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Fire at the Up Stairs Lounge: a musical

Will Coviello on the musical premiering on the 40th anniversary of New Orleans' deadliest fire

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The Up Stairs Lounge was usually crowded on Sunday nights. The weekly "beer bust" allowed patrons to pay $1 for a glass and each table had a pitcher that was refilled as long as the bust lasted. Owner Phil Esteve and bartender Buddy Rasmussen started the promotion to attract patrons to the second-floor gay bar at Iberville and Chartres streets.

  The space previously housed a bar with a gritty reputation, and when Esteve opened Up Stairs in October 1970, he created a cleaner, friendlier place. Long drapes hid pipes and other unattractive features. Red flocked wallpaper covered some of the walls, and the Cosmopolitan centerfold featuring Burt Reynolds, nude on a bearskin rug, hung behind the red Formica-topped bar. There also was a poster of Mark Spitz wearing a swimsuit and his Olympic gold medals.

  Esteve installed a baby grand piano, and many nights patrons sat around the piano and sang along. There was a group gathered at the piano at around 8 p.m. Sunday, June 24, when there was a long ring of the downstairs buzzer.

  Luther Boggs opened the door to an entrance stairwell engulfed in flames. The fire roared into the room and up to the ceiling, torching the drapes, wallpaper and everything in the room. Patrons were trapped. Some of them tried to squeeze through bars spaced 13 inches apart that blocked the floor-to-ceiling windows; a few were able to jump to the sidewalk. Rasmussen saved many lives as he found men in the smoke-filled room and led them to a little-known exit in the back.

  The fire lasted less than 20 minutes, but it flared so furiously it claimed 29 lives that night. Three more later died from severe burns and injuries. Some survivors were left disfigured, badly burned and missing fingers.

  The New Orleans Metropolitan Community Church lost its pastor, a deacon and a quarter of its congregation in the fire. The burned body of pastor Bill Larson was left for hours where he died trying to escape through the window bars (see Clancy DuBos' memory of covering the story, "Front-row view of a tragedy,").

  The fire dominated the headlines of The Times-Picayune and The States-Item for several days. Then the stories slipped into the inside pages of the paper. Troy Perry, the founder of the national Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) for gay and lesbian Christians flew from Los Angeles to New Orleans immediately after the fire. Perry was dismayed by the difficulties he had organizing a public memorial service.

  Though there were many unresolved issues — including an arson investigation and the unknown identities of many of the victims — the event disappeared from public discussion, and after a while, it seemed, from public memory as well.

  Perry's autobiography is one of a handful of books that mentions the Up Stairs fire. Wayne Self read the book while in seminary at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif. He had never heard of the fire, even though he had grown up in Natchitoches, came out as gay early in his college years and had visited New Orleans many times.

  "Learning about the Up Stairs changed my trajectory entirely," Self says.

  He left the seminary to write a musical about the fire.

  "Any time anyone says, 'Oh, heavens, a musical about such a disaster,' I am like, 'Yeah, I know, right,'" Self says with a note of chagrin. "I was thinking the same thing. It was a big weight on my shoulders to say, 'How am I going to navigate these waters? How am I going to make this entertaining, but not a talent show, and navigate the themes that are right there on the surface that must be dealt with?'

  "It took some doing, and it took some false starts."

  Upstairs premieres this week at Cafe Istanbul, four days before the 40th anniversary of the fire.

The fire at the Up Stairs lounge had the highest death toll of any fire in New Orleans history, including the 1788 and 1794 blazes that burned most of the French Quarter to the ground. The carnage was captured in local newspapers. One headline read, "Scene of French Quarter fire is called Dante's Inferno, Hitler's Incinerators." The States-Item devoted an entire page to seven photos of the victims at the scene and attending policemen and firemen. There were horrific pictures of the victims, including one of Larson, dead in the window. The fire was reported on national news broadcasts the next day.

  But homophobia shaped responses to the fire before the smoke had cleared. The New Orleans Police Department officer in charge of detectives was quoted in the newspaper and alluded to on CBS News concerning the difficulty in identifying victims. In The States-Item, it was the first mention of homosexuality in relation to the event: "We don't even know if these papers belonged to the people we found them on. Some thieves hung out there and you know this was a queer bar."

  During the first week, police and fire department officials went back and forth over designating the fire as arson. Many people who survived the fire suspected a customer named Rodger Nunez of starting it, according to several people interviewed in Johnny Townsend's book Let the Faggots Burn: The UpStairs Lounge Fire. Nunez was in a fight in the bar less than two hours before the fire, and days later sought treatment for a fractured jaw. Police questioned Nunez, but never arrested him or anyone else in connection with the fire. (Nunez committed suicide in November 1974.)

  On the radio and around New Orleans, the fire was the source of grim and dismissive humor.

Three workshop productions of Upstairs were staged in the San Francisco Bay area in February. - PHOTO BY PHIL DYER
  • Photo by Phil Dyer
  • Three workshop productions of Upstairs were staged in the San Francisco Bay area in February.

  "There were the terrible jokes," Townsend says. "'Oh, you don't want to bury them at the church? Bury them in fruit jars. They're fruits.' 'Did you hear about the weenie roast in the French Quarter the other day?' It was just terrible."

  The papers printed names of newly identified victims every day, but some bodies at the morgue went unidentified and unclaimed.

  "These were days when if your name was in the paper after a gay bar raid, you lost your job," Townsend says. "Families refused to claim the bodies because they didn't want anyone to know they had a family member who was gay. ... People who were grieving the loss of friends, even lovers, couldn't tell anyone at work because they'd be fired. There was all this terrible anguish that had to stay hidden."

   The tragedy was met with silence by many local churches. Perry was able to organize a small, relatively private service at St. George's Episcopal Church. No local church would host a public memorial, until a week later, when the pastor of St. Mark's United Methodist Church, over the objections of some members of the congregation, agreed to hold a service.

  The treatment of the victims became a painful memory for the gay community, and the inaction of local religious groups was outrageous to many people of faith, gay and straight.

  While the fire is rarely mentioned four decades later, it still resonates powerfully with many who remember it — and some who learned the story.

  When artist Skylar Fein opened his installation Remember The UpStairs Lounge at the Contemporary Arts Center as part of the Prospect.1 biennial in November 2008, he didn't know what to expect. Fein learned about the fire by chance when he noticed the plaque on the sidewalk below the former bar. As he started researching, he met resistance from some in the gay community. One person who found the memories difficult asked him why he was choosing to "dredge up" the story.

  Fein contacted Townsend and read a draft of Townsend's then-unpublished manuscript (Townsend published it himself in 2011). Townsend also shared photos of the lounge and victims that he had collected while researching his book, and Fein used many in his re-creation of the lounge.

  "I didn't know what it was going to be," Fein says. "I thought no one would care. I thought it would just be me and three or four older gay men who lived through the time. Then we'd walk out and that'd be it. I was totally unprepared for the thousands of people coming through that first weekend."

  He also couldn't have predicted the response.

  "The angriest people in the exhibit were the Catholics," Fein says. "They were way angrier than the gay and lesbian community. A group of older straight couples from the Northshore were very affected by it. They sought me out — I was in the installation. This one woman said, 'We remember this. We remember the fire. We remember that our church refused to bury the dead. We knew it was wrong.' They all nodded gravely.

  "That moment, more than any other moment, I felt like the city had shifted."

Self was shocked he had not heard about the fire until he read Perry's book.

  "When you grow up gay in Natchitoches, New Orleans is sort of your spiritual home," he says. "I have a lot of friends here from school and way back."

  In Natchitoches, Self attended Baptist services with his father and Mass with his Catholic mother. He started college in Natchitoches but completed his philosophy degree at Centenary College of Louisiana in Shreveport. He took a computer programming job with CompuServe in Ohio, and eventually he and some friends started their own tech company and moved it to the San Francisco area. After years in the tech industry, Self re-evaluated his goals and became musical director for his MCC congregation. Then he entered the seminary.

  In his chapter about the Up Stairs Lounge, Perry mostly writes about the lack of a protest or organizing effort in response to the fire. Self was interested in the people involved. To learn more about them, he read Townsend's book and the unpublished manuscript of another history of the event by Clayton Delery.

  "I found very compelling stories that took place in and around this situation," he says. "I couldn't believe that they hadn't been told over and over again.

  "There's the story of Mitch and Louis. Mitch escaped the fire and his partner didn't. Mitch turned around and went back in to rescue him, and they both died. This is 1973, when the idea that gay men would even be loyal enough to each other, that there was something more than illicit sex in a bar somewhere — these things were happening. In 1973, there was a woman with her two sons that died in the fire. OK, so what's this woman doing (in the bar) with her two (gay) sons in 1973?"

  All of them became characters in the musical, which blends fact and fiction. Self uses several actual names; some characters are composites that incorporate information from multiple victims and survivors; others are fictional.

  The songs are mostly ballads sung by the ensemble, which suits the Up Stairs well, since it was popular as a place to sing and dance, where some patrons staged short farcical dramas and drag performances.

  "When I first heard about the fire ... songs started to come," Self says. "Songs started to come pretty quickly, at least initially. I started writing them down. But I didn't think I was ready to take on the material. The time wasn't ripe yet."

  Self wrote a musical that was performed at the San Francisco chapter of the MCC. Wise Up! is a show-tunesy version of the Christmas story told by three drag queens, Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. But Self knew he needed more experience to handle the Up Stairs lounge story. He entered a masters program in musical composition and theater. There, he wrote another musical before finishing Upstairs. Cadillac is a country- and Western-accented musical about coming out in a small town in the South. It's a serious drama about a complicated relationship, but not as somber as what lies at the heart of his new project.

  Upstairs has strong religious imagery, and the work deals with complicated people and internalized homophobia. Redemption is an issue for one character conflicted about his identity, having grown up gay in the Bible Belt.

  "There is stuff that's gay-specific in the play," Self says. "But it's about people who are told that redemption is not possible for them. Or that it would mean changing their sexuality ­— how they struggle for redemption. How does a person who is told, 'Well, no, you can't. You are broken. You are not OK in the sight of God' — how does that person struggle for redemption if they receive those messages enough? But gay people aren't the only people who are told that.

  "The narrative I put forth is not necessarily the narrative people expect when they walk in," Self adds. "There are things left unresolved. There are things left unsaid. It's going to be provocative to some people. If people are expecting a pageant of a memorial service essentially done on stage, that's not what this is. It will be challenging. But finally, people will understand why I wrote it the way I did and what it's calling for, what it's hoping for."

  Self, who lives outside Los Angeles, cast actors there for three workshop productions held in February in the San Francisco area.

  "I would send out the hardest piece in the show," he says. "Half of my people who were interested disappeared. 'Sanctuary' has got weird harmonies, it's atonal. The rest of the songs are these nice ballads. I figured I could find good actors; I wanted to find singers who could handle the material."

  In the workshop version, some characters played multiple roles. All those actors will perform in the New Orleans premiere, but there are no doubled roles. The rest of the cast includes several Los Angeles actors and New Orleanian Jeffery Roberson (aka Varla Jean Merman). The live band features New Orleans musicians, and Self is working with local technical staff as well. Following the opening run, there will be a benefit performance on June 29 in Los Angeles. Where it goes from there is yet to be determined.

  Asked if he sees it in the same vein as other dramas created in response to crises — such as Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, about the early lack of response in New York to the HIV epidemic, or The Laramie Project, a play about the murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man — Self offers a different vision.

  "I was very compelled by Corpus Christi," he says. "It's a play about the life of Jesus, but it is set in Corpus Christi, Texas. This was in the 1990s and it was protested. People wouldn't put it on, but it still has a life, and it would go from town to town, and church to church – very, very progressive churches. People wouldn't put it on because it can be very irreverent. I was inspired by the activism and just the existence of a piece like that and its continuing life. My prayer for Upstairs — my hope — is that it will have a similar life.

  "Everyone is like, 'Oh, Wayne, we'll see you on Broadway,'" he says. "I am like, 'No. Have you been to Broadway?' But to have a life where it can go from community theater to community theater and have the story continually told — that would be a great way to live up to the mission that I have set out for myself."






The Up Stairs Lounge Fire

• Royd Anderson's documentary about the fire at the Up Stairs Lounge premieres on Cox Cable channel 4.

• The 27-minute film reviews the fire, re-examines the arson investigation and includes interviews with eyewitnesses.

• The documentary airs at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Monday, June 24; 1 p.m. Tuesday, June 25; and 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 27.


Read Clancy DuBos' memory of covering the story,
"Front-row view of a tragedy"

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