The Upstairs Lounge Fire


Continued Coverage in Gay Press

New Orleans toll 32; arson evidence cited

NEW ORLEANS - With the death toll in the Up Stairs bar fire up to 32, new evidence of arson ha been unofficially reported here, but authorities continue to be tight –lipped. Several persons have been questioned in connection with the fire, but there were no suspects in custody as of July 12.

General community reaction to the tragedy has continued to range from mild hostility to total apathy, but on a more positive note, a new gay activist group has been formed.

The latest deaths in the blaze were those of Larry Stratton 24, and Luther Boggs, 47. Both died in Charity Hospital. Stratton July 12 and Boggs July 10. The other 29 perished at the time of the blaze.

Four bodies remained unidentified as of July 12.

Among the confirmed dead was that of George C. “Mitch” Mitchell, 36, a Metropolitan Community Church exhorter and former assistant pastor, who escaped from the burning building and then fought off firemen to re-enter it in an effort to rescue his lover, Horace Broussard, 26. His body was found over Broussard’s.

Eight persons remained hospitalized, five in “grave” condition, two in “critical” condition, and one in serious condition.

The arson evidence came from sources to the management of the Up Stairs, who now say that a can of Ronson lighter fluid was found in the stairway of the bar after the fire. The report would seem to back up eyewitness accounts of the fire being seen on the bottom three steps of the stairway moments before the building erupted in flames.

Fire department spokesmen expressed initial surprise at the report, saying that evidence of that nature had not been officially determined.

It is possible that some evidence in the case is being kept confidential, however, and a spokesman insisted that as large or larger an effort is being devoted to this case than the Ralt Center fire disaster which preceded it.

High-Level Silence

Meanwhile, there was a strange silence on the part of the city’s leadership.

At City Hall, the Human Relations Committee said it had sent a private note to the chief of police deploring public remarks attributed by the press to Maj. Henry Morris, chief of detectives of the New Orleans Police Department.

Morris was quoted as calling the Up Stairs a “hangout for thieves and homosexuals.” A police spokesman later said that the attribution was false, but apologized to gay leaders anyway.

No plans for a public statement have been made, said a spokesman for the rights unit, and no representatives had been sent to either of two memorial services held for the victims of the fire the week before.

Churches Also Silent

The local Roman Catholic archdiocesan human relations committee said they had seen no reason to issue any statement on the matter and they had no plans to issue one now.

The Roman Catholic archbishop of New Orleans also had issued no statement and had no explanation to offer.

The priest who answered the chancellory office’s telephone let long pauses of silence separate our questions and made no real reply to any of them – all this despite the fact that at least one Catholic – an ex-Jesuit scholastic from New Orleans’ Loyola University – had been one of he 32 people now dead as a result of the fire.

Only one spokesman from the Protestant clergy stepped forward to join the mourners. That was Rev. Finis Crutchfield, the Methodist bishop of Louisiana, who personally authorized memorial services at St. Mark’s Methodist Community Center on North Ramparts Street the Sunday following the blaze (July 1) and stayed there to attend services with the pastor of the church.

Services were held at St. Mark’s after several churches refused to permit us of their facilities.

The Metropolitan Community Church of Greater New Orleans declined to identify the refusing churches to newsman and would only praise Bishop Crutchfield.

There were other reports, however, that the Episcopal bishop of Louisiana had ordered the services not to be held in any of the Episcopal churches approached.

Other public officials reacting – or not reacting –to the blaze included the governor’s office, which declined to make a statement, and New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu.

Just back in town from Europe and holding his first press conference July 1, Landrieu said that he considered any loss of life a problem for the city. As for the subdued nature of community reaction to the “homosexual” angle of the tragedy, Landrieu said, “I’m just as much concerned about that life as any other life. “ and “ I’m not aware of any lack of concern in this community over the loss of those lives.”

Individual Expressions of Concern

Despite the silence, however, a number of positive, largely individual expressions of concern have begun to surface.

Visitors to New Orleans’ Charity Hospital the night of the fire were greeted by an entire emergency wing cleared out for their convenience.

The social worker at the hospital who arranged for the space also persuaded the dietary department to provide coffee.

The police officers and staff involved in the “dispassionate” handling of the emergency were absolutely “noncondemnatory” she said. 

The principal problems came from hysterical parents suffering from poor communications with reclusive (per)sons, whom the parents feared might be among the victims of the blaze.

The coroner’s office had 12 “possibilities’ still left July 12 on the list of “candidates” for bodies number 13, 18, 23, and 28, most of them phoned in from wives and parents as far away as California and Michigan.

One of the largest floral arrangements sent to St. Mark’s for the service had been hand-wired by French Quarter flowers vendor Jo Ann Clevenger, who also operates several “straight” bars in the quarter.

The Young Democrats at Louisiana State University branch in New Orleans issued a statement supporting the national day of mourning called by gay leaders July 1 and urged “complete rewriting and enforcement of state and local fire codes.”

The Up Stairs Players, a group of actors who had been meeting and performing at the Up Stairs prior to the tragedy, have been invited by the Salt and Pepper Lounge to present a Crippled Children’s Hospital benefit show originally schedule for June 30 at the Up Stairs.

Perhaps the most significant development has been the founding of a Gay People’s Coalition (GPC), with its second meeting July 10.

Several committees, contact persons, and telephone numbers for gay services have been announced.

A listing in the New Orleans telephone directory under the title “Gay Switchboard” has been approved by South Central Bell Telephone Co. and will be announced shortly.

Committees are also being formed to work with city agencies, media, legal problems, gay parents, and other problems, and full committee reports will be published in a French Quarter community newsletter.

Yet, there remains considerable paranoia on the streets, fed by the following ugly incidents:

Almost as soon as some people began placing flowers at the door of the Up Stairs the Monday after the blaze, some other people began removing them.

One man, seeing this, didn’t like it and stood guard by the door, telling people to leave the flowers alone.

The first Saturday night in the French Quarter after the fire, uniformed and plainclothes police officers were placed outside three gay bars that had received threatening phone calls. The calls materialized in the aftermath of crank calls phoned in to local television stations and reported to the public on only one of them.

Patrons of the guarded bars subsequently reported that the police harassed them. The crowds in the bars were generally one-third to one-half their usual Saturday night size.

Meanwhile, in front of the candle and flower strewn “People’s Shrine” at the Up Stairs entrance, a woman watering the flowers was arrested by the police for “obscenity against a police officer”  after failure to move on.

The following Monday afternoon, her case came before Civil District Court and was dismissed because arresting officials failed to appear.

No Moral Arrests

Police have made no arrests on any “homosexual” or other “morals” charges in New Orleans in the last two years, and none of their records comment on alleged clientele of night spots where arrests are made.

Sgt. Frank Hayward, police information officer, says the department has no record of any arrests at the Up Stairs – for thievery or anything else.

Community trust in the police department, however, has not been aided by the Up Stairs incident and the subsequent lack of any new official developments in its quietly proceeding investigations.

Some complaints have been made, for instance, about a group of “thugs” from the 100 block of Royal Street, near the Up Stairs, led by a man who identified as “Chucky,” who reportedly went through the Quarter collecting “donations” for the fire victims, and then pocketing the proceeds.

Those reports were not being forwarded to the police because of fear of reprisal from the thugs and for fear of inaction on the matter by the police, complainants said.

But the worst case of paranoia of all came from initial reports that there later determined to be untrue that four of the 32 dead had been secretly buried in a local pauper’s cemetery.

The New Orleans Parish coroner’s office produced the names of the four paupers buried in the cemetery and the bodies of the victims remaining in order in order to disprove the reports.

Bar’s funky décor, clutter created instant firestorm

NEW ORLEANS - The speed with which fire swept the Up Stairs bar remains hard to grasp. One minute, the victims were laughing and singing; the next minute, they were screaming human torches, groping frantically for a way out of a sea of flame.

Descriptions of the bar by those who knew it offer an explanation – and an object lesson for patrons and operators of dozens, perhaps hundreds of cluttered, funky, home places like it all over the nation.

This is how the Up Stairs looked the day of the fire, as described by Bill Rushton, managing editor of the Vieux Carre Courier.

“The arched opening between the bar and the second room was festooned with Fourth of July decorations, in place to publicize the forthcoming festivities. The bar was its usual clutter of leftover Mardi Gras Streamers and Christmas decorations, oriental lanterns and cardboard-plastic whiskey advertising displays. Burt Reynolds posters and campy fountains gurgling in several corners – all of it in a big dimly-lit room muffled with red-flocked wallpaper and carpets – with a white baby rand piano-bar commanding one corner where the Marriott Hotel’s featured pianist, David Gary, was guesting for fun.

Gary died in the fire.

When the steel fire door was opened, admitting flames from the burning stairway, there was a few seconds’ grace during which Buddy Rasmussen was able to shoo 15 to 20 patrons through the backroom toward safety. As they filed out, the lights went out. Rushton gave this vivid image of what happened next:

The stools were still standing in the orange glow gathering around the stairwell. A window by the piano bar had been pried open, admitting light and the promise of a safe escape out the three windows facing Chartres Street for those who still remained. But suddenly, the ceiling, the decorations, and the carpet exploded. Those still in the first bar, many of them tipsy from two hours of the afternoon’s beer bust, panicked and rushed to the Chartres Street windows chasing the light, some of them spilling out into the street, but, most of them crushed against each other in 16 minutes of plastic-fed firestorm.

The August 1st edition of The Advocate continues analyzing what happened at the Upstairs Lounge and the responses from the gay community as well as city officials.

Source: The Advocate, August 1, 1973.
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