Thursday, June 20, 2013

40TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE UPSTAIRS LOUNGE FIRE - JUNE 24, 1973

The UpStairs Lounge arson attack occurred in 1973 at a gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana, in the United States, and resulted in the deaths of 32 people due to direct immolation or inhalation of fumes. It was started with Ronsonol lighter fluid on the steps near the entrance. The most likely suspect was a man who had been thrown out of the bar earlier that day; he was never sentenced.  It was the deadliest arson attack to take place in New Orleans at that time, and one of the deadliest attacks on LGBT people in United States history.

On Sunday, June 24, 1973, the final day of Pride Weekend,] a group of members of the Metropolitan Community Church, a pro-LGBT Protestant denomination, had held services inside the club located on the second floor of a three-story building at the corner of Chartres and Iberville Streets, after which the club had hosted free beer and dinner for 125 patrons. At the time of the evening fire, some 60 people were listening to pianist David Gary's music and discussing an upcoming MCC fundraiser for the local Crippled Children’s Hospital. The UpStairs Lounge was a temporary home of the MCC, the nation’s first gay church that had been founded in Los Angeles in 1969.
Jesus in Love Blog has a wonderful post on the the musical titled "Upstairs" written and composed by Wayne Self commemorating the tragedy.
Louisiana playwright and composer Wayne Self spent five years weaving together the stories of the UpStairs Lounge fire victims and survivors. The result is a dramatic musical that opens tomorrow (June 20) in New Orleans. He says his work takes the form “of tribute, of memorial, even of hagiography.”

The musical "Upstairs" brings back to life people such as MCC assistant pastor George “Mitch” Mitchell, who managed to escape the fire, but ran back into the burning building to save his boyfriend, Louis Broussard. Both men died in the fire. Their bodies were found clinging to one another in the ashes. In the musical, Mitchell sings a song called “I’ll Always Return”
On Saturday, I plan to attend the memorial mass at St George Episcopal Church in New Orleans, Below is the announcement from the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana.

St. George's to Offer Memorial Mass to Mark 40th Anniversary of Upstairs Lounge Fire
   
On Saturday, June 22nd, at 2 PM St. George's Episcopal Church of New Orleans will offer a memorial mass marking the 40th anniversary of the tragic fire at the Upstairs Lounge. The fire claimed the lives of 32 people and left devastated those of many more in the New Orleans gay community. The liturgy is offered to the glory of God in loving memory of those who died and also in thanksgiving for Father Bill Richardson's courageous work in according to the dead a proper burial and to the living a pastoral ministry of sympathy and support.

At The Episcopal Café, Deacon Ormonde Plater, a friend of Bill Richardson, on the occasion of his death:
A Saint has died: The Rev. William P. Richardson, 98, rector of St George's, New Orleans, from 1953-1976, died peacefully last night at 10:48 p.m. A Mass of Christian Burial will be held at St. George’s on Monday, Oct. 8, at noon.

Among the gay community in the United States, Bill Richardson is honored as a hero.
The post at the Café includes a letter from Bill Richardson to Integrity about his decision to hold the memorial service at St George.
Next morning a member of the MCC called to ask if they could have a memorial service that evening at St. George's. I agreed, providing they would not make a big splash over it. The Rev. Troy Perry [Founder and Moderator of MCC] flew in that evening and assisted with the service. Some 80-90 persons attended. I warned the TV people not to take pictures, and asked the reporters to play it low-key. They did.

Bishop Iveson B. Noland, who was later killed in a plane crash in New York, phoned me early the next morning. He said, "Bill, this is the Bishop. Have you read the morning paper?" I said, "Yes, Bishop, I have." "Is it true that the service was at St. George's Episcopal Church?" "Yes, Bishop, it was." "Why didn't they have it in their own church?" he asked. I replied, "For the simple reason their own small church holds about 18 persons. Without any publicity we had over 80 present." "What am I to say when people call my office?" I replied, "You can say anything you wish, Bishop, but do you think Jesus would have kept these people out of His church?"

I heard later the Bishop had a hundred calls, and I got hate calls and letters. Only one member of our vestry supported me. Later, I was stopped on the street by many persons thanking me for doing such a Christian thing.

8 comments:

  1. "Doing such a Christian thing . . ." What a concept. Is it any wonder that most gay people have no use for church? They might as well have been burned at the stake, for all that the churches cared at that time, the vast majority of them.

    Which in fact is what church people did do with the gays for centuries. I can't get the Abp of Canterbury's recent remarks in the House of Lords out of my mind. What a stupid man he is, and how unfit for the office. There was no wisdom and no holiness in what he said - only ignorance, pretense, and politics.

    I hope someone sometime will film that musical, I would love to see it.

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    1. Russ, I can't quarrel with anything you say. I will say that the announcement of this year's memorial came from the diocesan office, so here in the Diocese of Louisiana much has changed. Our bishop allows same sex blessings and ordains LGTB persons to the diaconate and the priesthood. We've come quite a way.

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    2. Oh my you certainly have, I'm amazed to hear all that. Kudos to the bishop for "doing such a Christian thing" - for real.

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  2. Memory eternal. RIP/RIG, the dead of the Upstairs Lounge, and Fr Richardson.

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  3. Someone told me recently that after the memorial service at St. George's several ladies of the parish asked the curate to exercise the space where the service had been held. I am trying to remember the name of the curate in June 1973. (Most parishes today are too poor to have more than one priest, but curates, as they were called, were still common in the 1970s.)

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  4. Replies
    1. How silly. I knew you meant "exorcise", but for a few seconds I had a picture in my mind of ladies exercising at St George. :-)

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