA Announces 2019 Excellence in Journalism Award Recipients - NLGJA". Retrieved June 22, 2023.
  42. ^ 2019 Deadline Club Awards Archived January 21, 2021, at the Wayback Machine
  43. ^ "Ghost Hunters – Season 8, Episode 15: French Quarter Massacre". Syfy. September 19, 2012. Archived from the original on February 3, 2013.
  44. ^ MacCash, Doug (May 31, 2013). "Upstairs Lounge fire is remembered in a musical by composer Wayne Self". Times-Picayune. Retrieved August 23, 2021.
  45. ^ Wayne Self. "Upstairs".
  46. ^ "Melange Dance Company Events". November 20, 2014.
  47. ^ "Melange Dance Company Events". March 27, 2015.
  48. ^ "The View Upstairs". February 28, 2017.
  49. ^ "Biography of Worst Mass Killing of Gays in U.S. History Named 2015 Book of the Year". March 3, 2015. Retrieved September 6, 2019.
  50. ^ "Robert Fieseler wins Louisiana Literary Award for 'Tinderbox'". April 15, 2020. Retrieved June 22, 2023.
  51. ^ "Columbia Alumnus Robert W. Fieseler Named 2019 NLGJA Journalist of the Year and Excellence in Book Writing Winner". Retrieved June 22, 2023.
  52. ^ "Overlooked No More: Bill Larson, Who Became a Symbol of Gay Loss in New Orleans". The New York Times. June 27, 2019.
  53. ^ "One Last Stop is the Inclusive Romance Novel Queer Readers Deserve". June 2, 2021. Retrieved June 5, 2021.
  54. ^ Dias, Elizabeth; Downs, Jim. "The Horror Upstairs". Time. Retrieved September 6, 2019.

External links edit