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Queer Visual Culture
Art Inspired by the Upstairs Lounge Fire
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 01/29/13
Last updated on: 01/29/13
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Artwork inspired by the 1973 New Orleans Upstairs Lounge fire has recently been in the news. It was announced on January 17, 2013 that the New Orleans Museum of Art has acquired Skylar Fein's acclaimed installation, "Remembering the Upstairs Lounge," and composer and playwright Wayne Self has recently announced a production of a musical play about the tragedy.

As I reported in June 2012, the Upstairs Lounge was a gay bar in the French Quarter that was engulfed in flames on June 24, 1973. It was not only the deadliest fire in New Orleans history, but it may also constitute, as Brandon Thorp has described it, "the single largest mass murder of gays in the history of the United States."

The fire killed 32 people. Its horror was compounded by the undisguised homophobia of the time. Churches refused to allow funerals for the victims and some parents failed to claim the bodies of their children. At the same time, some heroes--including especially the Reverend Troy D. Perry--emerged to exemplify compassion and dignity in the face of contempt and derision.

The bar was located on the second floor of a building at Chartres and Iberville, just off Canal Street, in the French Quarter. It had only one entrance, up a wooden stairway. As Erik Ose observed in 2008 in Huffington Post, in 1973, June 24th fell on a Sunday, and many of the 60 or so patrons at the time of the fire were members of New Orleans' Metropolitan Community Church, which until earlier that month had held services in the bar.

"At 7:56 pm a buzzer from downstairs sounded, the one that signaled a cab had arrived. No one had called a cab, but when someone opened the second floor steel door to the stairwell, flames rushed in. An arsonist had deliberately set the wooden stairs ablaze, and the oxygen starved fire exploded. The still-crowded bar became an inferno within seconds.

"The emergency exit was not marked, and the windows were boarded up or covered with iron bars. A few survivors managed to make it through, and jumped to the sidewalks, some in flames. Rev. Bill Larson, the local MCC pastor, got stuck halfway and burned to death wedged in a window, his corpse visible throughout the next day to witnesses below.

"Bartender Buddy Rasmussen led a group of fifteen to safety through the unmarked back door. One of them was MCC assistant pastor George 'Mitch' Mitchell. Then Mitch ran back into the burning building trying to save his partner, Louis Broussard. Their bodies were discovered lying together."

Once it became clear that the Upstairs Lounge was a gay bar, the reports in the New Orleans media became frankly homophobic and dehumanizing, and soon disappeared altogether.

No elected officials in Louisiana issued statements of sympathy or mourning. Some families refused to claim the bodies of their dead sons, too ashamed to admit they might be gay. The city would not release the remains of four unidentified persons for burial by the surviving MCC congregation members. They were dumped in mass graves at Potter's Field, New Orleans' pauper cemetery.

Reverend Troy Perry, the founder of MCC, flew in from Los Angeles. As Linda Rapp reports in her entry on the Metropolitan Community Church, in January 1973, the fledgling denomination's Mother Church had been torched, so it was not a stretch to fear that the arson in New Orleans was also directed at the MCC, particularly since the victims included the New Orleans MCC's pastor, assistant pastor, and ten members of the 22-member congregation.

Perry discovered that no church in the city would allow survivors to hold a memorial service for the victims on their premises.

Finally, Perry convinced the minister of St. Mark's United Methodist Church in the French Quarter to permit the use of their building. It was here that Perry conducted a memorial service on July 1, 1973. It was attended by 250 people.

When Perry learned that news photographers had gathered outside St. Mark's, he offered mourners the option of leaving by a back way if they did not wish to be seen. He was gratified when all chose to go out through the front door.

Although official New Orleans ignored the tragedy for over twenty years, in 1998 a memorial plaque was installed in the sidewalk in front of the building that had housed the Upstairs Lounge and an interfaith memorial service was held to remember the victims on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fire.

Skylar Fein's haunting installation, "Remembering the Upstairs Lounge," recreates the bar as it was in June 1973 in exquisite detail. The 90-piece art environment features artifacts, photographs, video, and a reproduction of the bar's entrance The installation was first exhibited at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans in 2008 and then at a gallery in New York in 2010.

On January 17, 2013, Doug MacCash reported in the New Orleans Times-Picayune that the New Orleans Museum of Art had acquired the work.

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 and also represents the most ambitious artwork by one of the city's most accomplished artists. "It should be at the New Orleans Museum of Art."

The artwork was donated to the museum by Fein, who said that he did not want to profit from the piece, nor did he want to dismantle it or sell off parts of the composition. He 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."

In the video below, from 2010, Skylar Fein describes the installation.

At Towleroad, Andy Towle reports that composer Wayne Self has written a musical play about the Upstairs Lounge fire.

Self says, "As gay playwright and composer from Louisiana, I've had a deeply personal interest in telling the story of the fire's victims, in bringing their voices to life in a way that only theatre can. I've finally begun to realize this longstanding dream. My research has revealed so many tales of love, courage, and tragedy. It's uncovered powerful questions about forgiveness, religion, faith, love, and history. It's truly a story worth telling."

A low-budget version of the musical is scheduled to be staged in San Francisco, February 12-14, but Self hopes to bring a fuller version to New Orleans on June 24th, the 40th anniversary of the fire, and then to Los Angeles.

Below is his kickstarter video, through which he hopes to raise money for the productions.

New Orleans mystery writer Greg Herren, in his Lambda Award-winning Murder in the Rue Chartres, also evokes the tragedy.

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