Dan Lawton : Journalist

1973 lounge fire killed 32

Published in the New Orleans Advocate on June 23, 2013

On the evening of June 24, 1973, Duane “Mitch” Mitchell dropped his two sons off at the movies before heading to the Upstairs Lounge on the corner of Chartres and Iberville streets with his partner, Horace Broussard.

The bar was a hub for the Metropolitan Community Church, a recently formed ministry that reached out to gays and lesbians.

“During those days, it was an alternative to a dance or hustler bar. It was more of a fellowship, a place where we would sing a song or add a verse to ‘We Shall Overcome’,” said Stewart Butler, 82, who was at the lounge that night.

Mitchell had divorced his wife a few years earlier and was living with Broussard on Polymnia Street. The two were regulars at the Upstairs, attending Metropolitan Church services in a back room theater and rarely missing the Sunday night beer bust.

That evening, they were among about 75 people there.

According to witness accounts, some patrons were singing around the piano, while others were discussing a fundraiser for disabled children.

At approximately 7:50 p.m., the buzzer rang and a patron headed toward the stairwell to open it. He found the stairway engulfed in flames.

As the fire tore through the bar, many inside tried desperately to climb through barred windows to safety. Some leapt to their deaths, while others were devoured by the flames.

Butler, who left an hour or so before the fire to visit a neighboring bar called Wanda’s, remembers sirens and a ghastly scene.

“It was chaos. It was horror. The one thing I particularly remember is seeing MCC Rev. Bill Larson up against the window bars. He burned to death right up against those bars. It was an absolutely monstrous thing,” Butler said.

Mitchell made it outside but went back in to try to save Broussard. Both perished in the fire, alongside 30 others, many of whom were gay men.

That night Duane Jr. and Steven Mitchell watched “The World’s Greatest Athlete” over and over, wondering when their father would arrive to pick them up.

“There was nobody there except for me and my brother and the people who owned the theater,“ said Duane Mitchell Jr., who was 11 at the time, in a documentary about the event. “We were waiting on Dad to come, but he never did.”

Conflicting statements

Forty years after it killed 32 people, the Upstairs Lounge fire still lingers oddly on the fringes of history, unresolved and unknown to many New Orleanians despite the epic scale of the tragedy.

The 64-page New Orleans Police Department report filed Aug. 30, 1973, reveals that detectives found compelling evidence of arson at the scene: An empty 7-ounce can of Ronsonol lighter fluid on the stairway where the fire had begun.

The report also includes a statement by an employee at the Walgreens in the 100 block of Royal Street who said she sold a can of lighter fluid around the time of the fire to a man she described as “gay” and appearing distraught.

Investigators additionally learned that two men had been kicked out of the bar that night, one of whom had had a violent confrontation with another patron.

Michael Scarborough gave police a statement saying he had been in a fight that night with a man who had been spying on other men in the bathroom.

“I just jumped up and just knocked him down, and he just looked up at me and he said, ‘I’m gonna burn you all out,’” Scarborough said.

David Dubose, 19 at the time, initially confessed to the fire, but recanted. After another man provided an alibi for him and Dubose passed a polygraph test, he was cleared of suspicion.

A few days later, the police located a second suspect, 26-year old Rodger Nunez. But before he could be interviewed, Nunez had a seizure and was taken to Charity Hospital.

Nunez was also treated for a broken jaw. He was released from the hospital days later, unbeknownst to police.

Officers were unable to find him for months. When they did, he denied setting the fire and said he couldn’t remember whether he had been at the lounge that night.

A year later, Nunez committed suicide in his home in New Orleans East.

Shortly after Nunez’ death, one of his friends, Ralph Forrest, told police Nunez had admitted to him several times, while drunk, that he had started the fire.

“When I questioned him when he was sober regarding the fire, he wouldn’t admit it and said, ‘You must be kidding; me do that!’” Forrest said.

Keeping the story alive

“Do a mind experiment,” said New Orleans artist Skylar Fein in his Bywater studio on a recent afternoon.

“Imagine that the fire had happened a few blocks away, at Antoine’s, and all of the people who died were relatively wealthy, white heterosexual couples. I can guarantee that things would have turned out differently. Had there been a prime suspect, he would not have been allowed to go free.”

Fein — who in 2008 breathed life into the story of the Upstairs Lounge when he built a replica of the bar that he exhibited at the Contemporary Arts Center of part of Prospect.1 — is one of many artists and researchers who have recently spotlighted the tragedy.

Fein thinks the story is surprisingly little-known in New Orleans, considering the magnitude of the carnage — as well as what it reveals about the mores of the times.

Royd Anderson, a teacher and documentary filmmaker who will premiere his film about the event next week, agrees.

“This is the worst mass murder of gays in U.S. history, and it’s a footnote in most Louisiana textbooks,” Anderson said.

At the time of the fire, Anderson said, there were no public statements or memorials given by either Gov. Edwin Edwards or Mayor Moon Landrieu.

Media coverage was short-lived, and only a few small church ceremonies were held for the victims. Some bodies even went unclaimed.

The Rev. William P. Richardson, of St. George’s Episcopal Church, held a small prayer service, earning him a raft of hate mail and a rebuke from the bishop.

Even today, the only physical memorial marking the tragedy is a plaque laid 25 years later on the sidewalk outside of where the fire had occurred.

“Most people walk right over it like it’s not even there,” Anderson said.

Harassment commonplace

The near-silence by politicians on the tragedy — and the ire directed at Richardson — highlights the homophobia that pervaded New Orleans, and America as a whole, in the early 1970s.

Frank Perez, a columnist for Ambush magazine and author of a book about the history of gay New Orleans, said that gays in the city were still being harassed and arrested because of their sexual orientation.

Raids of gay bars were common, and those who were taken in for violating vice laws would be subjected to police violence, have their names published in the paper and often find themselves evicted from their apartments and fired from their jobs, Perez said.

He added that the public attitude about the fire was “very cruel,” with the victims being the butt of jokes more often then the object of sympathy.

“Radio commentators would say things like, ‘What should they do with the remains? How about burying them in fruit jars?’” he said.

According to Perez, while gays were organizing politically in other U.S. cities, the gay community in New Orleans was more inclined to organize socially, and activism was rare.

Wayne Self, a composer who has written a musical about the Upstairs fire, said the stigma of homosexuality deterred many victims’ families and friends from rallying for more public acknowledgement of the tragedy.

“This was never going to be a Stonewall,” said Self, referring to the Stonewall riots that occurred in 1969 in New York City after a raid on a gay bar, galvanizing the gay community there.

“Family members were embarrassed,” Self said. “There were gay men who were married, who had brought shame to their families.

“The gay community in New Orleans didn’t want it to be a shot heard around the world.”

Turning point

But the event still marked a sort of turning point for gay identity in New Orleans, according to Butler, recalling a memorial service held at St. Mark’s Church on Rampart Street.

When the media arrived, mourners, many of whom were gay, had to decide between slipping out a side door in anonymity or walking out the front door and potentially revealing their sexual orientation.

“To my knowledge, not one person left from that side door, we all left upright and proudly through the front,” he said.

Three months after the tragedy, The Times-Picayune published a series of articles about how many gays were coming out of the closet in the fire’s aftermath.

Four years later, thousands of people would gather at Jackson Square to protest singer and homosexuality critic Anita Bryant, an event widely viewed as a seminal moment in New Orleans gay activism.

Author Johnny Townsend, who 20 years ago wrote one of the first books on the fire, said he still feels touched by the stories he researched long ago.

“It did consume me,” he said. “I worked on it 20 hours a week for probably a year and a half, and I’m still haunted by things that people have told me.”

Memorial events scheduled

A number of events commemorating the fire are planned for June 24, the 40th anniversary of the tragedy.

Fein will give a brief lecture at the Williams Research Center of the Historic New Orleans Collection, after which a jazz funeral will proceed to the site of the fire.

That evening, Self’s musical, “Upstairs,” will premier at Cafe Istanbul, and on Monday, Anderson will show his film for the first time at PJs Coffee on Magazine Street. It will also air on Cox4 in Baton Rouge at 8 and 10 p.m. June 24, at 1 p.m. June 25 and at 6 p.m. June 27.

Duane Mitchell, who lives in Alabama, said he hopes to make it, but can’t afford the cost of transportation and is relying on donations that Self has been raising.

Mitchell hasn’t been back to New Orleans since his father’s passing, and he said the anniversary is taking an emotional toll on him.

“What really stings me is that nobody was ever charged with any crime,” he said.

“I still think my dad’s a hero,” he added. “I think about him every day, what he could have been and what we could have been.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed on June 17 to reflect Rodger Nunez’ correct age and the correct spelling of his first name, as well as the correct title of the film Duane Mitchell was watching the night his father was killed in the fire.