The Upstairs Lounge Fire

Early Gay Activism

Rev. David Solomon was an early gay activist and co-founder of the New Orleans chapter of the Gay Liberation Front.  Read More

Early Gay Activism

The New Orleans chapter of the Gay Liberation Front was founded in fall 1970 by 26-year-old Lynn Miller joined by Dianne Kiesling and Rev. David Solomon (a Holiness Pentecostal minister).  The GLF held regular meetings on Sunday afternoons at the Sphinx Coffee House owned by the Rev. Mike Stark on Decatur Street.  

One January 23, 1971, a GLF group of approximately 75 people marched on City Hall in a demonstration protesting police harassment. Thirteen gay men had been arrested the week before in or near Cabrini Park public restroom in The French Quarter, having been entrapped by undercover vice squad officers. Some of the arrests were accompanied by beatings by the police. At City Hall, protesters held signs that said “We’re Not Freaks, We’re Human,” “Two Four Six Eight, Gay is Just as Good as Straight,” and “Lesbians are Lovable” as they brought a list of demands.

The demonstration received some coverage in The Times-Picayune but was, for the most part, generally disregarded. It did not go unnoticed, however. Straight and LGBT people in New Orleans were shocked not only at the “visibility” of radical gay people but also, perhaps more so, at the alarming fact they were demanding things.

During its short existence GLF did publish the first New Orleans gay-identified magazine, more of a newsletter called Sunflower. The first edition featured testimonials from several men, one of whom was straight, who were harassed, beaten, and arrested by the New Orleans Police in the Cabrini Park incident noted above.

– from testimony by Henry Kubicki

MCC New Orleans

Rev. Solomon was the founding pastor of a New Orleans mission for the Metropolitan Community Church.  Read More

MCC New Orleans

In 1970, at age 18 or 19, I (Henry Kubicki) became a member of the Mission branch of the MCC in New Orleans. For several months we held our weekly prayer meetings at the fourth floor apartment of Adele “Tad” Thaddeus Turner on the corner of St. Peter and Royal Streets in the French Quarter.  Rev. David Solomon was the founding pastor. After several months the mission had to move when Turner was evicted while protesting a rent increase. 

Phil Esteve, owner of the Upstairs Lounge, offered the use of the theater in the third room in the back of his bar. The New Orleans MCC Mission held worship there every Sunday afternoon at 2:00 p.m., followed by coffee and sweet rolls. From 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. the bar was open for a “beer bust” drawing crowds to enjoy cheap draft beer -- $2 for each pitcher of beer.

Some of the church members at this time were:  1. Rev. David Solomon, 2. Adlai “Tad” Thaddeus Turner, 3. Duane George “Mitch” Mitchell, 4. Joseph “Courtney” Craighead, 5. Louis “Horace” Broussard, 6. Henry Thomas Kubicki, 7. Jason Guidry, 8. Luther Thomas Boggs,  9. Ricky Frank Everett, 10. Lenny Labrousse, 11. Ricky “Mother” Cross, 12. Jay Lynn, (trans).

After months of fighting for credibility as a church that met in a bar, in 1972 the mission moved to St. George’s Episcopal Church at 4600 St. Charles Avenue in uptown New Orleans. The Rev. William P. Richardson Jr. had learned about the mission’s need from his friend Bill Larson. Being compassionate (and also gay) Richardson offered the use of a small chapel that was rarely used by his congregation. It was upstairs above the main sacristy, seated about 17 persons and had an outside entrance. 

After several months of conducting its church services at St. George’s, MCC of New Orleans Mission had accrued enough money to lease a double Creole cottage at 1369-1373 Magazine Street.  1373 Magazine Street (on the left in the picture) was the rectory where Rev. David  Solomon and Maurice lived. 1369 Magazine Street (on the right) was remodeled into one great room for the hall of worship. Deacon Bill Larson, a talented carpenter, secured the ceiling and built a support structure before knocking down the walls to make one church hall. Behind that was the kitchenette, small door to the stairway and a bathroom. Larson salvaged a beautiful blond wood ornate Gothic prayer rail and altar for the worship space from a construction job at the Norwegian Merchant Marine Seamen’s Hall.

Pastor David Solomon, having been a Holiness Pentecostal minister, often preached hell-fire-and-brimstone sermons. He shared visions of haunting dreams of “a fiery end of the city of New Orleans or the world.”  Solomon eventually left his pastoral duties there and moved with his husband Maurice to Bogalusa, Louisiana, in hopes of surviving his horrible vision of the end of the world.  Deacon William Larson became the interim pastor until the Universal Fellowship of MCC was able to designate a new pastor.   

– from testimony by Henry Kubicki

Upstairs Lounge

Phil Esteve opened the Upstairs Lounge bar in The French Quarter in October, 1970.  Read More

Upstairs Lounge

Phil Esteve’s mother had died in May 1970.  Phil used a small inheritance from her estate to open a business, a gay bar. Searching through ads, he found a second story bar on Iberville Street being sold by Wanda Long and made a deal with her.  In need of a good bartender, he invited Buddy Rasmussen, who worked at another bar in the area, to join him in this venture. Phil and Buddy did some cleanup and renovation and opened the Upstairs Lounge on Halloween, 1970.

The Upstairs Lounge was not located near other gay bars in the French Quarter, so Phil and Buddy had to find ways to draw a clientele.  They created a dance floor with jukebox. Phil brought in cocktail lounge pianist David Gary to play piano and lead singalongs. They started a beer bust for two hours on Sunday afternoons.  For one-dollar admission, patrons would get unlimited, free pitchers of beer.

Unsure of what to do with the theater-like space in the third room, Phil allowed the MCC mission to use it for worship for several months.  A good number of the MCC congregants then became regulars at the Upstairs.  One of Buddy’s friends, Bob McAnar, starting coming and brought along his wife Betty.  Betty had theatrical interests and suggested to Phil that they stage short plays in the theater space.  Betty recruited some of the Upstairs regulars to work with her in staging melodramas, or “nellydramas,” which became quite popular.    

– information from Let the Faggots Burn by Johnny Townsend, pp. 42-55.

June 24, 1973

A flash fire of suspicious origin raced through the Upstairs Lounge on Sunday evening, June 24th, 1973.  Read More

June 24, 1973

June 24, 1973 was celebrated in other U.S. cities as Gay Pride Day, the fourth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York.  In New Orleans and the Upstairs Lounge, however, it was a typical Sunday afternoon. A crowd had gathered to enjoy the weekly beer bust and many persons departed when it was over.  Around 65 persons—mostly regulars with some friends and visitors—hung around, engaged in conversation or gathered around the piano singing. 

A passerby on the street below noticed a fire in the stairway leading up to the bar at 7:53 p.m. and called the fire department.  Inside the bar the buzzer from the street was ringing annoyingly, so bartender Buddy Rasmussen asked Luther Boggs to see who was at the door. When Boggs opened the door to the stairway a burst of flames blew into the room.  Fire trucks were dispatched at 7:56 and arrived at 7:58.  But the fire had spread quickly into an intensely hot inferno.  Many patrons in the bar moved toward the Chartres Street windows but could not get through the burglar bars attached to them. A few persons escaped through the burning stairway or by jumping from a fire escape.  Rasmussen led a group of about 20 survivors through the back of the bar and onto a roof leading into an adjoining building.  The fire was extinguished in a matter of minutes, however, the intensely hot blaze tragically overwhelmed many persons, leading to a total of 32 fatalities.

  – information from Let the Faggots Burn by Johnny Townsend and Night Club Fire report by A. Elwood Willey of the National Fire Protection Association.

Local Newspapers

The horrific nature of the fire and deaths garnered immediate extensive local newspaper coverage.  Read More

Local Newspapers

The ghastly reality of the intense and deadly Upstairs Lounge fire generated extensive local newspaper coverage in the two days after the fire.  The Times-Picayune was the New Orleans morning daily and The States-Item was published in the afternoon. Published in Baton Rouge, the State-Times was an afternoon newspaper focused on local news with its companion Advocate published in the morning with more national news.

The first media reports did not mention that the Upstairs Lounge was a gay bar. But relatively quickly the social stigma and crude stereotypes of homosexuals crept into the reporting. A few days later the tragedy received only brief mention locally.

Several gay leaders from other parts of the U.S. came to New Orleans the day after the fire: Revs. Troy Perry, Paul Breton, and John Gill from MCC; Morris Kight from the Los Angeles Gay Community Services Center; and Morty Manford from Gay Activists Alliance in New York. They worked to keep the often desparate needs of the families of the victims as well as the survivors visible to the press and community.

Other Press Coverage

National news coverage was sparse. The only national gay news journal at the time, The Advocate, provided extensive coverage.  Read More

Other Press Coverage

A brief report appeared on CBS Evening News on June 25 along with an NBC news bulletin. The national wire service story was picked up and published in a few daily newspapers scattered across the country.  Some of these stories reflect the stereotypically negative perceptions of LGBT persons at the time. 

While most persons in the U.S. were unaware of this mass tragedy, this was not the case in the gay community.  The Advocate, published biweekly since 1969, was the primary national gay news source. It provided in-depth reporting and analysis of what transpired in the bar during the fire as well as its impact upon the local gay community. Subsequent issues of The Advocate reported in detail about the mobilization of LGBT communities across the U.S. to respond to the tragedy.  The Advocate served as a focal point for these support efforts. 

Response to Tragedy

The paltry response to those suffering from this tragedy illustrated the widespread homophobia of the time.  Read More

Response to Tragedy

While large-scale tragedies typically generate an outpouring of community support, this was not the case with the Upstairs Lounge fire.  No New Orleans civic or religious leaders called on community members to rally around grieving families and friends as well as the survivors. No community groups came forward to organize material and emotional support for those who were suffering. Instead some familes were ashamed or even refused to claim the body of their "homosexual" kin. Some funeral homes declined to provide their services. Churches refused to host memorial services. 

The presence of national gay activists and leaders--Troy Perry, Morris Kight, Paul Breton, John Gill and Morty Manford--was critically important. In the tumult following the fire they assisted the efforts to arrange burial and memorial services for those who died as well as provide support services for those who were seriously injured.  They called on gays and lesbians around the nation to provide financial support and to donate blood. The public profile of these gay leaders was something new in this city in the Deep South where homosexuality was still largely invisible.

The strongly anti-gay sentiments within New Orleans religious communities came to the fore in the negative reaction to a memorial service at St. George’s Episcopal Church the evening following the fire and the refusal of many clergy or churches to host a large community memorial service one week after the fire. United Methodist bishop Finis Crutchfield (who died of AIDS several years later) offered the use of St. Mark's Church in the French Quarter and even attended the July 1 memorial service which drew 200 persons. 

Those Who Died

Official efforts to identify the badly burned bodies eventually led to naming of 29 of the 32 persons who died.  Read More

Those Who Died

As reported in the initial new stories after the fire, the intense heat burned bodies, clothing and personal items so completely that identification became extremely difficult.  Members of the community came forward with information about persons who were possible victims of the fire. The joint efforts of public officials and the community resulted in positive identification of 28 men and one woman.  Three men remained unidentified.

New Orleans writer and activist Johnny Townsend resolved to provide a more personal dimension by which to remember the 29 “victims” of the fire.  His extensive interviews and research over a number of years yielded a collection of photos of a number of those who died which can be seen here. The stories he collected were published as Let the Faggots Burn: The Upstairs Lounge Fire (2011).

Several years ago now poet Joseph Ross encountered the Upstairs Lounge story. He recounts, "I was stunned that this awful event took place and I, and most people I knew, never heard about it. I wondered if I could write something that would capture the horror of the fire, chronicle the abandonment people must have felt, at the same time honoring those who died. I wrote the final section of the poem first, then realized the story needed to be told more fully. It expanded from there....As a poet, elegy inspires me deeply. Remembering painful events in our history can empower us to create a world where those painful events are less likely to happen again."

Aftermath of the Fire

The repercussions of the tragedy played out differently in New Orleans, the LGBT community and the MCC congregation.  Read More

Aftermath of the Fire

While the catastrophic Upstairs Lounge fire rather quickly faded from general public view, a number of consequences and effects unfolded in its aftermath.  Investigations analyzed and reported that the fire had been deliberately set and that it combusted in an unusually rapid and intense course.  But the person(s) starting the blaze was never identified and charged.  Family members of many persons who died in the fire filed lawsuits seeking damages from the building owner, from the bar manager and from the city. None of these suits was successful. 

The negative attitudes toward homosexual persons which surfaced in response to the fire mobilized a number of activists in the New Orleans gay community.  A Gay People’s Coalition was organized and sought public visibility for its efforts to improve the quality of life for LGBT persons in the New Orleans area.  The history of oppressive polices, in the recent past, toward homosexual persons in the city was exposed and challenged.  MCC New Orleans persevered but struggled following the loss of so many members in the fire and changes in pastoral leadership.  

Persecution by Fire

Fires were a tangible manifestation of the persecution LGBT people around the country faced at this time.  Read More

Persecution by Fire

Fear of the catastrophic consequences of fire was real for many LGBT persons at this time. While more gay social establishments were opening throughout the U.S., many of them were shady operations in less-desirable parts of cities with owners (sometimes related to crime syndicates) who did not adhere to safety codes. As some activist-writers at the time noted, many bars and bathhouses were fire traps. 

Arson was a particularly virulent and frightening form of hate crimes against LGBT persons in their homes, in their businesses, in their social clubs and in their religious gathering places. As one example of this, the Metropolitan Community Churches experienced unusual or arson-suspected fires at a number of their buildings across the U.S. in the 1970s.   

Other Stories/Accounts

Here are other published accounts of the Upstairs Lounge fire and its aftermath.

 
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