Art and Design | New Orleans | News | Skylar Fein

Remembering the Upstairs Lounge: Artist Skylar Fein Resurrects a Tragic Event in New Orleans' Gay History

Upstairs1

In June 1973, a fire broke out in a gay bar in New Orleans' French Quarter. The fire at the Upstairs Lounge took 32 lives — bodies burned beyond recognition. Approximately 20 people escaped the blaze, which was set by an arsonist. The likely suspect was a customer who had been thrown out of the bar the night of the fire. 

Press coverage of the fire, which was the worst in New Orleans history, was brief, sensational. No city official would make a statement about it.

So artist Skylar Fein (pictured, below) has decided to make one.

In an exhibit curated by non-profit No Longer Empty and Dan Cameron, which recently opened in New York's Chelsea neighborhood, Fein has brought the bar's story back to life in a hybrid of art and history which is certainly worth seeing if you're interested in either, and definitely worth seeing if you want to learn about a piece of gay history (perhaps the most significant event in the gay history of New Orleans) that has faded away.

I paid a visit to the exhibit last weekend and have some more photos and words on it,
AFTER THE JUMP...

Upstairs2 

Upstairs11 

"Remember the Upstairs Lounge" features a gallery of newspaper and historical archives which tell the story of that fateful night displayed in a reconstruction meant to evoke the atmosphere of that cozy bar in the French Quarter.

Upstairs3 

The aftermath of the fire was gruesome. Charred bodies were left in plain view of onlookers from the street for hours. No witnesses would come forward to testify because of the hostility of the police force toward gays.

The city averted its gaze.

Upstairs4 

A service was held for those who had died in the fire at St. Mark's United Methodist Church, the only church, according to Fein, which would make itself available for a bunch of dead homosexuals.

Those who came to pay respects had to leave through a back entrance or be photographed by the media and exposed.

Upstairs5 

Fein has recreated much of the atmosphere and design of the era, complete with signs that might have hung around the neighborhood, portraits of the bar's patrons, and artifacts that resurrect the politics and pop culture of the early 70's.

Upstairs6 

He also created a replica of a statue, the Farnese Hercules, which was placed prominently behind the bar but disappeared after the fire (there's a photo of it in the exhibit, surrounded by ashes, wreckage, and rubble).

Fein attributed the statue to the collection of the Williams Research Center in New Orleans because when he went to them to do historical research on the tragedy at the Upstairs Lounge he was rebuffed, laughed at, and found the intent to keep this chapter out of New Orleans' history was still very much alive

At Prospect 1, the New Orleans biennial where Remember the Upstairs Lounge first debuted, representatives from the Williams Center were furious to discover the attribution of the statue to their collection and wrote a letter disassociating themselves from the exhibit. That letter has now become a part of the exhibit.

Upstairs7   Upstairs8 

A few of Fein's outsized installations.

Upstairs9 

'Remember the Upstairs Lounge' is open to the public now through May 30. Information on hours can be found at the website.

Upstairs10

 

Feed This post's comment feed

Comments

  1. New Orleans cops (at least some of them) are still antigay.

    Posted by: Paul R | May 7, 2010 5:18:59 PM


  2. what isn't mentioned is that some families refused to claim the bodies of their sons because of denial/embarrassement, etc. Some of those who died were buried in paupers graves/unknown graves because families refused to ackknowledge it was their son. Those graves remain unmarked today

    Posted by: rolph | May 7, 2010 6:10:08 PM


  3. I lived in New Orleans a few years after this happened. Andrian St. Clair survived the fire and wore the scars proudly. I'd forgotten all about this incident. It wasn't talked about THEN. So, it's no surprise that they don't want to talk about it now.

    Posted by: kirk wilson | May 7, 2010 6:11:38 PM


  4. This looks stellar. Tip of the hat to Mr. Fein.

    Posted by: virtualdespot | May 7, 2010 6:17:31 PM


  5. ..this whole tragic story would make a great movie.....I could definitely see it...could be really touching if well made......I would hope that Most people Today would be appalled at the treatment of gay people then..and think about now.... (that dead man in the window got me)

    Posted by: Disgusted American | May 7, 2010 6:33:17 PM


  6. This really is an amazing and moving exhibit. I encourage people to see it if they have the chance. I saw it a few years ago when it was one of the exhibits for Prospect1, the New Orleans art biennial held in 2008.

    It is amazing that to this day, the Upstairs Lounge fire is spoken about very little, if at all. I would imagine that there are very few people here in New Orleans that know about it, which is a shame, because it was the catalyst for gay rights in this city.

    Posted by: TJ | May 7, 2010 6:51:18 PM


  7. Amazing. When art works,it really works!

    Posted by: Clanky Mish | May 7, 2010 6:53:45 PM


  8. How strange that a city with such a laissez faire reputation was/ is this way. I would love to learn more about this tragic event. Kudos to Fein for not allowing it to be forgotten.

    Posted by: Garrett | May 7, 2010 6:59:16 PM


  9. That was the year I graduated from high school in New Orleans. I'm always amazed that I was totally unaware of the gay scene in the quarter, even though I went there often to restaurants and bars, and obviously gay men have been part of the life of the city for a long time. 1973 was a very different time, and it took me another 5 years or so to get up the guts to set foot in a gay bar, but by then I was out of NO.

    Posted by: KevinVT | May 7, 2010 7:07:26 PM


  10. That was the year I graduated from high school in New Orleans. I'm always amazed that I was totally unaware of the gay scene in the quarter, even though I went there often to restaurants and bars, and obviously gay men have been part of the life of the city for a long time. 1973 was a very different time, and it took me another 5 years or so to get up the guts to set foot in a gay bar, but by then I was out of NO.

    Posted by: KevinVT | May 7, 2010 7:07:26 PM


  11. That was the year I graduated from high school in New Orleans. I'm always amazed that I was totally unaware of the gay scene in the quarter, even though I went there often to restaurants and bars, and obviously gay men have been part of the life of the city for a long time. 1973 was a very different time, and it took me another 5 years or so to get up the guts to set foot in a gay bar, but by then I was out of NO.

    Posted by: KevinVT | May 7, 2010 7:07:26 PM


  12. I also saw the installation at Prospect I - I was very moved. Well worth the visit.

    Posted by: ptx | May 7, 2010 7:29:12 PM


  13. I saw this exhibit at Prospect 1 as well. It looks like Fein has expanded it which is great.
    This event is still very much in the mind of most of the native New Orleanian GLBT community. I know at least one person who would have been at the bar when it burned except for he was running late. His lover of the time died in the fire.
    One thing that usually isn't brought out when this event is discussed is that is had significant long-term effects on New Orleans. It was the worst fire in the modern history of the city to that point and ended up changing a lot of the fire codes down there. It also resulted in banning motorized parades from the French Quarter because of the fear of other fires there.

    Posted by: Nitahoyo | May 7, 2010 9:15:56 PM


  14. I was born (1982) in new orleans and never heard of this tragedy. When I turn 16 I started attending the lesbian and Gay community center and this was never even mention. Now I am very curious of this event in history that I share with my fellow gay new orleanians.

    Posted by: Cajiva | May 8, 2010 5:34:16 AM


  15. What's with the gerbils and crisco, is that supposed to be some kind of joke?

    Posted by: uhh | May 8, 2010 9:55:47 AM


  16. This looks really interesting, especially with all the denial then and today. Thanks for spotlighting it.

    Posted by: Pete | May 10, 2010 12:04:07 PM


  17. Maybe I shouldn't say this. However, it tends to make me less sorrowful towards the people of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. Glad I never wasted asny money there.

    Posted by: JIM | May 10, 2010 2:42:11 PM


  18. I saw the exhibit in New Orleans in 2008 and it really moved me. The fact that no one knows about this is tragic. My parents were about my age and living in New Orleans when this happened and they don't remember hearing about it. It was an absolute massacre and nobody cared.

    Posted by: gaycondo | May 12, 2010 12:17:59 AM


  19. Those signs are confusing. The only one of them that would have been really close would have been Wanda's Seven Seas, which was on Iberville but a little closer to Royal than Chartres. And that's a very old photograph of the building.

    Saying that the likely suspect was "a customer who had been thrown out of the bar the night of the fire" gives the mistaken impression that the arsonist was a gay man. That's misleading. He was not a regular customer and most likely not gay. He was creating a disturbance and that's why he was 86'd.

    This bar was upstairs. All of the windows were barred. The interior of the bar was draped in a dark red, imitation velvet made of petroleum products. The entrance was through a narrow stairwell leading up from a single door at street level. The disgruntled "customer" is believed to have returned with a can of gasoline and splashed this stairwell with gasoline before setting it aflame. There was a back door behind the bar but most of the bar's customers didn't know about it and rushed the windows instead. Bodies were stacked up next to the windows.

    One thing they got right was that the newspapers at the time had a habit of printing photos of gay people and that could be hazardous to your employment. Many employers would fire anyone discovered to be gay on the grounds that they had a responsibility to uphold "moral standards."

    Posted by: Ninong | May 12, 2010 11:35:10 AM


  20. Here's an amazing, recently published image of a notice asking for blood donations for victims -- from the Nick DeWolf Photo Archives.

    If the URL doesn't work, it's on Flickr -
    flickr .com /photos /dboo /6848002416 /in/set- 72157629598182653/
    ----------------
    boston, mass
    summer 1973

    notices posted on the door of the charles street meeting house, beacon hill
    -----------------------------------

    Posted by: Richard | Mar 30, 2012 12:24:51 AM


  21. how can he even be a real pastor by GOD if he was gay? God does not accept homosexuality. These homosexuals dying was an act of God ..GOD is FED UP with all this sin of homosexuality.. Just like the katrina disaster, all that voodoo practiced is against God in new orleans... GOD is just tired of homosexuals, voodoo and witchcraft.These sins are prevalent in New Orleans... REMEMBER sodom and gomorrah in the bible? Same thing happening to day ...get real people, dont be fooled. GOD does NOT condone homosexuality....or witchcraft..repent and be free of all this sin..

    Posted by: jim | Dec 15, 2012 9:55:00 PM


  22. reply to kirk wilson posting of:
    I lived in New Orleans a few years after this happened. Andrian St. Clair survived the fire and wore the scars proudly. I'd forgotten all about this incident. It wasn't talked about THEN. So, it's no surprise that they don't want to talk about it now.

    From HENRY: I too lived in New Orleans at that time, but previously Atlanta, GA, where Adrian St, Claire at that time lived before 1973, and was burned with liquid Drano by a jealous lover of a trick, whom he was making out with.

    Adrian, may have been in New Orleans but only long after the fire to make claims so to boost his Drag publicity. $$$

    Posted by: Henry | Dec 21, 2012 4:58:18 PM


  23. Thanks Jim! After reading your comment I immdiately took the c*cks put of my mouth and a$$hole and repented.

    Posted by: Jerry | Jun 24, 2013 1:39:29 PM


  24. Kirk Wilson writes; "Andrian St. Clair survived the fire and wore the scars proudly." Posted by: kirk wilson | May 7, 2010

    What is Adrian St. Clair real name?
    I heard a different story, Adrian St. Clair a hustler lived in Atlanta, Georgia and after having slept with somebody's lover the other lover tossed a bottle of hot water and Draino at Adrian. So move a years or so forward Adrian appears in New Orleans and as an 'opportunistic con artist and hustler' he spin this yarn about being a survivor of the Upstairs Lounge fire, thus winning monetary empathy from the gullible public..

    Posted by: Henry Kubicki | Oct 27, 2013 7:00:46 PM


Post a comment







Trending


« «News: Marco Rubio, Lithuania, Modern Family, The Kid, ROTC« «