On the evening of Sunday, June 24, 1973, James “Jim” Massacci, Sr. was relaxing at home with his family when a call came in from his bar, The Jimani, located at the corner of Iberville and Chartres Streets in the French Quarter. The employee on the other end of the line told Massacci that smoke was coming from the windows of another lounge upstairs from the Jimani, and that the police and fire department had been called. Although it didn’t sound like much of an emergency, Massacci decided to head down to the bar anyway, just to check things out; he brought his young son along.
A few hours later, Massacci and his son, twelve-year-old Jimmy, were standing by in horror, surveying the remnants of one of the most gruesome and tragic events in the history of modern New Orleans. And on that night they became members of a very exclusive club, a small group of friends and neighbors who could say, in the intervening years, that they were there the night the Upstairs Lounge went out in flames.
Upstairs Front Door with Barred Window Next to It
But in the landscape of 1973 New Orleans, “Gay Pride” did not exist. A handful of gay bars were scattered around the French Quarter, usually in derelict or crime-ridden neighborhoods that provided secrecy in a city where gay life was lived almost entirely underground.
The Upstairs Lounge was located on the second floor of a three-story building at the corner of Iberville and Chartres Streets. Jim Massacci’s Jimani bar occupied (and still occupies) the ground floor, and the third story consisted of bare, sparsely furnished “flop” rooms that Upstairs patrons sometimes used for sexual liaisons.
That Sunday, June 24th, was the last day of national Pride Weekend and the fourth anniversary of the Stonewall Gay Pride Uprising of 1969. At the time, the bar was also the temporary home of the small New Orleans congregation of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), the nation’s first gay church that had been founded in Los Angeles in 1969.
Worship services had been held earlier in the day and congregation members had stayed to join regular patrons for an afternoon of free beer and an all-you-can-eat special. At the height of the activities, almost 130 people were jammed into the bar, but as the evening wore on, and the beer ran out, the number dwindled to approximately 60, most of whom were MCC members.
The building that housed the Upstairs Lounge was one of a rare few left in the French Quarter that had a wooden exterior; the lounge had only one entrance, up a wooden flight of steps and a narrow hallway from a door that opened directly onto the Iberville Street side. The lounge consisted of three open rooms, decorated in the plush style popularized during the 1970’s, with long bars and a cabaret stage complete with a baby grand piano.
MCC members and Upstairs regulars often gathered around the piano for sing-a-longs; one popular song, “United We Stand” by the Brotherhood of Man, had become a kind of anthem for the Upstairs crowd. One of the most popular performers at the Upstairs was pianist George “Bud” Matyi, a popular New Orleans entertainer whose trademark song was a rendition of the 70’s sailor hit “Brandy.” He, as well as house pianist David Stuart Gary, would perish in the horrific blaze.
The Upstairs Lounge Commerative Plaque ~ A Memorial Plaque Fund was set-up through the Vieux Carre Metropolitan Community Church.
Sitting with Jimmy Massacci, Jr. in his second-floor corner office on a humid, rainy June day, the events of 37 years ago seem vividly real.
“That window right there,” says Massacci, pointing at the window to my right, “that’s the window where the man got stuck in the bars and burned alive.” Immediately, images I had seen of the charred corpse of MCC Rev. William Larson, frozen in the grisly pangs of death, come to mind. “I think he was there all that next day, while they were in here investigating. Didn’t bother to cover him up or anything.”
For Jimmy Massacci (James Jr.) the Upstairs Lounge remains a prominent and sobering memory of his childhood. “I’ll never forget it,” he says, shaking his head.
The Massacci family came to New Orleans a generation ago when James Massacci, Sr. agreed to take on the job of managing and promoting famed New Orleans trumpeter Al Hirt. “Little Jimmy” was always at his father’s side and the French Quarter soon became a familiar stomping ground; it was a natural progression when James Massacci went into the bar business for himself and in the early 70’s James and his wife JoAnn opened the Jimani.
“Jimani? Gemini?” I ask. “How do you pronounce it exactly?”
Jimmy laughs. “It’s a combination of my parents’ names, my mom’s idea – Jim And I, see?”
He continues, “Of course a lot of what you see up here [in the old lounge area] has changed a lot since it was the Upstairs. We’ve had several different businesses making changes over time, but if you look around you’ll see the original brick walls and especially around the windows and at the top of the ceilings, you still see the charred bricks. And I’ve left a lot of the bars in place,” he adds, “just to show what they had to deal with to try to get out that night.”
Looking around, I comment on how horrific it must have been. “I’ll never forget it as long as I live,” he says. “I can tell you that.
“Those stairs you came up from outside,” Massacci says, “well those are the same stairs and the outside door is the same. It was kept locked. Whoever did it had to be a regular and had to know the routine.
“They threw something all over the stairs, probably lighter fluid, and then they tossed in a Molotov cocktail and the whole thing exploded. But the people in the Upstairs wouldn’t have known right away if they didn’t hear the buzzer.” Massacci shakes his head. “They opened that little panel and it [flames] just shot into the room like a big fireball.”
Beyond the Front Door: The Stairway to The Upstairs Lounge photo
Copyright © 2010 by Alyne A. Pustanio
That night, the dwindling group of friends in the Upstairs lounge gathered around the piano, as they had so often, and sang a few choruses of “United We Stand,” swaying together and repeating the verses, happy in each others’ company and celebrating the remains of Pride Weekend. David Gary, a pianist who played regularly in the lounge of the new Marriott Hotel across the street, was on the keyboards; soon Bud Matyi would take his turn and round out the evening.
At approximately 7:56 p.m. the buzzer sounded on the downstairs door. This usually indicated that a cab had arrived, but curiously no one had called a cab. The single second-floor door into the Upstairs lounge was one of the old “Speakeasy” kind with the little sliding panel set at eye level so that patrons could check out who was in the stairwell. Someone went to the door and slid the speakeasy panel back. Like a stream of napalm, flames shot through the little hole into the plush Upstairs interior. Velvet curtains, silk panels, damask table cloths, heavy stage curtains, carpets – within minutes everything was consumed in flames. The bar became an inferno.
Emergency exits were not marked and the windows that weren’t jammed with boards were covered with iron bars. The two fire escapes suspended on the sides of the buildings hovered a full story above the street; victims who made it to the fire escapes, some of them in flames, had to jump the full story to the street below, receiving worse injuries as they did so.
A very few who were thin enough, and frightened enough, managed to squeeze through the iron bars at some of the windows. Unfortunately, however, when MCC Rev. William Larson attempted to escape the same way he became wedged in the bars and burned to death. Witnesses gathered on the street listened in helpless horror to his cries of, “No! God, no! No!”
Larsen’s body would be left there throughout the next day as police and fire investigators plumbed the scene. The sight was shown endlessly on local television and even made the front page of the local New Orleans papers. Not a single person thought to provide the pastor’s corpse the decency of covering his remains.
Fire Escape - Iberville Street Side
When they arrived on the scene, James Massacci and his son Jimmy found the streets blocked off for several blocks. Police vehicles and fire trucks were lined up around the building and groups of people were standing around looking up and pointing. The acrid smell of smoke, and of something else that Jimmy couldn’t identify at the time, filled the night air.
James Massacci took his son to a vacant lot across the street from the bar near the Marriott and admonished him to “stay right here” while he [James] went over to the smoldering remains of the building for a closer look.
Jimmy Massacci watched as his dad convened with police and firemen; they, like the crowds nearby, were looking and pointing. Jimmy remembers a kind of excitement in the air as local news crews arrived on the scene and started filming or interviewing onlookers. In the stark klieg lights of the TV cameras, the charred building and the strange objects at the windows looked even more surreal. But Jimmy was enthralled.
“Well, it went on into the next day,” he continues his account. “The police and firemen had to investigate and then they had to remove the bodies.”
Newspaper reports of the time described bodies “stacked like pancakes” at the exit doors, and firemen “wading through charred flesh … some of the bodies had been completely cooked.”
“It’s a smell I’LL never forget,” Jimmy says, grimacing. “Burned meat, or maybe old, rotten burned meat. Just horrible. And they didn’t seem like they were in any hurry to get the bodies out of here.
“Of course my dad was anxious about the whole thing,” he adds, “because it was horrible but also he had lost his business. The bar [he motions downstairs to the Jimani] had so much water damage it was almost a complete loss. So he [James, Sr.] had lost his livelihood and his investment. He could have lost even more that night, but one of his employees had the presence of mind to go into the bar the next day and get the cash box and the money from the register and,” he hesitates, “this is horrible but it really happened … When the guy was coming out the front door of the bar, the body that was in that window [the pastor’s frozen burned corpse] broke apart and fell on him!”
A stunted silence came over us as the rain crackled on the windows outside. Jimmy Massacci nods his head. “That really happened.”
In addition to the horribly incinerated Rev. Larson, twenty-eight other individuals lost their lives that night, and three others later died of injuries received in the fire. The death toll was the worst of any fire in New Orleans history up to that time, including the great fire of 1788 that burned the old French Quarter to the ground. It was also the largest mass murder of homosexuals ever in the U.S. and what is more, it is a crime that has never been solved.
But the city of New Orleans did its level best to ignore the whole event. The fire exposed a surprisingly deep fissure of homophobia in a city that has historically prided itself on its egalitarianism and cosmopolitan tolerance. For the first time, New Orleans had to confront the reality of a thriving homosexual community in its midst. Evidently, this was a very hard lesson for it to learn.
News coverage, both print and television, made every effort to omit the fact that the fire had anything to do with homosexuals in the community, even though a gay bar and members of a gay church congregation had been involved. The stories that appeared included quotes from local citizens that can only be described as ignorant, such as a cab driver who said “I hoped the fire burned their dresses off,” and one woman who opined that “the Lord … cooked them.” Local talk radio hosts were making jokes such as, “What do they bury the ashes of queers in?” The answer: “Fruit jars.”
Statements from the local police and fire chiefs, though less caustic, were equally dismissive, with NOPD chief detective Henry Morris pointing out that identifying the victims would be especially problematic because “thieves hung out there [with these people] … and you know it was a queer bar.”
The story disappeared from television and print news within a few days.
For the victims, there seemed no rest. Churches across the city, churches of all faiths, refused to allow services to be held for the dead, and even forbade memorial prayer meetings in their honor. The rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church agreed to allow a small prayer service on the Monday evening following the event and was promptly rebuked by his bishop. Eventually, a local Unitarian church and St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in the French Quarter offered sanctuary for those seeking to share their grief and mourn the deaths.
City officials made gargantuan efforts to completely ignore the tragedy; no statements of any kind were ever issued from the City administration. Even more callous and stunning, some families would not even step forward to claim the bodies of their dead sons, so rabid was their fear of being vilified for acknowledging that a child of theirs might have been gay. Several anonymous individuals stepped forward and paid for some burials, but the unclaimed, the unwanted, were dumped together in a mass grave in a Potter’s Field on the outskirts of New Orleans, buried alongside criminals, vagrants, and departed pets.
“My father was a very tolerant man,” Jimmy tells me as we leave his office for a tour of the building. “He was a man who said, ‘live and let live,’ you know? It didn’t matter to him if they were gay or straight, he treated everyone the same way.”
Then Jimmy laughs as he remembers how his father used to get annoyed with the noise from the Upstairs dance floor. “You know what it was like,” he laughs, “I mean it was the ‘70’s, you know, and everyone was wearing those stupid clogs with the wooden platform heels. Well, when they’d get started up here dancing, and with the music going, the sound of those shoes just drove my dad nuts!” He laughs, “That’s the only time he had to come up here and tell them, ‘Alright! Keep it down with those damn shoes!’”
Jimmy also shares a little known fact about his father. “After the fire, he was the only one who put up a reward for the capture of whoever did it. He felt awful about it and put up his own money.”
Asked if they had any leads, or if his dad had any suspicions about who it might have been, Jimmy shrugs, “Well, they caught a guy a day or so after in a diner over on Royal Street. He had been bragging that he was the one who did it, but the police finally said he was just some nut taking credit for it, for ‘killing fags,’ so they let him go.”
But Jimmy also gives a knowing nod to my suggestion that rumors are still rampant in the New Orleans gay community. “Oh yeah,” he says, “somebody, somewhere knows who did it.”
We tour the empty portions of the second level – some parts have been converted into a kitchen serving food to Jimani customers below – and then Jimmy takes me to the little used third story, a section of the building barely changed from the time of the fire thirty-seven years ago.
Digital camera images reveal the presence of several possible positive orbs and definite cold spots are encountered here. These bare, forlorn apartments, where the gays of the Upstairs had carved out what little intimate time they could in the hit-and-miss sexscape of the early 1970’s, have a heavy atmosphere of sadness. The rain tapping on the roof adds to the gloom. I’m not unhappy as we wrap up the tour and return to Jimmy’s office.
When asked if he has ever had any strange experiences in the building, anything that he might categorize as supernatural, at first Jimmy shrugs. This doesn’t surprise me. At 50, Jimmy Massacci is fit and muscular; straightforward and level-headed, I can tell he is not the type of man that scares easily.
“Well, I hear things every now and then, when I’m here late or alone,” he admits, then his eyes light up. “I will tell you this, though: One afternoon I was here with a friend of mine; the bar wasn’t open and I had just stopped by, and as soon as we came up here I thought I heard something. I looked at my friend and he nodded that he heard it, too.
“My first thought is, ‘Well, it’s a homeless person or something,’ you know? Maybe a vagrant got in, but just in case, I had my gun with me. We both had flashlights and we went off into the empty part [points toward the little-used second story area] and I could definitely hear something by this time. You’re going to laugh,” he says with a grin, “but it was chains rattling.”
I do laugh. “That’s a classic!”
“Yeah, but it was definitely chains, because there’s an old elevator in here from years ago, one of those old crank kind with the big wheel and the chains,” Jimmy replies. “We don’t use it because it’s blocked top and bottom and can’t go anywhere, but the mechanism is all still there from the days when this was a cotton mill.
“So my friend and I go up to where the chains and the wheel are and we see that the old chains are moving – they’re swinging back and forth. I even asked my friend, ‘Is that chain moving,’ and he’s already backing up,” Jimmy laughs remembering his friend’s reaction. “And then all of a sudden, there’s this feeling of ice cold air and I’m standing in it. And let me tell you, it was hot like it is today, and those rooms up there get unbearable in the heat. That cold breeze came out of nowhere, and it was blowing the chains!”
Jimmy laughed and held up his hands. “I said, ‘That’s it! We’re out of here!’ I told it, ‘Everything’s OK! We’re leaving right now!’ and we hauled our asses downstairs and got the hell out! THAT scared the hell out of me!”
On the 30th anniversary of the Upstairs Lounge fire a plaque appeared on the sidewalk in front of the door outside Jimmy Massacci’s bar.
“I never knew anything about it!” he says. “I was out of town. I come back and there’s this plaque there all of a sudden. I mean, I’m glad it’s there, it should have been put there a long time ago, but no one even bothered to tell me about it, you know?”
Jimmy naturally takes the history of the Upstairs fire very seriously and not the least because it had a very dramatic and real effect on his personal life.
“My dad never forgot those people who died,” Jimmy said. “He kept that reward out there for years, but of course nobody ever came forward. Another thing about my dad, that most people didn’t know [James, Sr. has passed on] is that he was always into that esoteric stuff – he believed in astrology and all that, and I think the deaths of those people in that fire stayed in his mind because he felt that their spirits just are not at rest.”
When asked what he thought might help the spirits to find peace Jimmy minces no words, “I think they need to be acknowledged and remembered! I mean, there’s a huge gay community in this city now and they have Southern Decadence every year, and I can tell you, there’s never a thought given to the Upstairs and the men who died there. I mean, those men died in part so that the gay community could come out and live and be what it is today. At the very least, somebody ought to acknowledge that.”
THE LIST OF FATALITIES:
Partners, Joe William Bailey & Clarence Josephy McCloskey, Jr. perished together. McCloskey's sisters and two neices attended the Memorial Service. His neice, Susan, represented McCloskey in the Jazz Funeral.
Duane George "Mitch" Mitchell, assistance pastor at MCC, died trying to save his partner, Louis Horace Broussard.
Mrs. Willie Inez Warren died with her sons, Eddie Hosea Warren and James Curtis Warren.
Pastor of the MCC, Rev. William R. Larson, formerly a Methodist lay minister.
Dr. Perry Lane Waters, Jr., a Jefferson Parish dentist. Several victims were his patients and were identified by his x-rays.
Douglas Maxwell Williams
Leon Richard Maples, a visitor from Florida.
George Steven (Bud) Matyi, A rising young songwriter, perfomer and singer who had recently appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. His Body was Identified and buried through the help of his personal manger and his wife. The Cornman Family of New Orleans.
Reginald Adams, Jr., MCC member, formerly a Jesuit Scholastic. Partner of entertainer Regina Adams.
James Walls Hambrick Horace "Skip" Getchell, MCC member.
Joseph Henry Adams
Herbert Dean Cooley, Upstairs Lounge bartender and MCC member.
Professional pianist, David Stuart Gary.
Guy D. Anderson
Donald Walter Dunbar
John Thomas Golding, Sr., member of MCC Pastor's Advisory Group.
Professional linguist, Adam Roland Fontenot, survived by Douglas "Buddy" Rasmussen, who led a group to safety.
Gerald Hoyt Gordon
Kenneth Paul Harrington, Federal Government employee.
Glenn Richard "Dick" Green, Navy veteran.
Robert "Bob" Lumpkin
Four men were buried in Potter's Field, Ferris LeBlanc, Unknown White Male, Unknown White Male, Unknown White Male, the City refused to release these bodies to the MCC for burial because they could not be identified.
COMING SOON: PART TWO
In late June, close to the 37th anniversary of the Upstairs fire, Jimmy Massacci, Jr. is providing exclusive, all-access to the old Upstairs Lounge and the remainder of his building to members of LOUISIANA STATE PARANORMAL RESEARCH SOCIETY for the first-ever in-depth, extended, professional paranormal investigation of the premises.
LSPR-Society will be searching for residual evidence of the traumatic events, seeking contact with souls still trapped there, and gathering evidence in the first leg of a quest to bring to the UPSTAIRS and the MASSACCI family the recognition, acknowledgement, and validation they so richly deserve.
PLEASE STAY TUNED TO HAUNTED AMERICA TOURS FOR EXCLUSIVE UPDATES ON THE UPSTAIRS LOUNGE INVESTIGATION INCLUDING WHEN AND WHERE THE EVIDENCE REVEAL WILL TAKE PLACE AND UPCOMING OPPORTUNITIES FOR THOSE OF US LIVING IN AND AROUND NEW ORLEANS TO HELP THE LOST SPIRITS OF THE UPSTAIRS TO AT LAST FIND PEACE.
Copyright © 2010 by Alyne A. Pustanio
In the haunting photo from the Times Picyaune is that of a chared body in the middle lower window waiting to be removed.
Photos From Skylar Fein Exhibit "Remember the UpStairs Lounge" (2008)