Upstairs is a work of fiction, but the events that inspired it are all too real.
On Sunday, June 24th, 1973, the fourth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in New York, a gay bar known as the Up Stairs Lounge in the “Gay Triangle” area of the French Quarter of New Orleans was set ablaze by an arsonist. Wooden stairs leading to the bar’s only entrance were doused in lighter fluid and set alight. Twenty-nine people perished in the fire itself, and another three succumbed to their injuries afterward, bringing the death toll to 32. Fifteen of the 35 survivors were injured. It remains the deadliest attack on an LGBTQ population in US history.
In months prior to the fire, the Up Stairs Lounge had been used as a temporary home for the fledgling New Orleans congregation of the Metropolitan Community Church, a denomination founded in 1968 in Los Angeles to serve the LGBTQ community. Many of the patrons in the bar that night were MCC members, including the pastor and associate pastor of the New Orleans MCC, who both perished in the blaze. It was the third fire at an MCC church during the first half of 1973, following earlier arsons in Nashville and Los Angeles. The church’s Los Angeles headquarters was destroyed on January 27, 1973, five days after the U.S. Supreme Court announced its momentous decision in the case of Roe v. Wade. On July 27, 1973, a month after the Up Stairs fire, the San Francisco MCC was also heavily damaged by arson.
Located on the second floor of a three-story building at the corner of Chartres and Iberville Streets, the Up Stairs Lounge had only one entrance, up a wooden flight of stairs. That evening the bar held a free beer and all-you-can-eat special, attracting a crowd of almost 125 regulars. About 60 patrons stayed after the event ended, most of them MCC members there to plan an upcoming benefit for the Crippled Children’s Hospital to be held in the bar the next week. 23-year-old David Gary played piano, and bartender Buddy Rasmussen served drinks. Following an altercation, two men, David Dubose and Roger Nunez, were kicked out of the bar. Upon exiting, one of them threatened to “burn them all out.”
At five minutes to eight that evening, the buzzer downstairs — usually used to signal an arriving cab — was rung. The bartender, Buddy, asked a regular, Luther Boggs, to yell down that no one called a cab. Luther opened the steel fire door leading downstairs, and the oxygen-starved fire on the wooden stairwell exploded into the room, engulfing it in flames that quickly spread to the bar’s draperies and tablecloths.
Moving quickly, Buddy managed to lead thirty-eight people out through a hidden exit behind the bar. Some thirty others were left inside the second-floor club, stymied by unmarked emergency exits and barred and shuttered windows. A few managed to escape through the narrow bars, jumping to the sidewalk below, some in flames.
Reverend Bill Larson, pastor of the New Orleans MCC, made it partway through the bars on one window, but got stuck. He burned alive, crying “Oh, God, no!” as he died in front of horrified, helpless witnesses on the sidewalk below; his charred remains were visible to onlookers for hours afterwards, as the police and fire departments conducted their investigation.
MCC assistant pastor George “Mitch” Mitchell managed to escape, but returned to the fire when he realized his boyfriend, Louis Broussard, was not with him; both men died in the fire, their remains were found clinging to one another. George Matyi also escaped but went back to rescue more trapped patrons; his body was discovered embracing those of two other victims.
Thirty-five people survived due to Buddy’s heroic efforts leading them out of the bar to the roofs of the French Quarter, hoping from roof to roof until they found a safe way down. The fire, which lasted only 17 minutes, killed more gays and lesbians in America than any other incident to date, and was the deadliest fire in the history of New Orleans, a city which has burned to the ground twice.
Eighteen-year-old Clancy DuBos, a University of New Orleans student and intern at the Times-Picayune, arrived at the scene as bodies were being taken out. “I saw bloodstains on the sidewalk and a man sitting in the gutter with his skin burned off, crying he was in such pain” DuBos remembers, “And there was the sight of that man pressed between the bars of the window trapped and burned there.” The Times Picayune headline the next morning was “29 killed in Quarter Blaze.” The States Item’s, the afternoon paper, headline was “13 fire victims are identified.”
The fire exposed an ugly streak of homophobia and bigotry in a city which had long turned a blind eye to the vices of the French Quarter. It was the first time New Orleans had to openly confront the existence of its own gay community, and the results were not pretty. Initial news coverage omitted mention that the fire had anything to do with gays, despite the fact that a gay church in a gay bar had been torched. What stories did appear used dehumanizing language to paint the scene, with stories in the States-Item, New Orleans’ afternoon paper, describing “bodies stacked up like pancakes,” and that “in one corner, workers stood knee deep in bodies…the heat had been so intense, many were cooked together.” Other reports spoke of “mass charred flesh” and victims who were “literally cooked.”
Roger Nunez was picked up for questioning and he almost immediately went into convulsions. He was taken into Charity hospital, but soon disappeared. He was seen later in the French Quarter but was never picked up again for questioning. The police and fire marshal at the time concluded that it was an “act of arson.” Nunez committed suicide a year later. Five days after Nunez’s death a friend told investigator that Nunez had told him drunk on four occasions, that he had set the fire. According to his friend, Nunez squirted the bottom steps with Ronsonol lighter fluid and tossed in a match. He didn’t realize, he claimed, that the whole place would go up in flames. The case was left open until 1980 when a spokesman for the fire marshal’s office, Glenn Fontenot, said “After the suspect committed suicide they felt like they’d run out of active criminal leads.”
New Orleans’ gay community struggled to find a place that would take them in for funeral services. The New Orleans MCC lost one third of their congregation, including their pastor and assistant pastor, Rev Larson and Mitch Mitchell. William “Father Bill” Richardson, the closeted rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church, agreed to allow a small prayer service to be held on Monday evening. It was advertised only by word of mouth and drew about 80 mourners. The next day, Richardson was rebuked by Iveson Noland, the Episcopalian bishop of New Orleans, who forbade him to let the church be used again. Bishop Nolan said he had received over 100 angry phone calls from local parishioners, and Richardson’s mailbox would later fill with hate letters.
Eventually, two additional ministers offered their sanctuaries – a Unitarian church, and St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in the French Quarter. It was here that a July 1 memorial service was held, led by Troy Perry, founder and then head of the MCC denomination. The services were attended by 250 people, including the state’s Methodist bishop, Finis Crutchfield, who would die of AIDS fourteen years later at age 70. The news media gathered outside the front door waiting to photograph the mourners exiting. When the service concluded those in attendance were offered an exit in the back, in order to keep their anonymity. In a moment of solidarity, which many believe was the beginning of an openly gay movement in New Orleans, the Congregation decided to walk out the front entrance to face the press.
Although called on to do so, no elected officials in all of Louisiana issued statements of sympathy or mourning. Even more stunning, some families refused to claim the bodies of their dead sons, too ashamed to admit they might be gay. The city would not release the remains of four unidentified persons for burial by the surviving MCC congregation members. They were buried in mass graves at Potter’s Field, New Orleans’ pauper cemetery.
No one was ever charged with the crime, and it remains unsolved.
Remembering the Dead
Partners Joe William Bailey & Clarence Josephy McCloskey, Jr. perished together. McCloskey’s sisters and two nieces attended the Memorial Service. His niece, Susan, represented McCloskey in the Jazz Funeral.
Duane George “Mitch” Mitchell, assistant MCC pastor. He had escaped through the emergency exit with a group led by bartender Douglas “Buddy” Rasmussen, but ran back into the burning building trying to save his partner, Louis Horace Broussard. Their bodies were discovered lying together.
Mrs. Willie Inez Warren of Pensacola later died from burns suffered in the fire. Her two sons died inside the bar, Eddie Hosea Warren and James Curtis Warren.
Pastor of the MCC, Rev. William R. Larson, formerly a Methodist lay minister.
Dr. Perry Lane Waters, Jr., a Jefferson Parish dentist. Several victims were his patients and were identified by his x-rays.
Douglas Maxwell Williams
Leon Richard Maples, a visitor from Florida.
George Steven Matyi
Reginald Adams, Jr., MCC member, formerly a Jesuit Scholastic.
James Walls Hambrick, who had jumped from the building in flames, died later that week.
Horace “Skip” Getchell, MCC member.
Joseph Henry Adams
Herbert Dean Cooley, UpStairs Lounge bartender and MCC member.
Professional pianist, David Stuart Gary.
Guy D. Anderson
Luther Boggs, teacher, who died two weeks later. Notified while hospitalized with terrible burns that he had been fired from his job.
Donald Walter Dunbar
Professional linguist, Adam Roland Fontenot, survived by his partner, bartender Douglas “Buddy” Rasmussen, who led a group to safety.
John Thomas Golding, Sr., member of MCC Pastor’s Advisory Group.
Gerald Hoyt Gordon
Kenneth Paul Harrington, Federal Government employee.
Glenn Richard “Dick” Green, Navy veteran.
Robert “Bob” Lumpkin
Four men were buried in Potter’s Field: Ferris LeBlanc (later indentified), and three persons only identified as Unknown White Males. The city refused to release these bodies to the MCC for burial.