February 9, 2017 at 5:50 pm EST | by Brian T. Carney
Deadly 1973 hate crime recalled in new documentary
UpStairs Lounge, gay news, Washington Blade

Patrons at the UpStairs Lounge. (Photo by Johnny Townsend; courtesy Camina Entertainment)

‘Upstairs Inferno’ screening
Thursday, Feb. 16
Noon-1:30 p.m.
Library of Congress
Pickford Theater (third floor of the James Madison Building)

Tell your boss you’re taking a long lunch on Thursday. On Feb. 16, the Library of Congress will host the D.C. premiere of “Upstairs Inferno,” a powerful new documentary about a nearly forgotten piece of LGBT history, the tragic fire at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans in 1973.

The movie will screen at noon in the Pickford Theatre in the James Madison Building. Openly gay director Robert Camina will be on hand to discuss the film.

This is Camina’s second full-length feature, and his second film to be honored by the Library of Congress. His previous movie, “Raid of the Rainbow Lounge,” screened there in 2014. The acclaimed movie chronicled a controversial raid on a gay bar in Fort Worth, Texas in 2009.

“Raid” was a hit on the festival circuit and a chance encounter at a screening gave Camina the inspiration for this movie. Camina met David Golden, who told him about the fire and became a producer of the new movie. Before the Pulse Massacre in Orlando last June, the New Orleans arson was the deadliest known attack on a gay club in American LGBT history.

On June 24, 1973, someone deliberately set fire to a gay bar in New Orleans, killing 32 people. There was a primary suspect, but he was never arrested.

The tragedy was met with callous indifference by local officials, including the police, Mayor Maurice Landrieu, Governor Edwin Edwards and, most notably Archbishop Philip Michael Hannan who refused to hold a memorial service for the victims of the fire.

“I was shocked,” Camina says. “I had never heard of it. This was a benchmark moment in LGBT history. This was up there with Stonewall but nobody had heard about it. I thought that needed to change.”

A Texas native, Camina began by researching gay life in the Big Easy in 1973.

“People often think that New Orleans was much more liberal. That’s what I thought going in,” he says. “But it was pointed out to me that the French Quarter may be more liberal, but while the French Quarter is in New Orleans, New Orleans is not the French Quarter. The city is a microcosm for the South. It was difficult to live your life openly.”

Camina also began tracking down survivors. That was a challenge.

“The fire happened in 1973,” Camina says, “so even the youngest of the patrons were now in their late 50s or early 60s. There was the AIDS crisis, so we lost a lot of people who had a direct recollection of the fire. Then you add in Hurricane Katrina, archival material was destroyed and people were scattered.”

The first interview Camina filmed for the documentary was the Rev. Troy Perry, founder of the Metropolitan Community Church. Since several members of the New Orleans MCC were killed in the fire, including two members of the clergy, Perry came to the city to help his congregants and the community deal with the aftermath.

“The crew and I were in tears hearing him speak,” Camina says. “I love hearing him talk. That’s powerful history.”

The last person Camina interviewed on film was the legendary New Orleans drag performer Regina Adams, whose lover Reggie Adams died in the fire. Regina met Reggie at the UpStairs Lounge, one of the few places in the city that would welcome a gay interracial couple.

“They had a lot of obstacles but they loved each other immensely,” Camina says. “They were together at the UpStairs Lounge on the night of the fire. They realized they had left their wallets at home. Regina left to go around the corner to pick up her wallet. In the few moments that passed, that’s when the fire happened. She returned to find the bar in flames and she didn’t know what had happened to Reggie until she went to the hospital that night. It’s a story of true love.”

Camina notes that he reached out to both Adams and Perry after the Pulse Massacre last June. All three were horrified to see history repeat itself.

That sense of history is why Camina cares so much about “Upstairs Inferno,” especially in the current political climate.

“As more and more alternative facts pop up, we have to share the real facts, the real history,” he says. “We can’t go back to the horrible level of callousness that was displayed by the police and the church at the time of the tragedy. We need to remember our history and to honor the memory of those who perished. We can look to the past and draw on the strength of those who came before us.”

Director Robert L. Camina, left, and narrator Christopher Rice. (Photo courtesy Camina Entertainment)

Director Robert L. Camina, left, and narrator Christopher Rice. (Photo courtesy Camina Entertainment)

  • This is an important story from U.S. History and must not be forgotten. Take a moment to view the trailer at https://vimeo.com/94900386 Learn more at http://www.UpstairsInferno.com and http://www.Facebook.com/upstairsinferno I am honored to screen UPSTAIRS INFERNO at the Library of Congress. – Robert

  • It wasn’t a hate crime. It was a bar patron that had been kicked out right before and vowed to burn it down in front of everyone there. Don’t pollute our history with sensationalism. The movie tells what actually happened I think, so there is no excuse for author of the article to get it wrong.

    • Thank you for contributing to the conversation! We tried very hard to debunk folklore about the arson in UPSTAIRS INFERNO. The term “hate crime” is a fairly recent term. As we see it today, a “hate crime” is motivated by racial, sexual, or other prejudice, typically involving violence. However, some of the survivors of the arson see the callous reactions by the church, government officials, etc, as hate crimes. Churches refused to bury the victims, simply because of the place they died. If the arsonist suffered from internalized homophobia, he could have been suffering from self hate and sought to inflict fear or harm on other LGBT people. I can see how some people might interpret that as a “hate crime”. As a result, I can’t argue with the perceptions of survivors if they label the arson as a “hate crime”. However, to your point, when today’s reader see’s “hate crime”, they tend to have a specific frame of reference and it can be misleading. UPSTAIRS INFERNO is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. 2018 is the 45th Anniversary of the deadly fire. It’s an incredibly poignant time to elevate and expand the conversation about this tragedy and its impact. I hope you will support the film and get a copy. It’s available exclusively at UpstairsInferno.com

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