May 4 2010

Upstairs A new gallery show in New York City insists that we remember one of the worst disasters in the history of the LGBT movement which took place on a steamy hot June 24th night in 1973. That evening an arsonist started a fire in the Upstairs Lounge which killed 32 men and injured dozens more. The arsonist was never caught by the New Orleans police. That night a city known for 'openness' closed down to the LGBT community in its time of great need. This show is a 'must see' for any LGBT person who cares for their history.

That night the bar was crowded since the MCC Church was having a fundraising planning meeting. Their Sunday services were held in the bar; previously the theatrical-like stage was the scene of great campy revues. Bartender Buddy Rasmussen was serving drinks with beefcake photographs of Bert Reynolds and Mark Spitz on the wall behind him.

At 7:45PM smoke was smelled and suddenly second floor bar was filled with fire. The arsonist had made sure the single stairwell was filled with flames. Trapped, the dozens of patrons attempted to reach windows blocked with bars or a massive air conditioning unit. Some of the victims were found twisted and burned in the bars of those windows. George "Mitch" Mitchell escaped the flames but could not find his lover, Louis Broussard outside. He ran back inside to find him. Both bodies were found holding each other in death.

While the fire made national news just for one night, the event was quickly forgotten. Every New Orleans church, except one Methodist church, closed their doors for a memorial service. Not one elected official attended that memorial service nor did the mayor issue a statement of condolence. The fire killed homosexuals and no one was about to honor them in life let alone in death.

Tragically, four victims were never identified. It is thought their families were so embarrassed that they failed to come forward to claim the bodies. They were buried in a paupers graves in total quiet. Seems to me the LGBT community should exhume those four bodies and give them a funeral New Orleans style filled with dignity and grace and give that city an opportunity to redeem itself from its shame of indifference.

Thanks to the hard work of the amazing Skylar Fein, this dark moment in our history will not be lost. In a powerful and disturbing show organized by Skylar and curated by Dan Cameron and No Longer Empty Space, New Yorkers can experience that humid June night. With plenty of space at 447 West 16th Street in New York City, Skylar recreates the bar including a fake exterior of the building. You walk through double doors into the horror of the night. No Longer Empty Space makes it possible for such large exhibits and deserves much praise for their assistance with this project.

The show will be at 447 West 16th Street until May 29th and is open from noon to 7PM except Monday and Tuesday. The gallery is right under the High Line between 9th and 10th Ave. More details can be found at www.skylarfein.com . The photographs of the victims of the fire below are from the photograph collection of Johnny Townsend.

Upstairs Lounge Upstairs Lounge 4

Upstairs Lounge 2

Upstairs lounge 3