R.I.P. 40th Anniversary

Memorializing The Victims Of Horrific Firebombing At New Orleans’ Upstairs Lounge: “You Know This Was A Gay Bar”

On June 24, 1973, the deadliest LGBT massacre in American history happened in New Orleans.

At 7:56 PM, an unknown assailant set ablaze the stairwell leading to the Upstairs Lounge, a second-floor gay bar. 60 people were trapped inside. As the flames spread, some were able to escape through an unmarked exit. But others — panicked, confused, and unable to see through the smoke or escape through the barred windows — weren’t so fortunate.

One man managed to squeeze through the 14-inch gap between the bars. He jumped to street, his body engulfed in flames, but died on impact.

Another man, George “Mitch” Mitchell, safely made it out of the burning building, but when he realized his boyfriend, Louis Broussard, was still inside, he went back to save him. Their bodies were later found huddled together in the wreckage.

Reverend Bill Larson burned to death grasping the barred window frame. His charred corpse remained visible to onlookers from the street for hours afterwards.

These are only a handful of stories of the 32 men and women who parished that day in the fire.

The tragedy went largely unreported by the media at the time. No elected officials issued statements of sympathy or mourning. Nor was it throughly investigated by the New Orleans Police Department.

Major Henry Morris, chief detective of the NOPD at the time, dismissed the need for one, claiming it was too difficult to identify the victims. He argued that many of the deceased weren’t carrying IDs or were likely carrying fake ones, a claim that was entirely speculative.

In an interview with the States-Item, Morris said: “We don’t even know these papers belonged to the people we found them on. Some thieves hung out there, and you know this was a queer bar.”

As a result, four bodies were never identified, and the city refused to release the remains for burial. Instead they were placed in mass graves at Potter’s Field, New Orleans’ pauper cemetery.

No one was ever charged with the crime, and it remains unsolved to this day.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the fire. New Orleans Pride is hosting an official memorial June 24, which will include a street side ceremony at the location the tragedy occurred, and the premiere of Wayne Self’s new musical Upstairs.

Self is a playwright and composer from Louisiana. He now lives in Orange County, California. Queerty chatted with him about the musical, what inspired him to write it, and how he hopes to connect the audience to the tragedy.

What inspired to write a musical about the 1973 Upstairs Lounge arson attack?

It began as an initial fascination with a story that I had never heard, despite being gay, having grown up in Louisiana, and having spent a lot of time in New Orleans. But the more research I did, the more fascinating the victims and survivors became. It seemed that each had a story that deserved to be told, and that we could all benefit from hearing.

Why hasn’t the firebombing gotten as much attention as some of the other major events in LGBT history?

There are many reasons: politicians at every level avoided this tragedy. News coverage was dismissive or, in a well-meaning attempt to avoid salaciousness, mentioned only fleetingly that the bar was a gay bar. The gay community in New Orleans wasn’t looking for a public fight, as gay communities in other cities were. And the lack of an arrest or a clear suspect led many to fear that this was a gay-on-gay crime perhaps best left forgotten.

Why/how do you think the story is relevant today?

The story is relevant because, as the Supreme Court weighs the legal merits of our relationships, we should remember the stories that remind us: our relationships have always been bigger than mere legalese. Even when we were at the margins of society, we were loving each other, literally, through fire and flame. The Supreme Court can rule on our legal recognition, but it’s not within their power to affirm or deny the goodness and strength of our relationships. We do that as a community, and we do it, in part, through the stories that we tell.

What do you hope audiences gain from seeing the musical?

I hope they learn something about the character, dignity, and capacity to love that has always been present in our community, from the very start, even when we were maligned as immoral or sick. I hope they see the consequences of our ongoing struggles with internalized homophobia. And I hope they have an opportunity to consider how we respond to the outbreaks of mass violence that still plague us as a nation today, and how our way of responding as a culture might not be the most beneficial to ourselves and our communities.

What are your plans for the musical after its premiere in New Orleans?

I’d love to see this play tour small venues indefinitely, if we can find a producer, so these stories continue to be told. So far, things have fallen into place, so I hope that continues.

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  • BigWoody

    OMG!… I am 53, I love learning about LGBT history, and this is the first I have heard of this tragedy.

  • Yiannis

    Very well written article about an unknown atrocious event in our common history. I would want to see the person responsible discovered and brought to justice, even 40 years later.

  • Jackhoffsky

    I’m with BigWoody…

    (pause for laughter)

    … in that this is the first I’ve heard of this tragedy before. it was a good article and informative. So thank you for this.

  • rcblue73

    I read about this in a big article the Advocate published just before I came out. Very disturbing, especially the photos that were published. The victims of the fire were given particularly evil treatment in the New Orleans press. What is usually not mentioned is that the local MCC church was using the bar for services at the time the arson occurred. So this probably was not only an attack on the bar but on the church as well, as many of their members were killed.

  • the other Greg

    I hadn’t heard of this horrible event either until a visit to New Orleans recently, but I’ve read elsewhere that there had been a dispute earlier in the day and everyone was pretty sure who did it: Rogder Dale Nunez, who actually was arrested for it but escaped the hospital, later admitted the crime and committed suicide.

  • MK Ultra

    The first place I heard about this story was on Queerty. I was absolutely shocked. This is such important history.

  • rcblue73

    I also remember that back during the 1970s there were a number of arson attacks on the Metropolitan Community Churches around the country. The MCC was just beginning to establish itself then. The ‘Christians’ at that time regarded homosexual Christians as heresy and churches that had a predominately homosexual congregation as the ultimate in heresy.

  • Jim Hlavac

    Since I first learned of the fire in New Orleans in the late 1980s from survivors I have tried to bring this to the attention of anyone who would listen. I’m sad to report that most gay groups — thinking me far too radical (We never heard of it, it can’t exist, they told me, and there was no internet with the few sites that exist about it, my own included) — didn’t give a damn either.

    It is nice that maybe someone will give a damn and do something after 40 years. I’m not sure a musical is the way to memorialize America’s largest unsolved mass slaughter, but that’s the way things are done now, I guess. It is, however, not just an “LGBT event” — there was no LGBT in those days — there were gay men, and a few lesbians. And again, it is this nation’s biggest slaughter never solved of anyone by anyone.

  • Jim Hlavac

    and, by the way, if you check your archives, and emails — it was I who brought it to your attention in the past two years — Queerty didn’t seem to know about it at that time.

    But like I say — ’bout time it’s getting notice.

  • rcblue73

    Jim, I published some info about this on my web site some years ago and was contacted by a guy who had written extensively about this on his blog. I’m not sure if you were the one. I’d have to go through my old email to see if I can find out. I agree with you that there seems to be an attitude now to blend in as much as possible, have no identity and every thing will be happy wonderful, plus history doesn’t matter because it’s over and done with. Except life doesn’t work that way.

    Just read how the German Jews felt after they had been rounded up by the Nazis and sent to the camps. Oh wait, we can’t read how they felt because they were all gassed – though I can imagine they weren’t too happy, even those who tried to assimilate as much as possible.

    It’s also true about the way things were with gay men. Today’s alphabet soup collection wants to include everybody including some who are very anti-gay, I’ve gotten some blistering attacks from some who just don’t like my sexual orientation. I find that very ironic. In fact, I get the impression that some in the alphabet collection seem to think it’s cool to put down gay men, they want to hang with the ‘community’ but just don’t like that homo stuff.

  • Snapper59

    I lived in New Orleans at the time and was 10 years old and to this day can remember the breaking news story as it happened. Although it “remains unsolved” the theory is that it was started by a patron of the bar who had been tossed out, not specifically an outside person or group that was targeting gays.

  • miagoodguy

    Sad, but makes no sense why this isn’t a better known event in the gay world.

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