The Upstairs Lounge Fire


Fire Safety Concerns in Gay Clubs

Death Still Lurks

Any major fire where there are many lives lost, like the New Orleans tragedy, inevitably sets people to thinking about their own safety in places that they frequent.  And not without cause.

Many businesses are in old buildings never meant for the purposes they are now serving. Many have undergone “remodeling” that has obscured or completely covered exits. Many are so carelessly run that stacks of beer cases and other junk permanently obstructs exits.  Some very popular bars are regularly overcrowded far beyond the danger point, the owners being unwilling to give up even a few bucks for the safety of their patrons—who are really the owners’ meal tickets.

The editor of this newspaper and a friend, not very long ago, went one Saturday in Los Angeles to a new, very popular gay dance hall that also has a lounge with entertainment. The place was jammed and they were still letting people in—at a buck a head. We squirmed through the lobby area and forced our way into the dance area. The large dance floor was packed; the area surrounding the floor was packed.  We threaded our way through a mass of people and back to the lobby area. People were still being admitted—at a buck a head. We finally located the nightclub-lounge portion of the premises, squeezed past people filling the stairs down into it, forced our way to the bar, had a beer and bulldozed our way out of the building. They were still letting people in—at a buck a head.

Some people might say, “Sounds like fun!” We thought, even months before the lesson in New Orleans, that if there were a fire or other emergency in that place, hundreds would die. We have not gone back to that establishment since.

The best line of defense are the patrons of each establishment. Look around the next time you go into your favorite gay bistro, especially if it is a popular, crowded one. Are exits clearly marked; are they unobstructed and unlocked; are there enough of them for the size of the place? Are there inflammable decorations hanging everywhere? If you see anything that looks dangerous to you, send the owner a short letter; give him a chance to correct the situation; tell him you will inform the fire department if he doesn’t. And if he persists and doesn’t care about your safety, you don’t care to spend your money there!

Owners and managers of bars, clubs and baths, for their part, should immediately inspect their premises for any dangerous conditions or deficiencies and should correct any that are found without delay. It is just good sense. It is only common decency. It is the very least we can learn from the deaths in New Orleans.

During its reporting on the Upstairs Lounge Fire, the national gay newsmagazine, The Advocate, publishes an editorial noting potential fire dangers in many gay bars, clubs and bathhouses.

Source: The Advocate, August 1, 1973
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