June 21, 2013, NOLA.com, The UpStairs Lounge fire: a remembrance, by Andrew Boyd,
Forty years ago on June 24, 1973, an arsonist set fire to the UpStairs Lounge, a popular gay bar on the corner of Iberville and Chartres Streets. 32 people died in the blaze and no one was ever arrested or convicted for the crime. We explore the event through eye witnesses and experts in this video.
January 17, 2013, NOLA, NOMA acquires evocative major artwork by Skylar Fein: 'Remember the Upstairs Lounge', by Doug MacCash, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
May 31, 2013, NOLA, Upstairs Lounge fire is remembered in a musical by composer Wayne Self, by Doug MacCash, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune,
20th anniversary coverage,
New documentary recalls 1973 UpStairs Lounge fire,
After UpStairs Lounge fire, gay and straight N.O. changed,
Honoring the UpStairs Lounge fire victims,
Video: The UpStairs Lounge fire: a remembrance, ______________________________________________________________________________
January 17, 2013, NOLA, NOMA acquires evocative major artwork by Skylar Fein: 'Remember the Upstairs Lounge', by Doug MacCash, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
The New Orleans Museum of Art has acquired “Remember the Upstairs Lounge,” a postmodern masterpiece by New Orleans artist Skylar Fein, that symbolically recalls a devastating 1973 fire in a crowded French Quarter gay bar. The 90-piece art environment that features imitation artifacts, photographs, video and a reproduction of the bar’s entrance, blends elements of 1970s pop culture with grim reminders of the inferno that took the lives of 32 trapped men.
The museum has no plans to exhibit the artwork in the near future.
The haunting installation was first seen at the Contemporary Arts Center in 2008 during the Prospect.1 international art exhibit. “Remember the Upstairs Lounge” was later reassembled in a temporary showplace in New York City in 2010.
Fein said that he sees the museum acquisition as an indication of how far society has come since the deliberately set fire, which remains an unsolved case. At the time, he said, the city had trouble acknowledging the existence of gay gathering spots. Now an artwork marking the momentous fire is part of the city’s museum.
"Forty years later is not a very long time," he said.
Miranda Lash, NOMA's curator of contemporary art, said that the piece commemorates a tragic, but significant happening that became a rallying point for the New Orleans gay community. It also represents the most ambitious artwork by one of the city’s most accomplished artists. Lash arranged for a solo exhibit of Fein’s work at NOMA in 2009,
"It should be at the New Orleans Museum of Art" -- NOMA curator Miranda Lash
"It should be at the New Orleans Museum of Art," she said of the artwork.
"Remember the Upstairs Lounge" is the second major installation by a Louisiana artist recently added to the museum collection. In 2011, NOMA was given Keith Sonnier’s "Fluorescent Room."
Fein donated the artwork to NOMA. He said that he'd never expected to profit from the "Remember the Upstairs Lounge." He estimates that the piece cost $20,000 to create. Showing it in New York cost another $30,000, he said. Since it’s first showing, collectors have sought to buy elements of the ensemble, but Fein declined to break up the installation.
"People wanted individual pieces,” he said. “But I really wanted to keep it together. It’s about telling a story.”
Fein said that he feels he’s been relieved of a huge responsibility for the care of the artwork and is happy it will survive intact.
Lash said that though installations such as “Remember the Upstairs Lounge” are impressive when seen as whole, they can’t be displayed often due to the space they require. There are no plans at this time to show it in the near future, but she said that she hopeful that NOMA will be able to lend the artwork to other museums.
May 31, 2013, NOLA, Upstairs Lounge fire is remembered in a musical by composer Wayne Self, by Doug MacCash, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune,
Composer Wayne Self has produced a musical drama based on the Upstairs Lounge fire, a notorious arson/murder that took the lives of 32 patrons trapped in a French Quarter gay bar in 1973. The drama debuts on June 20 at Café Istanbul at the New Orleans Healing Center in the Marigny. The final performance on June 24 coincides with the 40th anniversary of the unsolved crime.
Self, 43, who grew up in Natchitoches, said he had reached adulthood and moved away from Louisiana before he ever heard the story of the mysterious mass murder. As Self explained, someone, perhaps a disgruntled patron, doused the wooden stairway leading to the crowded second-floor bar with lighter fluid and set it ablaze. The iron door at the top of the stairs temporarily contained the fire, until someone opened it, allowing the inferno to burst into the barroom. Security bars on the windows prevented most patrons from escaping. The horror of the crime stunned the Crescent City and propelled the largely hidden homosexual subculture into the headlines.“The intrigue of this having happened and never having heard about it is what drew me to it at first,” Self said. "But you start reading, you start thinking about what’s going on; the more research I did, the more fascinating these people became. And I started to wonder, is there more about these people than just the fact that they died in a fire?”
Self said that it wasn't long before the story of the decades-old tragedy compelled him to begin the project.
“… There was a sort of demand that I tell it.”
Self, who lives in Orange County, Calif., visited New Orleans in late May to finalize plans for the upcoming show, which is titled simply “Upstairs.” He visited the site of the fire, an olive-gray three-story stucco townhouse on the corner of Chartres and Iberville Streets. In the brilliant spring sunlight, he squatted on the brick sidewalk to gaze at the bronze plaque commemorating the lost lives. Self pointed out that three or four of the victims remain unidentified after all this time.
Self, who has written three other musical productions, said that his mother says that he has been making up songs since he was just 3 years old. But until recently songwriting was just a sideline. Over the years, he said, he’s made a living as a web designer. Most recently he returned to college to study theology. His five-year devotion to “Upstairs” has caused him to postpone finishing his master’s degree at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif.
Self reassures the “Upstairs” audience that he did not approach the topic with the effervescent touch often associated with musical theater. He said he’s always been attracted to the sweeping story-telling power of concept albums by, say, Pink Floyd or Johnny Cash. He said he’s tried to shape “Upstairs” in that more compelling mode.
“When I get any negative feedback about the project initially, before anyone’s heard any music,” he said, “it’s (the pointed question) ‘A musical, really?’
"To me, first, that's an indictment of the musical theater community, that no one thinks that a musical can handle any subject matter. Everyone thinks it has to be for satire or broad satire, broad comedy, or it has to be for dark comedy like 'Sweeney Todd' or something like that. And the idea that a musical, a stage musical, is the appropriate art form to handle any sort of subject matter is just lost. But that's an indictment of us, as people who are practitioners of that art form, that we've allowed ourselves to be defined that narrowly."
(Support for Self's assertion can be found on New Orleans stages right now in Southern Rep's production of "Next to Normal," a Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about mental illness.)
If fact, Self said, there are aspects to the setting and subject that set the stage nicely for a musical interpretation.
"When you look at it broadly, New Orleans is a musical city. The bar was a musical place. There was a cabaret show on that night; a jazz pianist died in the fire. You know, there was a lot of musicality around that took place. One of the famous stories around the fire is that the song 'United we stand, divided we fall and if our backs should ever be against the wall, we'll be together you and I' was on the jukebox and probably playing that night. That's one of the legends that go around. There's a lot of reason to see this as having an ambient musicality to it." Thirty-two is too many distinct characters to incorporate into any theatrical production, Self said.
He has distilled and combined aspects of the crowd into a handful of what he says are accurate archetypes. Buddy, the bartender who attempted to lead others to safety, is a main character, as is his hard-drinking partner, Adam.
There's a closeted couple for whom the fire is a catalyst of devotion. There's a mother who died enjoying an evening with her two adult sons. And there's a transvestite played by New Orleans actor Jeffery Roberson, known for his satiric Varla Jean Merman character. The prime suspect also is the focus of the drama.
Los Angeles actors fill most of the other parts.
Self said he has not spoken to any survivors of the fire, though he's interviewed relatives of victims and patrons who'd luckily left the bar before the conflagration. His research has led him down grim pathways, he said, causing him to spend too much time considering mortality and murder.
"It started to affect my relationships a little bit; the fact that I was, day in and day out, focusing on people who died and taking the responsibility to tell their story in a fair way, in a way that's not cheap or, you know, musical theater-y. To take it seriously and to do right by them it began to sort of weigh on me …"
But over time, he said, his relationship with those who perished in the Upstairs Lounge has changed. They began as victims, but have become richer more rounded humans.
"Characters, who are not the same as the people who died, but the characters that become part of the play, start to speak to you, and then it's not so heavy, because, you know, these were people who lived and sang and laughed and played and had sex and did the things that living people did. They didn't show up there that night ready to be in a tragedy. They showed up there to live their lives and enjoy themselves."
In addition to the specific 1973 incident, the musical inevitably touches on current topics, Self said.
"It's a commemoration. It's about those people (the victims of the Upstairs Lounge fire), but in another sense it's about redemption and forgiveness and whether we can ever forgive. It's about how we respond to mass violence, which we've had to respond to so much lately. And it's about whether our response is the best response.”
At a small church on Carrollton Avenue, light filtered through stained glass windows. Self sat at the piano in the quiet sanctuary and demonstrated one of the songs from the show, a ballad titled "I'll Always Return" that explores a lover's devotion in a hostile world. His voice was clear, his enunciation precise and the plangent imperative of the lyrics rose to the ceiling.
"I've never vowed until now. I have to let you know somehow. I don’t make promises I can't keep, and I can't promise, I'll never leave. But I'll always, I will always return.”
In a subtle way, Self feels the spirits of the Upstairs Lounge have been present throughout the project.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm just getting a pat on the back from somewhere and things just kind of happen," he said. "And sometimes it's harder. Sometimes it's like, 'No, this isn't right; keep at it.'"
They didn't show up there that night ready to be in a tragedy. They showed up there to live their lives and enjoy themselves -- Wayne Self
'I'll Always Return' from the musical 'Upstairs'
Composer Wayne Self has produced a musical drama titled 'Upstairs,' based on the Upstairs Lounge fire, a notorious arson-murder that took the lives of 32 patrons trapped in a French Quarter gay bar in 1973. Watch as Self performs a song from the musical titled 'I'll Always Return.' The production will debut at Cafe Istanbul in the New Orleans Healing Center, 2372 St. Claude Ave. from June 20 to 24, coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the fire.
MORE ABOUT THE UPSTAIRS LOUNGE
Read The Times-Picayune news stories that ran on June 25, 1973.
Read The Times-Picayune news story written to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fire.
New Orleans artist Skylar Fein created an exhibit about the tragedy: Installation reignites memory of a deadly fire.
Video: During Prospect.1 New Orleans, Skylar Fine talks about the Upstairs Lounge.
June 22, 2013, NOLA.com, After UpStairs Lounge fire, gay and straight New Orleans changed: Frank Perez, by a "Contributing Op-Ed columnist "
The deadliest fire in New Orleans history occurred on June 24, 1973. On that night, an unruly patron was thrown out of the UpStairs Lounge, which was located at the corner of Iberville and Chartres streets. About 30 minutes after being ejected from the bar, the patron returned and deliberately set the stairwell on fire. Thirty-two people died as a result of the arson.
The police and fire department responses were nonchalant and no arrest was made in the case, even though authorities knew who set the fire. Mayor Moon Landrieu, nor any other government official, had anything to say about the tragedy. Churches were either silent or subtly suggested the victims deserved what they got. Today, the fire remains largely forgotten.
Why? Because the UpStairs Lounge was a gay bar.
New Orleans in the early 1970s was extremely homophobic. Police raids of gay bars were common, discrimination based on sexual orientation (both in housing and employment) was de rigueur and homosexuality was still considered a mental disorder by the medical establishment.
Initial media reports and the police response to the UpStairs Lounge fire were less than sympathetic. Out of fear and shame, some family members of the deceased refused to claim the ashes of their "loved" ones. Radio commentators joked the remains should be buried in fruit jars. On the issue of identifying the victims, Major Henry Morris, a detective with the New Orleans Police Department 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." At the time, many gay men routinely carried false identification to gay bars in order to avoid being outed in the newspapers in the event they were arrested during a police raid.
While the media coverage was cruel and the police response was dismissive, the religious establishment's reaction was downright hateful. Church after church after church refused the use of their facilities for a memorial service. Father Bill Richardson of St. George's Episcopal Church, however, believed the dead should have a service. He graciously allowed, over the protest of many parishioners, the use of St. George's sanctuary for a prayer service, which was attended by roughly 80 people. He was subsequently chastised by his bishop and received no small amount of hate mail. Days later a Unitarian Church also held a small memorial service. A larger service was held on July 1 at St. Mark's United Methodist Church on the edge of the French Quarter.
The UpStairs Lounge fire was a seminal moment in the history of gay New Orleans. In addition to forcing straight New Orleans to acknowledge its gay community, the fire also forced the gay community in New Orleans to confront itself. In a way, the fire forced the gay community out of the closet.
The gay community in New Orleans has come a long way in 40 years. Gay political organizing began to yield dividends in the 1990s, and police harassment of gay bars is a thing of the past. Southern Decadence is celebrated with a mayoral proclamation and has an annual economic impact of $125 million. Rainbow banners adorn North Rampart Street during Gay Pride month, and the city of New Orleans leads the South in extending civil rights to gay city employees.
A look back at the public reaction to the UpStairs Lounge fire reveals not just how far the gay community has come in four decades but also how far straight New Orleans has come as well. Monday is the 40th anniversary of the fire and a number of commemoration events are planned,including a lecture at the Williams Research Center of the Historic New Orleans Collection and a jazz funeral procession. Mayor Landrieu has recognized the date by issuing a proclamation of acknowledgment, something that would have been unthinkable for his father to do at the time of the fire.
Frank Perez is a columnist for Ambush Magazine and the co-author (along with Jeffrey Palmquist) of "In Exile: The History and Lore Surrounding New Orleans Gay Culture and Its Oldest Gay Bar."
June 22, 2013, NOLA, Fire provokes powerful memories 40 years later,, by Helen Freund, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune,
The night of June 24, 1973 was a typical New Orleans summer evening -- hot and muggy.
Terry Gilbert, a 22-year-old rookie New Orleans firefighter just two weeks on the job, was waiting at the Central Fire Station with Arthur Lambert, then 32, and a couple of other NOFD responders when a call came in about a fire at a French Quarter bar. The group clambered onto Engine 29 and headed toward the blaze, unaware that the inferno they were about to confront would claim the lives of 32 people and mark the city's deadliest fire in nearly two centuries.
The UpStairs Lounge, on the second floor of a three-story building on the corner of Iberville and Chartres Street, was just two blocks away, but the firefighters quickly became blocked by stalled vehicles and crowds of early evening revelers. Lambert tried to maneuver by steering the fire truck onto a sidewalk, but he hit a taxicab and sent it smashing into the glass window of a nearby furniture store.
"I stopped, but the deputy chief, he was behind me and he said, 'don't worry about the ... taxicab. Get to that fire,'" Lambert said.
Engine 29 was first to arrive at the scene. Gilbert and Lambert couldn't believe what they were seeing. Flames shot from the building like "blowtorches" into the night, Lambert said. Men could be seen struggling hopelessly against the security bars on windows, escape impossible. People on the street screamed for help. A sickening smell hung in the air.
The fire was quickly brought under control, the firefighters said, but so much damage and misery had already been caused.
"It was horrible," Gilbert said. "These people, they were literally roasted alive. When your skin is exposed to open flames, you just melt, like candle-wax. It's horrific."
Gilbert, who had just returned from a tour in Vietnam, was almost in shock. "I don't think anything could have prepared you for something like that," he said. "No one deserves to die like that."
Dan Swenson, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
Once they were able to get inside the charred lounge, a grisly task lay ahead for the firefighters and volunteers helping out at the scene. A pile of bodies lay heaped on the floor near the windows facing Chartres Street.
"The chief told me, 'I'm not gonna tell anybody that they have to do this, but there ain't none of us leaving until it's all done,'" Lambert recalled, adding that most of the men began pitching in just to hurry the process.
The UpStairs Lounge
In 1973, the gay and lesbian scene in New Orleans was still largely underground, and patrons remember the UpStairs Lounge as not just any bar, but as a gay community hangout where locals could gather without fear of social persecution. Songs were sung around a piano, "nellydramas" were performed with the help of local playwrights, and couples competed in tricycle races, according to former 9th Ward resident Johnny Townsend, the author of "Let the Faggots Burn: The UpStairs Lounge Fire," a comprehensive retelling of the events of that night in 1973.
The walls of the French Quarter watering hole were covered with flocked wallpaper, adorned with memorabilia including an iconic Cosmopolitan magazine spread of Burt Reynolds lying naked on a bearskin rug. According to Frank Perez, a columnist for Ambush magazine and co-author of "In Exile: The History and Lore surrounding New Orleans gay culture and its oldest Gay Bar," the events following the fire were part of a pivotal moment for the gay community in New Orleans.
"The way things were at the time was really pretty bad. Raids of gay bars were very high and discrimination was profound," Perez said.
A week after the fire, after some churches refused to bury the dead, mourners attended a memorial at St. Mark's United Methodist Church in the French Quarter. At the end of the memorial, in what many at the time said marked a major shift for the gay community, mourners had the option of walking through a side door, to avoid being caught by the local media on camera. Instead, most of the 300-plus attendees chose to exit through the front of the church.
Some remember the event as the catalyst that brought the gay community together and helped push the gay rights agenda in the city forward.
"That was a huge step," Perez said. "In the aftermath of the fire, the gay community in New Orleans was forced to confront itself, finally."
But New Orleans artist Skylar Fein, who in 2008 produced a show inspired by the tragic fire that was shown at the Contemporary Arts Center as part of the Prospect.1international art exhibit, says that while many people want to remember the UpStairs Lounge fire as a watershed event, the details surrounding the fire and its historical significance are "messy."
"A lot of people want the UpStairs Lounge fire to be our Stonewall," Fein said, referring to the riots that erupted after police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in the Greenwich Village section of New York City on June 28, 1969, a turning point in the modern gay civil rights movement.
"Was it? Not really... But maybe the UpStairs Lounge fire was just a little bit of a nudge and New Orleans just took a couple years to really wake up to that potential," he said.
Forty years later and the events surrounding the horrific fire remain shrouded in mystery. According to Townsend, on the night of the fire, about 60 people held court at the French Quarter bar. A weekly "beer bust" had just ended, a jukebox was blaring near the entrance and people were gathered around the bar's piano, where two men took turns banging away on the keys, as patrons joined in and sang along to "United We Stand".
An incessant buzzing at the bar's door, however, got the attention of bartender Buddy Rasmussen, who eventually asked 47-year-old Luther Boggs to go answer it. The buzzer was located at the street level where another door entered onto Iberville Street.
Upon pushing open the lounge door, Boggs was met with a wall of fire that had been building in the stairway, causing flames to explode into the bar, instantly setting the whole place ablaze.
Rasmussen, an Air Force veteran, was able to lead about 20 people to safety through a rear door near the stage, which led out onto the roof of the building. Others were not so fortunate.
Upstairs Lounge fire, Sunday, June 24, 1973.
Burn victims at the UpStairs Lounge fire await transport to the hospital June 24, 1973. (Times-Picayune photo by G.E. Arnold) However, in New Orleans, many by now know the story of the tragic blaze that took so many lives, and Perez said the activism and awareness in New Orleans alone is reason for hope.
"Forty years ago, nobody would talk about it, nobody wanted to pay attention to it. The fact that now it's getting all this coverage -- and respectful coverage at that -- is a testament to how far we've come," Perez said.
A memorial mass remembering the victims was held Saturday at St. George's Episcopal Church.
On Monday, the actual anniversary, several events are planned throughout the city to commemorate the tragedy. At 3 p.m., Fein will give a lecture at the Williams Research Center of the Historic New Orleans Collection, after which a jazz funeral and a second-line procession will take place.
Anderson will debut his film at PJs Coffee on Magazine Street that evening. The 30-minute documentary will also air on Cox Cable at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Composer Wayne Self's musical drama based on the fire will show at Café Istanbul at the New Orleans Healing Center.
Looking back to that muggy Sunday evening 40 years ago, Terry Gilbert said that in all his years of service he never again responded to a fire quite as horrific as the one at the UpStairs Lounge.
Gilbert retired in 1995 after suffering significant neurological damage from a chemical fire.
In the aftermath of the UpStairs Lounge tragedy, Gilbert said, the firefighters who witnessed the carnage eventually returned to work, though none were quite the same afterward.
"We all deal different things in different ways," Gilbert said, adding that professional trauma counseling wasn't something offered by the department at the time and that, instead, the men and the camaraderie they formed became their own sort of support group.
"The events that night, it's in the back of my mind, but never forgotten," Gilbert said. "You never forget something like that."
June 21, 2013, NOLA.com, Fictionalized 'Upstairs' is left wanting as tribute to real victims of tragic fire, by Theodore P. Mahne, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune,
One of the most difficult aspects of presenting history is to view the events of a time through the lens of that time. One of the most common pitfalls is to attempt to apply current political understandings or cultural mores to a period in which those viewpoints were not prevalent.
Fictionalizing an historic event through artistic inspiration only redoubles those challenges and risks. With his musical, "Upstairs," receiving its premiere this week in New Orleans, playwright and composer Wayne Self retells the story of the tragic 1973 fire in the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar on the edge of the French Quarter.
It is the deadliest fire in the city’s history – 32 people were killed as a result of the inferno. Most of them were gay men.
Self’s stated overall theme and goal of the musical is to put real faces on the victims of the fire, to honor them and bring their memories to life, a well-intentioned and important aim. But he also immediately acknowledges that he is not attempting to present a documentary or even a docudrama.
"The stories we tell about the fact," a disclaimer in the program notes, "often matter as much as the facts themselves."
When the facts are manipulated to shift the blame for the tragedy on the homophobia of the time, however, the drama overreaches. Self’s script and Zach McCallum’s direction result in characterizations of the victims that are flatly two-dimensional as they are forced into carrying the weight of a grand message, rather than being seen simply as real people.
The show's greatest liability is that it fails to give its story any genuine context revealing the tenor of the times.
The layers of the stories that could be told are barely touched, giving way instead to its 21st century, politically driven message. Blaming the fire on the attitudes of the time is simply not true. While gay culture is thoroughly mainstreamed today, 40 years ago it was still nearly invisible and closeted.
While no one was ever arrested for the crime, there is no indication that the fire was the result of what we would call today a hate crime. All evidence shows that the likely arsonist was a patron of the bar itself who was thrown out earlier that night after a fight with another patron. He reportedly confessed to the crime to several friends, before committing suicide within the year.
The characters of the musical are fictional composites based on the stories of many individuals, even in cases where some of the names used are of the real patrons of the bar. Though the actors perform their roles well, the production still has the feel of being in its workshop mode, and more work is needed.
Self’s most complex character, and possibly most sympathetic, is Agneau, a seemingly shy, troubled young man, who turns out to be the arsonist. In a play intended to honor the victims, this is either a supremely forgiving act of love and mercy or an ironic slap in the face to his victims. In either case, it is dramatically unsatisfactory.
The playwright and director strain to find compassion for Agneau, played with simmering passion by Alxander Jon, by painting him as a religiously repressed youth, and possibly mentally ill victim, haunted by the specter of a brutally bellowing figure named only "Uncle." Uncle is played by Brian Brown, whose constant screeching reached painful decibel levels. Volume does not equate with emotional resonance.
He follows Agneau screaming words and ideas into his head, but Self leaves out some basic exposition – we never fully know what this relationship is, or if it is even real. There are hints of molestation that remain vague, but in the end all of it strives to blame the fire on an internalized self-hatred spurred on by external condemnations.
The running thread of spirituality and religion throughout the script also needs to coalesce more strongly. The UpStairs was a gathering place for local members of the gay-based Metropolitan Community Church. Self drops in scattered religious references (Agneau's name means "lamb," and there are many nods to Flannery O'Connor, the most distinctly Catholic Southern novelist of the century, other than Walker Percy), but he seems to be mocking spirituality as much as he is expressing his own belief.
Garrett Marshall gives a strong performance as Buddy, the bartender who survived the fire and led many to safety, but is haunted by the fact that he couldn't save his own lover Adam, played smugly by Nicholas Losorelli.
UPSTAIRS What: The premiere of composer and playwright Wayne Self’s fictionalized musical account of the 1973 arson at the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in the French Quarter. It was the deadliest fire in the city’s history, killing 32 people. Zach McCallum directs the cast, which includes Garrett Marshall, Alxander Jon, Jeff Roberson, Charles Romaine, Patrick Dillon Curry, Nicholas Losorelli, Brian Brown, Katrina McGraw, Keith Beverly, and Sean Alexander Bart. Where: Café Istanbul, 2372 St. Claude Ave., first floor of the Healing Center. When: Final performances at 7 Friday and Saturday, at 2 and 5 Sunday, and at 8 Monday. Admission: $35. For information, visit the production’s ticketing Web site. Video remembrance: For a brief video documentary on the UpStairs Lounge fire, click here.
Patrick Dillon Curry creates some empathy as Mitch, the MCC minister, but the character is dully written. Katrina McGraw gives Inez a genuine attitude, but in one of the more appalling excesses of artistic license, Self depicts her as a streetwalking mother who pimps out her sons to hustle on the street and in the bar. Keith Beverly is one son, trying to give up hustling; Sean Alexander Bart is the other, who plays the piano well. Self’s score is pleasant enough but mostly forgotten by the time one reaches the parking lot. With the exception of a couple of songs – Mercy’s "Testify," and "I'll Always Return," a pleasing ballad Mitch sings – there really is no reason for this work to be a musical.
Stephanie Lynn Smith leads the band, tucked up in the balcony, through the score. Care should be taken not to overwhelm the singers at points.
The stage at Café Istanbul serves the play, requiring essentially one set. Edward Cox’s well-appointed set design creates the scene of the bar with the slightly seedy edge of the Quarter of the time, with touches of glitz and glamour where drag cabaret acts would be staged. Employing no fibers found in nature, costumes by Alison Parker and Kate Adair vividly capture the look and feel of the early '70s.
The program of the play persists in fallacious, or, at least, exaggerated claims that the fire was ignored by the media. On the national front, it was reported on the major broadcast networks. This was long before the 24-hour news cycle, however, and with no evidence of it being a crime perpetuated as a homophobic act, it would remain primarily a local fire story.
The Rault Center skyscraper fire, in which there was live footage of women leaping to their deaths, for example, occurred just eight months earlier. It received some initial national coverage, but also was primarily a local fire story.
The New Orleans media, television and print, covered the story quite fully. The Times-Picayune, then the staunchly conservative morning paper, and The States-Item, the grittier afternoon paper, each provided days of front-page coverage, including details that the bar's patrons were mostly gay. It was a time, however, when gay men and lesbians did not want their names to appear in the press. That was one factor that made it difficult to identify some of the bodies afterward, and, sadly, left some families unwilling to claim the remains of their relatives.
Shortly afterward, The Times-Picayune ran a series of then unprecedented articles looking at gay life in the city, objectively noting the discrimination faced in housing and employment, problems of police harassment and bar raids, and the general difficulties of living life in an underground subculture.
On the 40th anniversary of the fire this Monday, the victims will be remembered by the community with very public displays. If it uses the lens of history more properly, perhaps the strongest accomplishment of the musical "UpStairs" will be to remind participants of a time when such events were not possible.
Garrett Marshall, left, plays the bartender Buddy, who led a number of people to safety from the fire. Keith Beverly is Louis, a reformed hustler who is one of the patrons killed in the blaze. Upstairs-03.JPGNicholas Losorelli plays Adam, Buddy's lover, in 'Upstairs,' who is one of the patrons who died in the bar. Katrina McGraw is Inez, another bar patron who also perishes in the fire.