Podcast 129: 50 Years of Remembering the Up Stairs Lounge Fire

What was the Up Stairs Lounge Fire?

The Up Stairs Lounge Fire was an unsolved arson fire at a gay bar in New Orleans on June 24, 1973. With 32 dead, it was the worst mass murder of homosexual Americans in 20th century America.
The Up Stairs Lounge Fire was an unsolved arson fire at a gay bar in New Orleans on June 24, 1973. With 32 dead, it was the worst mass murder of homosexual Americans in 20th century America.

Deisenbe, Wikipedia (Creative Commons)

Catherine Cooper: Hello, my name is Catherine Cooper. I am here with-

Bobby Fieseler: Bobby Fieseler, and I am a journalist and queer historian, and the author of a queer history book called Tinderbox about the 1973 Up Stairs Lounge Fire in New Orleans.

Catherine Cooper: Could you talk about what the Up Stairs Lounge Fire was for people who may not know the story?

Bobby Fieseler: Historically, the Up Stairs Lounge Fire was a notoriously unsolved arson fire that took place at a gay bar on the ragtag fringes of the New Orleans French Quarter. The gay bar was called The Up Stairs Lounge, and the arson claimed 32 lives. It was the deadliest fire on record in New Orleans history and the worst mass murder of homosexual Americans in 20th century America.

Yet this event, this calamity, which was very significant when it happened, received just a few days of media attention in its time, due to its queer overtones, and thus was permitted to become the historic mystery that it remains now, the way it lingers. The Up Stairs Lounge Fire is still officially an unsolved crime despite a bounty of evidence pointing towards the chief suspect: an internally conflicted gay-for-pay sex worker named Roger Dale Nunez, a man ejected from the Up Stairs Lounge Fire minutes before the fire began screaming the word, "Burn," curiously enough and despite the presence of this chief suspect.

It was the Sunday night of June 24, 1973. Sunday nights were significant at the working-class gay bar called The Up Stairs Lounge. It was called the Up Stairs Lounge because it was on the second story of a building, and it was hidden from street view. You had to access it via a single staircase that was the lone entrance and exit that was winding, so you couldn't even see where you were going to as you were heading up the staircase. Sunday nights were the biggest night of the week at the Up Stairs Lounge. There was a drink special for working class gays and lesbians called the Beer Bust. It was $1 for two hours of unlimited draft beer. This was New Orleans in the '70s.

The fire itself, the calamity, was deemed a kind of political inconvenience in its time, a hot potato due to its queer overtones. That's left us where it is now. The Up Stairs Lounge Fire as an event on the map of queer history, and American history now, but it still occupies an uncertain place where people don't know how to speak about it exactly.

What does it mean to remember?

Catherine Cooper: You open the book with a question, and I'd love to hear your answer, what does it mean to remember?

Bobby Fieseler: This was the question that occupied me as I was writing the entire book. What is the significance of it? Is it just a recitation of facts? Do we remember for revenge? Do we remember for trauma porn so we can make ourselves feel sad or victimized in the current day and age? I settled on it in the last line of the book. The first line and the last line of books tend to have a relationship, and as an author I didn’t even mean for that to happen, but so “what does it mean to remember?” Then the last few words of Tinderbox is “speaking at last their names,” in reference to the victims.

What it means to remember for me as I've come to understand this crazy story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire that's occupied about 10 years of my life and continues to, and it's something I think about on a daily basis, is that we can't change the past by remembering it, but we can change the way we reflect upon the past through the manner in which we choose to remember it. We can reflect upon the past in a way that's nihilistic, in a way that makes us feel powerless, or we can reflect upon the past in a way that tries to honor individuals who might be our forebearers, and in a way to try to offer some sort of symbolic restitution to people who did not receive respect, or dignity, or equal rights, or equal treatment in the past.

That's what it means for me to remember. As I talk about the Up Stairs Lounge, the more that I understand it is that history, and especially queer history or human rights history, occurs in this space of malleability where there are events that transpired that are facts that predate us, that affect us all because we live in the stream of history. It's like the invisible person in the room whenever we meet and talk about queer subjects oftentimes, especially in New Orleans, the Up Stairs Lounge is just this persistent reality.

To remember it is an act of connecting ourselves to that lineage, and at the same time, transforming. I hate to sound like a motivational speaker, I'm weirding myself out here. But it's transforming acts of hatred, acts of confusion, acts of disrespect, acts of unbridled pain into some meaningful matter that we can then consider in a contemporary context and use in all sorts of different ways. It's manna then to offer restitution to the past, the 32 victims of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire who were denied respect and dignity in their lifetime. In their deaths, actually, many of the Up Stairs Lounge victims did not receive religious burials, say.

Or it can be used as a statement to say how far we've come. To talk about this now means that we are a society that can talk about these difficult queer topics as opposed to the society in the past in the 1970s that couldn't talk about it.

Or it's a statement of never again. What happened there? The conditions that created the Up Stairs Lounge Fire, the fire itself, the fallout, never again. It can mean all sorts of things. It's an active back and forth, isn't it, to remember. In what we choose to remember, and then what we choose to remember in a public way.

Storytelling changes over time

Catherine Cooper: How has memory or storytelling around the fire changed since the event, both within the local community in New Orleans and outside of it? Because it did have that national feature to it as well.

Bobby Fieseler: In its day in the '70s, the Up Stairs Lounge Fire when it occurred, it was this literally explosive event that involved fire bursting out of the windows of this second story gay bar that was positioned like a castle keep where people who passed by it every day didn't even know there was a massive gay bar up there. And they were forced to all stare and reckon with this calamity and this violence and people literally burning before their eyes.

That drew a lot of attention in its span and in its time period. There were a few days of national coverage of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire because national media was suddenly interested in this. It was like a true-crime story, this high scope of death. 32 people dead, we have to devote coverage to it. The LA Times makes it a front page story. The Chicago Tribune makes it a front page story. The national TV news covers the Up Stairs Lounge fire. Then it became understood the type of bar that had burned and the character of the individuals, the qualities of the individuals, who had died within it. Then national media suddenly understood that this wasn't a typical true-crime story where the victims would be allotted all the ordinary sympathies.

In the '70s though, queer folk were considered to be of a criminal class. State laws and also local ordinances meant to clamp down upon what was considered a very dangerous subpopulation in the United States. So the idea that attention had been paid to this freaked the media out, freaked authorities out, and they diverted very quickly. It's what happens when anyone gets awkward, they scattered. Even though national media scattered, there was a persistent group of local and national queer journalists that tried to continue the story for about a week. They kept at it. There were activists that kept at it, and then those activists formed what was called the National New Orleans Emergency Task Force. They created an emergency fund and all sorts of things like that. They kept at it for a few months, and then that all faltered. Then there was local silence.

There had been an older institution that had regulated queer life called Euphemistic Living, or The Closet, or The Gay Underworld, or Open Secret, The Social Compact, however you want to reference it, and that clamped back and the Up Stairs Lounge was then foisted locally as this example of what happens when you out yourself. What are the dangers of outness, it's violence. It's you being subjected to dangerous living and a miserable death, that sort of thing. The Up Stairs Lounge was then utilized as this cautionary tale by semi-closeted New Orleanians, people from Louisiana, that would say, "This is an example of why we shouldn't be out, open, using our real names, showing our faces, fighting for our rights. And we certainly shouldn't be involved in politics saying that we're homosexuals."

That was the majority voice, but then there was a minority voice locally of activists that were activated. They were like the slow burning embers stoked by the Up Stairs Lounge tragedy who kept chatting about it, and they would do so for years. They became some of the most important gay New Orleans and lesbian New Orleans activists. Then they, in turn, became some of the most important gay activists in Louisiana.

A classic example of someone who was inspired to activism by the Up Stairs Lounge tragedy was the lesbian bar owner in New Orleans, Charlene Schneider, who operated the lesbian bar Charlene's. In her outrage over the way that the Up Stairs Lounge victims were treated in death, she became convinced the myth of live and let live in New Orleans, the idea that I can do my dirty thing in my corner and you can do your dirty thing in your corner and we're not going to get punished for it, the idea that that was a ruse because gays were consistently still being targeted within that atmosphere, incensed Charlene, and motivated her to open up ... It was a radical act. She, in 1977, opened up a bar for gay women and used her real name, and that was directly connected to her experience with the Up Stairs Lounge tragedy.

Then, there was this long battle, I could talk about this forever, decades where New Orleans fought itself about whether or not it was even okay to talk about the fire. There were parties for and against, and people like Charlene were saying, "We needed to talk about this and we need to connect it to a legacy of political action." People like the former Up Stairs Lounge bar owner, Phil Esteve, would say, "No, New Orleans Live and Let Live is the way that makes things safe. There's no gay activists in New Orleans because none are needed."

That was ongoing up until the first scholarship of the Up Stairs Lounge tragedy, which happens in the late '80s, and early '90s. There are local writers then and journalists that try to revisit the story. Then that continues into the 21st century where there is a tremendous explosion of scholarship and interest and discussion, first locally, then nationally, then internationally of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire. Where now it's not just debated whether we should talk about this event or connect it to a legacy of queer rights or queer wellbeing, et cetera, but it's the subject of musicals that are touring internationally. That there was an U p Stairs Lounge musical called The View Upstairs that recently played in Tokyo, translated into Japanese. These are folks in Tokyo, in Japanese, singing about something that happened to closeted gay folk in the 1970s French Quarter. It's insane when you think about it.

There are German feature story writers right now that are writing stories about the 50th anniversary of the Up Stairs Lounge and thinking about what does this mean for the legacy of international queer folk. That's a tremendous growth. The seed of activism and interest was like, I hate to use the biblical mustard seed allusion, but I am a gay Roman Catholic, so it's like it grew into the largest tree where there has never been more discussion. That sort of exponential growth will continue to happen with the Up Stairs Lounge Fire. But first, in a natural storytelling city like New Orleans, the Up Stairs Lounge Fire for a long span of time was the one story that was off limits. No more.

50 years since the fire

Catherine Cooper: We are approaching the 50th anniversary of the fire: June 24, 2023. Does the Queer, LGBTQ community have any plans to mark the event in New Orleans?

Bobby Fieseler: Yeah. There's a tremendous amount of public programming internationally and locally that's going to happen. I'm a board member of a local organization called the LGBT Archives Project of Louisiana, and we have a planning committee that's putting on a conference symposium for three days in New Orleans to be held at the Marriott Hotel, which is across the street from the historic site of the Up Stairs Lounge Bar.

We're going to host three days of discussion, of meetings and of tribute where there's going to be all of the authors who've written books on the Up Stairs Lounge, we're all going to get together and have a confab. All the people who've done artistic interpretations, people who've made musicals, created dance pieces, written screenplays, they're going to all get together and talk about things. Academics, religious folk, who've preached, elegized in some way the victims of the Up Stairs Lounge tragedy, their input and their impact. It's going to be an extensive thing.

It's June 23rd through June 25th. Then, of course, June 24th is the actual 50th anniversary of the tragedy. On that afternoon, there's going to be a very meaningful service at the historic St. Mark's Church, which is the church that on July 1, 1973, held the first Up Stairs Lounge memorial in the French Quarter. Then there's going to be a second line that leads us to the Up Stairs Lounge historical site, where there's going to be a small ceremony at the plaque where the Up Stairs Lounge existed, where the Up Stairs Lounge fell on the map, and there there's going to be a meaningful service.

There's going to be a combination of conversation, tribute, et cetera, to recognize this important event, to educate the public, to offer respect to the victims. Also to try to, as much as we can, continue to tell the victim's stories. The victims of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire were not just significant because of the way they happened to die, a lot of these individuals led fascinating lives. Each of them, you could make 32 movies out of each and every one of the individuals who perished at the Up Stairs Lounge. So fascinating was that the way that these were individuals who moved between worlds, who figured out how to live in very difficult circumstances. All of them had a unique way of coming to the Up Stairs Lounge that night, that bar that they considered their safe haven.

Catherine Cooper: If people want to get involved-

Bobby Fieseler: I would go to the LGBT Archives Project website, and you can find more information there. There's an Eventbrite page and all sorts of stuff like that.

Catherine Cooper: Thank you so much, Bobby.

Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park

Last updated: July 20, 2023