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“Let Them Burn!” The UpStairs Fire Tragedy

Henry Brett and Stephen Madsen star in The View UpStairs at the Hayes Theatre

It was one of the worst acts of mass murder in the modern history of the United States, yet the official response was appalling, and the gay community has mostly forgotten about it. Now, the tragedy of the UpStairs Bar is revealled in a new musical, The View Upstairs. DNA looks at the real events that inspired the show.

 

 

On Sunday June 24, 1973, New York’s Gay Pride attracted its largest crowd yet – 17,000 – marking the fourth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. They were celebrating the moment the gay community rebelled in the streets and finally began demanding rights, but gay liberation hadn’t quite reached New Orleans. In the UpStairs Lounge in the French Quarter the occasion was mostly unnoticed, and that Sunday passed just like any other, with a beer bust that gave the patrons two hours of unlimited beer for an entry fee of one dollar.

The UpStairs was a small bar on the second floor, accessed through a narrow stairwell with colourful fabric disguising the ugly pipes that protruded through the ceiling. It was located some distance from the main drag of gay bars and had a small but dedicated group of patrons who all knew each other well, giving the place an atmosphere that sounds very close to that in Cheers or Billy Joel’s Piano Man.

Buddy Rasmussen in the UpStairs Bar

Behind the bar was 32-year-old Buddy Rasmussen, who’d dealt with the usual rush of people and was now counting the minutes until the end of his shift at eight. The beer bust had been his idea when he took over management three years earlier, as was the tricycle race in which competitors had to navigate a tight course through the bar on a small novelty bike. At other times he would hang a net from the ceiling, filled with balloons containing free-drink coupons that were released during the evening to be popped by patrons.

Buddy had grown up in Houston and joined the air force as soon as he was old enough, being stationed in Alaska and Japan. When his service was over he returned home and fell into a bad relationship that turned him off homosexuality altogether, so he enlisted in the navy to get over being gay. It didn’t work, which was proved one night when police caught him in a car performing oral sex on a sailor. He wasn’t prosecuted for the act, as he could have been, but was discharged.

At that point he embraced his homosexuality fully, saying, “I can’t change it and I can’t pretend any longer.” His family grudgingly accepted it but employers did not. He couldn’t get his job at the local 7-11 back, nor was he hired by a gay executive at IBM who thought he was a little too open about his sexuality. It was six months before he found work, as a waiter in a gay bar. When he tired of the Houston scene he set off hitchhiking for Florida, but was exhausted by the time he reached New Orleans and stayed, working in a number of bars until he got the job at the UpStairs.

“Oh, fuck it. It’s only faggots. Let ’em burn.”

He loved working there, particularly the friendly atmosphere of a place where everybody knew each other. He’d often use his microphone to announce the regulars as they walked through the door. “Here’s Debbie Dyke!” he’d declare. “Here’s Uncle Al!” “Here’s Mother Cross!”

The gay crowd at UpStairs Bar

Two of those who entered that night were Duane George Mitchell and his partner Louis Horace Broussard, known as Mitch and Horace. Twenty-six-year-old Horace had been a hustler when he met Mitch, 31, but he’d given up the game when they fell in love and became a barber. Mitch worked for a beauty supply company and had been married until he accepted his homosexuality. His two sons Dane, 11, and Steve, 10, lived with their mother in Alabama, but were visiting him for the school holidays. They’d dropped the kids off at a cinema on the way to the UpStairs and would be going to pick them up soon.

The pair were very popular, one of those cheerful couples everybody liked to be around. Mitch was an associate pastor in the Metropolitan Community Church, which held meetings in a back room of the bar, and wholeheartedly took part in the other activities that went on there, including stage productions in which the 300-pound man liked playing the dainty girl in distress. When he entered the tricycle race he accidentally tore the handlebars off, causing great hilarity.

Another favourite regular was 47-year-old Luther Boggs, who was sitting at the end of the bar, next to the jukebox that stood by the door. He was a computer programmer who’d just left his job with Pan American Life Insurance Company to begin teaching. He was a keen gardener and belonged to the Patio Planters, a group that conducted walking tours of the French Quarter showing off the many beautiful private patio gardens. He’d never worked at the UpStairs Lounge but would often help Buddy out when he was busy.

Luther was chatting to his friend Jean Gosnell, a 37-year-old straight woman he’d become friends with since she moved to New Orleans three years before. Jean’s husband had died, and her three grown children had left home, so she enjoyed the company. For two years she’d been a regular there.

At the other end of the room were Michael Scarborough and Glenn Green, sitting at a table with a number of their friends that included Sid, Joe, Dean, Ricky and Frank. Michael especially enjoyed the beer bust, as beer was the only alcohol he drank, and was having a great time, largely because he didn’t know the inadvertent role he would play in the tragic events about to unfold.

Among the roughly 65 people in the bar at that time was one few of them recognised.

Mitch (left) died alongside his partner Horace (right) when he went back into the fire to try to save him

 His name was Rodger Dale Nunez, a 26-year-old hustler who’d grown up in Louisiana and spent time in both the navy and, following some petty crime, prison. For much of the night he’d been locked in a toilet cubicle watching the guys at the urinal through a gap. Michael seems to have said something to him while he was in there, as Rodger walked up to the table when he emerged and began verbally abusing him. Michael didn’t take that quietly. Instead he stood and punched Rodger on the jaw, knocking him to the ground.

Rodger lifted himself on one elbow, rubbing his jaw as he looked at Michael standing over him. “I’m going to burn you all out,” he said, softly but firmly. Buddy and Hugh Cooley, who was taking over from Buddy’s shift at eight, picked Rodger up and took him to the landing outside the door. He wasn’t done mouthing off, though, so Hugh took him down the stairs and left him on the sidewalk. Nobody thought too much of the incident and they all went back to drinking and talking.

 It was just a few minutes before eight when the door buzzer began ringing in a long, continuous monotone, striking a discordant note to those who were gathered around the piano belting out United We Stand. “And if our backs should ever be against the wall, we will be together,” they sang.

Buddy assumed it was Rodger, back again and still being a pest. “Luther,” he said wearily, “Would you go see who in the hell is ringing that buzzer?”

Luther got up and pulled the door open, allowing the inferno that had been building in the stairwell to come roaring into the bar, a wall of flames that erupted like an explosion. Screaming in pain and fear, Luther staggered backwards as panic spread throughout the venue.

Buddy reacted the quickest. “Come with me!” he yelled, grabbing hold of the nearest patrons as the Burt Reynolds and Mark Spitz posters above the jukebox were incinerated. Buddy knew the only way out was the fire door at the opposite end of the bar, through two other rooms. “Come with me! Come with me!” he shouted as he ran from patron to patron, grabbing hold of them and pointing them in the right direction. However, many didn’t hear him, too shocked or drunk to focus on his words, and so they headed instead for the floor-to-ceiling windows.

It would prove to be a fatal mistake for many of them, as the windows were enclosed by bars. They weren’t burglar-proof bars, with gaps of 10 and 14 inches it was possible to squeeze through, but it took time for each person to get out the window and then jump to the ground, time they didn’t have as the conflagration spread with frightening speed across the flammable ceiling and carpet. Luther struggled to get the window open, then pushed Jean through first, a selfless act that would cost him dearly. He shoved her so hard she broke two of her teeth on part of the window, but she simply spat them out and kept going.

They both reached the fire escape but Luther had not made it through quickly enough. “Jean, help me!” he cried. “Help me! I’m on fire!” Jean looked in horror at her friend, who seemed to be almost totally ablaze. She beat at the flames on his legs, to little avail, until he climbed over the rail and leapt to the street below. Gerald Tyler rushed out of the downstairs bar he’d been drinking in to pour a pitcher of water over Luther, an action he would repeat as each flaming person hit the ground. One of those who escaped tore off his burning clothes and stood naked in the street until somebody brought him a blanket, then he wandered off in a daze.

Luther Boggs and Jean Gosnell treated outside

Back inside, Buddy was still running around gathering patrons. “Come with me! Come with me!” he shouted, his voice only dimly heard above the roaring flames and panicked screams. Thick clouds of smoke now filled the air, as did the burning Fourth Of July decorations that drifted by. Glass smashed and bar stools tumbled as people fell over each other looking for a way out. Just as Buddy and the refugees he’d gathered made it through the archway into the second room, the lights went out.

Buddy led those who had followed him to the door at the back, opened it and told them to go up on the roof to safety. He then ran back into the third room, a theatre, to find Mother Cross standing there.

“What are you doing?” Buddy shouted.

“My lover’s still in there!”

“No he’s not. He’s out on the roof.”

“Thank God!” Mother Cross said, but then turned back and fell to his hands and knees, looking as if he was going to go back into the bar anyway.

Buddy picked him up. “You can’t go in there. You’ll die.”

“But maybe I could crawl under the smoke, grab someone by the legs and drag him back.”

Buddy wouldn’t allow it, knowing too well the stories of people who were killed going back for others. Instead they stood by the fire door, calling to those still inside. Nobody heard. Some had fled into the toilets, from which there was no escape, two others had curled up underneath the piano, in the forlorn hope the fire brigade would get the blaze out before they died, and the rest were at the windows in the front room.

Michael was one of the lucky 14 people who made it through a window. He swung down a pipe into the street, then lay there in agony staring back up at the burning bar looking for his partner Glenn. Oh God! he thought. He was right behind me. Where is he now? Michael tried to call out to him but was in too much pain from the serious burns he’d received. Glenn did not make it. His body was one of the 17 found pressed against the windows, still desperately trying to escape as the flames overtook them.

Perhaps the most heart-breaking story is that of Mitch and Horace. Mitch actually made it out with Buddy and got all the way to the roof before he realised Horace wasn’t with them. “Horace is still in there!” he shouted and turned back to the fire door with their friend Rick Everett. By then the front room was a mass of flames and the second room was starting to burn as well. Rick couldn’t go any further and fled once more, choking on the smoke that now filled the air, but Mitch refused to give up on his partner and continued into the bar. When their bodies were found, Horace could only be identified through fingerprints, while Mitch had burns to 100 per cent of his body.

 “What will they bury the ashes of queers in? Fruit jars!”

This joke, which made the rounds in the aftermath of the fire and was even repeated by talk radio hosts, summarises much of the public reaction to the tragedy. Thirty-two people were killed, making it the most deadly fire in the history of New Orleans, a city that has burned to the ground twice. It was one of the worst acts of mass murder in United States history yet was reported in only one national news bulletin. Even in that report, the discomfort of the anchor man can clearly be seen as he describes the UpStairs Lounge as “a well-known gathering place for homosexuals”. On the original transcript this awkward phrase was written in hand over the scratched-out words “gay bar”.

Even as the fire was still raging, one of the men who’d managed to escape overheard a frustrated firefighter say, “We can’t get up there.” His companion replied, “Oh, fuck it. It’s only faggots. Let ’em burn.” Another firefighter was heard to say, “That’s good enough for them. That’s what they deserve,” while a police officer said, “Burn, fruit, burn.”

The callousness of such comments defies credulity. The traumatic scene being played out at the time needs to be remembered in full detail: the stench of roasting flesh; the flames enshrouding the injured as they fell to the hard sidewalk below; the screams of those who were trapped behind the bars in the windows and knew they were not going to get out alive. MCC Reverend Bill Larson made it halfway through the bars before he died. His flesh melted to the steel and his charred corpse stayed there for the next 24 hours, on grotesque public display like the victim of a lynching, before he was finally covered up. His mother did not want his remains returned for fear it would become known in her town that he was gay, so his ashes were kept at the New Orleans MCC for the next several years.

Newspaper reports of the fire included quotes from a taxi driver who said “I hope the fire burned their dresses off ” and a woman who claimed, “The Lord had something to do with this. He caught them and punished them.”

Even the police, whose job it was to investigate this most horrific arson attack, took it far less seriously than they should have. “Did you hear about the weenie roast?” one officer was overheard joking. When Chief Of Detectives Major Henry Morris spoke to the media about the difficulties of identifying the badly burned bodies, he said, “We don’t even know if these papers belonged to people we found them on. Some thieves hung out there and you know this was a queer bar.”

Bill Larson’s body in the window

“Bill Larson made it halfway through the bars before he died. His charred corpse stayed there for the next 24 hours, on grotesque public display like the victim of a lynching, before he was finally covered up.”

On the day after the fire Miss Fury, a drag queen who had not been at the bar when the fire started because she got caught up in a Bette Davis film at home, went to pick up her food vouchers. She was still reeling from the news she’d lost several of her friends and was in no mood for the woman behind the counter who glared at her and said, “You should have been in that bar yesterday.”

Even the simple act of laying the victims to rest struck resistance, with several churches refusing to give Christian burials to the men who had “died as a direct result of living in sin”. Only one man took a stand, the gay Reverend Bill Richardson, who held a memorial service against the orders of his bishop and despite receiving hate calls and letters from irate church members. “Do you think Jesus would keep these people out?” Bill asked when the bishop chastised him.

There were calls from the gay community for July 1 to become a day of mourning, but these were ignored by the governor and mayor, the latter saying he was “not aware of any lack of concern in this community”. Meanwhile, those who placed flowers at the site of the tragedy were called “faggots” by passers-by, while the flowers themselves were repeatedly stolen until one community member began guarding the unofficial shrine.

“The most difficult thing for me,” said one man, 15 years after the fire, “was the fact that I had to go to work the next day and I had to shield the grief because I wasn’t out of the closet.” It added feelings of isolation and alienation to the mourning they were already experiencing. They had to restrain themselves from reacting when they heard comments such as, “What major tragedy happened in New Orleans on June 24? That only 30 faggots died and not more!”

 Many of those who escaped the blaze did not do so unscathed. While Buddy managed to get out relatively unharmed, Michael was not so lucky. As well as the emotional pain of losing his lover and several friends, he also carried significant physical scars. His hands were burned so badly that bone was exposed in several places. Six fingers and both his thumbs had to be amputated at the first or second joint.

The dramatic nature of his transformation became fully apparent when he walked into a bar some time later, his previously blond hair turned white and one of his ears half burned off. “Oh my God, I thought you died!” one of the drinkers exclaimed, punctuating the sentence with the smash of a dropped glass. “I did,” Michael replied.

Jean spent six months in hospital, with burns to up to 80 per cent of her body. Even worse was that many of her straight friends deserted her for being lesbian – even though she wasn’t. “I’m straight, I can’t help it,” she would tell her gay friends in better times, to much amusement. “I was born that way.” However, she couldn’t convince the straight people around her, who didn’t understand why she would lower herself to go to a “well-known gathering place for homosexuals”.

Not one straight person offered to help Jean, but her gay friends rallied around her strongly. They not only settled her hospital bills, they also hired two servants to help her at home until she regained the use of her hands. She became a celebrated survivor of the blaze and rode as an honoured guest in the 1974 Los Angeles Gay Pride Celebration.

Jean had been saved because Luther pushed her through the window in front of him. Luther was hospitalised with burns to 50 per cent of his body, including his face, head, back and legs. He passed away on July 10. Even on his deathbed the homophobic Southern society found time for one more insult, which came when he was sacked from his teaching job.

 It was the third fire at an MCC meeting place that year, leading many to suspect it was part of a terror campaign against the gay community. That fear hardened when the local news on the evening after the fire reported an anonymous call that claimed, “the bar was fire-bombed by a vigilante group that has declared war on homosexuals in New Orleans”. It turned out to be a hoax, yet the gay community remained terrified. Even today many of the websites and news articles that discuss the fire heavily hint that it was a hate attack against homosexuality in general.

However, those who were in the bar and heard Rodger Nunez’s threat suspected the culprit was far closer to home. When Buddy saw Rodger out the front watching the fire he seized him and dragged him towards a police officer. “Why are you holding me?” Rodger asked, to which Buddy replied, “I’m going to have you arrested for questioning.”

After the fire

He had to let him go, though, when the policeman wasn’t interested. Another patron who’d escaped the fire did exactly the same thing with Rodger, getting the same result. “You think you know police business better than I do?” the officer said. “Get back across the street. You’re in the way.”

Once the fire had been extinguished it became clear what had happened. Lighter fluid had been sprayed in the stairwell, then a match was struck. The cashier at a nearby drug store reported somebody buying a can of lighter fluid just before the fire started, though he wasn’t able to identify the person.

Police suspicion did finally come to rest on Rodger, who was arrested eight days after the fire and taken in for questioning. That was interrupted, however, when he had a seizure and was taken to hospital. He wasn’t questioned again until September 18, almost three months after the fire, when significant portions of his story had changed. He took a lie detector test, but before that was finished his lawyer advised him to answer no more questions for fear of incriminating himself.

That Christmas Miss Fury had a few drinks with Rodger and heard the only confession he seems to have made. He suddenly started crying, saying it was he who had lit the fire. He said he’d only meant to cause a little fire and some smoke, wanting to scare those inside. He didn’t realise the whole place would go up in flames.

It’s generally held that Rodger lit the blaze, but because the police investigation was so inadequate there are still a lot of unanswered questions. Witnesses saw two people arguing out the front of the bar before the fireball tore through, raising the possibility that Rodger didn’t act alone, while another witness saw him spend half an hour drinking with the owner of another gay bar before he walked back to the UpStairs. Was it he who talked Rodger into carrying out his threat?

We’ll never know because on November 14, 1974, Rodger killed himself by drinking a cocktail of poisons. Police have stated they’re satisfied Rodger started the fire, but the case remains officially open.

 

Special thanks to Johnny Townsend, whose research for the novel Let The Faggots Burn formed the basis of this story.

This feature originally appeared in DNA #144.

The View Upstairs is currently playing at The Hayes Theatre, Darlinghurst. 

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DNA is Australia's best-selling magazine for gay men. Every month, you'll find great feature stories, celebrity profiles, pop culture reviews and sensational photography of some of the world's sexiest male models in our fashion stories. DNA was launched in Australia in 2000 and is available worldwide in Print (in newsagents and bookstores throughout Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA, UK and Europe) and Digital (through DNAstore, Pocketmags, iTunes, Amazon Kindle, Windows and Google Play).

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