“Upstairs Inferno” is a moving documentary, directed by Robert L. Camina, giving the history of the arson attack on the Up Stairs Lounge in New Orleans LA on June 24, 1973. It resulted in 32 deaths, and until the Pulse attack in Orlando in June 2016, had been the largest mass murder of gay people in US history. There is the book “The Up Stairs Lounge Arson: Thirty-Two Deaths in a New Orleans Gay Bar”, by Clayton Delery-Edwards, as well as another book “Let the Faggots Burn: The Upstairs Lounge Fire” by Johnny Townsend; the filmmaker says he redid the resarch.
I wanted to give my reaction from the perspective of my own “second coming” at age 29. On Sunday, January 28 1973, while living in northern New Jersey and working for Univac, I made a trip in to NYC to go to a service at Metropolitan Community Church. I was not that impressed (I would officially “come out” three weeks later at another event in NYC), but I do remember mention of an arson attack against an MCC church. Apparently, given the narrative of the film, this had happened in Los Angeles earlier that month. There would be another attack in Nashville (no injuries or damage either attack) before the New Orleans attack. I think I remember mention of the New Orleans incident at a GAANJ (Gay Activists Alliance of New Jersey) Friday night meeting that July, but did not pay that much attention to it at the time.
Metropolitan Community Church had been conducting services in the theater portion of the Lounge, although it had been moving to a small liberal Episcopal church. The early part of the film gives valuable history of Metropolitan Community Church and Reverend Troy Perry (who used to say it was easier to come out as gay than come out as Christian). I have neem active at MCC churches in Dallas, Minneapolis, and Washington DC (Rev. Larry Unger, who passed away from AIDS in 1993, once wrote a controversial essay, “There is no better half,” urging gay men to learn emotional self-sufficiency).
The film also says that New Orleans had experienced two other major hotel incidents, including the Mark Essex sniper attack in December 1972. But after the Up Stairs lounge, the city police, government, and local community were deliberately indifferent to the loss of gay people.
Investigation would show that this had not been a terrorist attack, but that probably a disgruntled bar patron (Roger Dale Nunez) had tried to set a small fire in the stairwell after an argument with a patron and being tossed out. If so, Nunez probably had no idea that the construction of the building would make it a fire trap. He would die at his own hand a year later and was never prosecuted
So the incident, like the infamous Station Disco fire in West Warwick RI in 2003, was more the result of poor safety practices than actual malice.
The film interviews some surviving victims, and is tastefully restrained in conveying the horror of burn injuries. As with war wounds, I would have a problem if this happened to an intimate partner because of disfigurement. (The film relates how one many died trying to go back and rescue his lover.) Three of the victims were never identified, and were among victims who did not get respectful memorial services. (People used derogatory metaphors like “fruitfry”). I say this bearing in mind my own personal uneasiness with promoting “victimization” but that’s another discussion.
The film is narrated by Christopher Rice and the closing credits, naming the victims, has impressive unaccompanied cello music, I think by Mark Kueffner.
Patheos 2013 Account of the fire is here.
This video was given by a producer at the Library of Congress showing today.
The official trailer may need Google sign on for viewing (adult).
Amazon book link.
|Director, writer:||Robert L. Camina|
|When and how viewed:||Library of Congress Mary Pickford Hall free showing, LGBT library employees|
(Posted: Thursday, February 16, 2017 at 7:30 PM EST)