Stonewall June 28, 1969
The Up Stairs Lounge June 24, 1973
Pulse Nightclub June 12, 2016
Three dates in queer history that changed lives and the world.
Celebrating our community.
Honoring the heroes and the victims.
In July we will tell the story of one of these events and the people that made up the community and comradery of those that found a safe haven in The Upstairs Lounge until on the evening of June 24, 1973, when an unknown individual turned their “some kind of paradise” into a blazing inferno that took 32 lives and changed the lives of hundreds of other and an entire community.
A View of The View UpStairs…
By Robert W. Fieseler
You are about to be transported into a lost gay world—the queer subterranean of New Orleans in 1973.
Be aware, the rules of queerness are different in that place… The View UpStairs, as you are likely aware, is an interpretive account of a true event: a notoriously unsolved arson fire that took place at a gay bar called the Up Stairs Lounge on the ragged edge of the famous French Quarter. Thirty-two lives were claimed in that bar on the night of June 24, 1973 when an arsonist lit a spark that destroyed a trailblazing establishment—a place apart that had transcended barriers of straight and gay, male and female, black and white.
It took less than 20 minutes for fire to utterly consume that hidden, second-story oasis where more than 90 working-class men had gathered one Sunday night for the biggest drink special of their weekend: the Beer Bust. Just imagine the merriment—one dollar for two hours of unlimited draft beer, plus a returnable 50-cent deposit for the pitcher. (Hey, this was New Orleans in the ‘70s!) But a door opens, and flames spread, and the fun abruptly ends.
The ensuing catastrophe would be the deadliest fire on record in New Orleans history – and the worst mass killing of gays in U.S. history until the 2016 massacre at Pulse in Orlando – yet it would receive just a few days of media attention in its time due to rampant antigay bigotry. Jokes that circulated afterward spoke of “flaming queens” who “burned their dresses off.” At the time, seven out of 10 Americans called homosexuality “always wrong” in national polls; psychiatrists regularly diagnosed it as a mental illness.
New Orleans’ ultraliberal mayor Moon Landrieu, in many ways a forerunner in the arena of racial civil rights, stayed out of town rather cause a hoopla by returning to face the gruesome fallout at the Up Stairs Lounge. And when the mayor eventually did return, weeks later, he absolved the city of its abominable behavior in a press conference by saying, “I was not aware of any lack of concern in the community.”
Thus, despite a bounty of evidence tying the intentionally set blaze to a chief suspect, an internally conflicted male prostitute named Rodger Dale Nunez, 32 negligent homicides were deemed politically inconvenient due to homosexual overtones and permitted to become the historic mystery that scholars and artists, like The View UpStairs creator Max Vernon, must contend with now.
That’s a brief synopsis of the destruction of the Up Stairs Lounge, understood intellectually and from a distance… But you are now about to get a wholly different view, a more imaginative and intimate perspective. Through the fantasia of musical theatre (goddess RuPaul bless it!), The View UpStairs will do the impossible. This musical will convey you alongside Wes, our modern-day “millennial influencer” protagonist, into the bar before it burned.
There, you will see the Up Stairs Lounge in a way that historians like myself can only yearn for: joyous, full of the revelry of men and women crooning beside the piano and, as yet, untouched by its tragic fate. You will hear the laughter and feel the love that commingled before all the screams.
The View UpStairs will give you a contextualized glimpse of what it felt like to live as a “queer” (then, a slur that ended careers and destroyed reputations) in an era when homosexuality was illegal. Granted, your 21st-century ideals and politics will not quite fit in the transposition across decades and cultures.
But within this oppressive atmosphere, you will see, a burgeoning underground flourished. Gay men living euphemistically as “confirmed bachelors” or simply “single men” flocked to places like the Up Stairs Lounge for small glimpses at happiness. Incredibly, these men did find reason to sing. And the lyrics to their favorite song, the anthem of the Up Stairs Lounge called “United We Stand,” emphasized solidarity in the face of dangers.
Additionally, it must be said, our transposition from reality into a universe of glam-rock fashion and extemporaneous singing will also not be an exact, one-to-one match with Up Stairs Lounge history. This should be obvious, but I will emphasize that, in this particular art form of composite characters and fierce choreography, it need not be. (And goddess RuPaul, if you can’t suspend disbelief for a musical, what are you doing in your seat?)
For example, there was no “Wes” in the real Up Stairs Lounge because the Up Stairs Lounge was a 1970s gay bar, not a time machine powered on Instagram likes and glitter. As another example, Buddy, in the real Up Stairs Lounge, was the charismatic bartender who welcomed all, not the temperamental piano player. Each character in The View UpStairs is, in fact, a fusion of several real Up Stairs Lounge patrons.
The point of this musical, I would argue, is to give you an emotional picture of a radical queer past, to take you on a personal rainbow-ride that, instead of telling you precisely how it was, shows you what it was like. Anyone who likes parties, which I don’t but my husband does, will tell you there’s a difference between being at the party and telling someone about the party at brunch the next day.
The View UpStairs then does the impossible work of taking you to that bygone party, a party once celebrated but tragically ended, a party that can no longer be, which makes this production an invaluable jumping off point for anyone interested in learning more about Up Stairs Lounge history.
When you return from the journey, I hope you return changed and perhaps moved to come to the defense of radical queerness and be heard where you live. Our acts of memory will always be acts of protest against those who would prefer us silent. Because a greater truth is on our side, and the truth is this: queerness is and has always been part of the fabric of humankind.
We will continue to remember the Up Stairs Lounge. We will celebrate the lives and honor the dead. I bid you happy viewing (and singing). United We Stand!
Robert W. Fieseler is the author of Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation, which won the 2019 Edgar Award in Best Fact Crime. He lives with his husband in New Orleans.
From the beginning of human existence, stories have helped us to understand and shape our world, enabling us to share our experiences with one another. Stories inspire us, teach us, move us, and in so doing, they change the world. Entertainment draws on our deep affinity for stories to reveal worlds of new possibilities, where dramatic conflicts and decisions are tied to real world consequences. The choices that characters make center on critical social issues, illuminating pathways to change, adoption of new behaviors, and ultimately lead to a world of hope. Sexual orientation and sexual identity, as well as the adverse effects of prejudice, discrimination, intolerance, injustice and bullying on individuals and society are key plot elements in all of the productions that Evolution Theatre Company presents. Characters serve as role models to bring these concepts to life. Audience members become emotionally tied to the characters, and these ties influence values and inspire behaviors much more powerfully than direct appeals for change. Whether it is a drama, a comedy or a musical, the message and the outcome is the same.
And this is a main component of Evolution Theatre Company’s mission and dedication to the community, to “EDUCATE THRU ENTERTAINMENT”