‘Upstairs Inferno’ screening
Thursday, Feb. 16
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.”