Above: Rodger Nunez, the main suspect in the mass killing, pictured in life and in death.
On Sunday June 24, 1973, more than 100 people attended the MCC service, and dozens stuck around to plan an upcoming fundraiser for what then was called Crippled Children’s Hospital. Esteves gave them all free beer. It was a night like any other. Oh sure, there were vagabonds, says filmmaker Royd Anderson, whose documentary The UpStairs Lounge Fire details that night and the aftermath. But there were also doctors, poets, actors, intellectuals, and hustlers.
At left: Duane Mitchell (left) looks at photos of his dad, George, with filmmaker Royd Anderson. Duane was 11 years old at the time of George’s death.
One of those miscreants was Rodger Nunez, a 26-year-old hustler who often became aggressive and mouthy when he was drunk. This night Nunez began to harass one of the regulars, Michael Scarborough, through an adjacent stall in the bathroom. Who knows why Nunez was acting out then? There was a glory hole in the restroom, but Scarborough didn't want anything to do with what Nunez had to offer. When the altercation turned physical, Scarborough gave the guy a right hook to the jaw, and when that didn’t stop him, he complained to Rasmussen, who sent Nunez packing. As he was escorted out, Nunez spouted off a threat of revenge typical of someone being kicked out after a bar fight. The hothead was posturing, the patrons probably thought; good riddance.
At 7:52 p.m. the doorbell, located down a stairwell at the first-floor entrance to the second-floor bar, began to ring. Rasmussen assumed it was a taxi driver, as it usually was, so he sent a regular named Luther Boggs down to open the door. It had been more than a year since the last gay bar raid, but you could never be sure, hence the added security. Boggs probably had no idea what hit him. He was dead instantly.
A flash of fuel hit the landing and then a fireball swept up the stairwell into the bar, flames quickly engulfing the place. More than 60 people were still there, and the fire spread so quickly that panic was unavoidable. The oxygen from the door had created a backdraft that swept the fire along the hallway blocking the main entrance, and it sped along the walls rapidly. Those curtains, flocked wallpaper, and, even the lone poster of the famous Burt Reynolds Cosmopolitan centerfold that had been tacked up were all gone in seconds. There was no emergency exit sign. People clamored to get out, some pulling their clothing over their mouths in hopes of breathing through the smoke. Glass shattered everywhere as patrons tried to escape through the windows; few were skinny enough to do so, because the windows all had 14-inch security bars.
The pastor of MCC, Bill Larson, was caught in the bars, the upper half of his body stretching for an impossible escape as he burned alive, his agonizing wails heard by onlookers on the street. “Oh, God, no,” he screamed as horrified onlookers watched the man die.
Harold Bartholomew was driving past the bar with his kids when they noticed flames shooting out of the building. He rushed to help but was useless. He told Anderson, “People were at the window cooking — that’s the only way to describe it,” pieces of flesh literally landing on the sidewalk below in a scene so terrible, “I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
“Bartender Buddy Rasmussen led about 20 people to safety through a back door behind a stage,” Anderson says. “But investigators found he unintentionally trapped the remaining bar patrons when he locked the fire escape door to prevent the fire from spreading.”
George Mitchell, 11-year-old Duane’s dad, was the MCC's assistant pastor then. He was one of the few people who managed to escape the fire, but when he realized his boyfriend, Louis Horace Broussard, was still trapped inside he rushed in to rescue him. The two were found dead, bodies wrapped around each other, together forever, a gruesomely romantic scene.
Above: Victims of the UpStairs Lounge fire on June 24, 1973
Firefighters — including Terry Gilbert, a rookie only two weeks on the job — arrived quickly and had the fire contained within 16 minutes. No matter, though. They discovered 28 dead bodies piled up in grotesque mounds atop each other at the bathroom door, the fire escape door, and the windows, any place they could have hoped to escape. Four more people would die either en route to or at the hospital. In all, 32 people were killed that day, and though a few might have been straight, like that pre-PFLAG mom and the friendly substitute pianist, this tragedy still remains worst mass murder of LGBT people in U.S. history.
The grisly fire was just the beginning of the tragedy that would affect New Orleans’s LGBT community for years to come. All of which raises the question: Why have so few people even heard about this?