June 24, 1973– The UpStairs Lounge Goes Up In Flames
New Orleans’ UpStairs Lounge, like the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, was a safe place for the LGBTQ community to get together to drink, dance, sing and meet-up. But, on the night of June 24, 1973, it became a very unsafe place. It was such a welcoming spot that two gay brothers, Eddie and Jim Warren, would take their mother, Inez, and proudly introduced her to the other patrons.
The UpStairs Lounge became the site of New Orleans’ deadliest fire in 200 years, and, until last June in Oralndo, it was known as the place of the largest mass killing of LGBTQ people in American history. Someone started a fire in a stairwell leading to the UpStairs Lounge which killed 32 people. No one was ever prosecuted for the crime.
Nowadays, we think of New Orleans as a liberal center in the deep South, with Live-And-Let- Live attitude and a wild sense of fun. But, in 1970s era, New Orleans’ LGBTQ people faced constant harassment and discrimination. There were frequent raids of gay bars and being gay was still legally considered a mental disorder.
It was the last day of Pride Weekend, as well as the fourth anniversary of Stonewall. About 60 people were inside the UpStairs Lounge that night, when the bartender, Buddy Rasmussen, heard a repeat buzzing from the bar’s street level door. Rasmussen asked one of the regulars to go answer the door, and when he did a wall of flames from inside the stairwell swept into the bar.
Rasmussen quickly led two dozen people through a backdoor and up to the building’s roof, but the others were engulfed in the flames, some left helplessly rattling the security bars on the three big windows, some patrons managed to squeeze through. In less than 20 minutes, 32 people were dead, and dozens were critically injured. The ones who managed to escape watched helplessly as friends and lovers burned to death before their eyes.
Terry Gilbert, just 22-years-old and new to the New Orleans Fire Department at the time, told the newspaper:
“These people, they were literally roasted alive. When your skin is exposed to open flames, you just melt, like candle-wax. It’s horrific.”
Afterwards, local politicians and religious leaders were mostly silent. Phillip Hannan, the powerful Catholic Archbishop of New Orleans, offered no support or sympathy for victims.
Forty years later, the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans apologized for its silence:
“In retrospect, if we did not release a statement we should have to be in solidarity with the victims and their families.”
Current Archbishop Gregory Aymond:
“The church does not condone violence and hatred. If we did not extend our care and condolences, I deeply apologize.”
The Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), a national Christian denomination founded to serve LGBTQ folks, sometimes used the UpStair’s backroom for services; the same space used for drag cabaret performances that the regulars names “The Nelly Dramas”.
On the night of the deadly fire, a piano player from the nearby Marriott Hotel played show tunes as patrons sang along. Duane George Mitchell, the associate pastor at MCC, was known for his Queen Victoria drag; he was there with his partner Louis Horace Broussard. Mitchell had escaped the blaze by following Rasmussen out the backdoor, but he ran back in to save Broussard. Police found their bodies fused together, dead in each other’s arms. MCC’s pastor, Bill Larson, had struggled to push an air-conditioning unit through the window to escape. He made it halfway out before the glass pane above collapsed, trapping his body. Among the other victims were the Warren brothers and their mom.
Firefighters extinguished the fire in less than half an hour after receiving the alarm. Many of the victims could be identified only by dental records. The Times-Picayune ran a headline that read: “Hitler’s Incinerators”. Yet, the story failed to make national news after the initial reports. Maurice Landrieu, the Mayor of New Orleans, remained silent and Governor Edwin Edwards never spoke out. Only one church in the French Quarter reluctantly agreed to hold a memorial service. Some people didn’t even claim their relatives.
A police investigation found a can of lighter fluid at the scene and a disgruntled patron was overheard threatening to “burn this place down”, but no one was ever charged with the arson.
People began to joke about it. The Reverend Troy Perry, founder of MCC, remembers a radio host snickering “What do we bury them in?”, with the punch line: “Fruit jars”. The Chief of Police told reporters that identifying the bodies would be tough because many patrons carried fake I.D. and:
“Some thieves hung out there, and you know this was a queer bar.”
One victim, a high school teacher, was fired while in critical condition at a hospital after his school learned that he had been at the bar. He died days later. Many of those killed and injured were effectively outed when the papers published names of the victims. Three bodies were never identified. Some had to return to work on Monday morning as if nothing happened.
Larson’s body, which remained visible in the window for hours after the fire, became the LGBTQ community’s symbol of the city’s indifference. They remained skeptical of the police investigation.
Perry finally found a church willing to hold the memorial, St. Mark’s United Methodist Church. It was a brave of them; just a year before, the Methodist denomination had decreed that homosexuality was “incompatible with Christian teaching”. Perry promised mourners that he would not allow cameras inside the church, but television crews gathered outside. He suggested that mourners could leave through a rear door, but no one accepted. They sang the last verse of the final hymn over and over again as they all filed out.
The fire at The UpStairs Lounge was the third fire in an MCC meeting place that year. Arson had destroyed their headquarters in Los Angeles, and a church in Nashville was bombed. Today there are more than 300 MCC congregations in 22 countries around the globe.
Perry started a fund for the UpStairs victims. Morty Manford, whose mother had founded Parents, Families And Friends Of Lesbians And Gays (PFLAG) just two months earlier, arrived in New Orleans to help, so did Morris Kight, president of the Gay Liberation Front.
Today the site of the UpStairs Lounge Fire of is marked only by a small square brass plaque on the sidewalk where the bar’s entrance once was. An appropriate remembrance for an event that most people don’t know about.