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'73 Upstairs Lounge fire 'worst mass murder of gays in U.S. history'

A gay nightclub in the French Quarter went up in flames 40 years ago this month in an arson that some say may have been a gay-on-gay crime.

Dennis Woltering / Eyewitness News
Email: dwoltering@wwltv.com | Twitter: @dwoltering

NEW ORLEANS -- A gay nightclub in the French Quarter went up in flames 40 years ago this month in an arson that some say may have been a gay-on-gay crime.

A new documentary airing on the anniversary of that mass murder on June 24 has new insight and questions the response of public officials at the time.

The arson in the Upstairs Lounge in the 2nd floor of a club at the corner of Iberville and Chartres in the French Quarter led to the deaths of 32 people.

'This was the worst mass murder of gays in U.S. history,' said local historian and filmmaker Royd Anderson.

Anderson has made a new documentary on the Upstairs Lounge fire. The fire, ignited in the front stairwell, prevented people from running out the entrance. Iron bars prevented them from escaping through the windows.

'And once someone opened up the door, they were pretty much trapped,' Anderson said. 'There was a back draft that shot into the lounge.'

A bartender did lead about 20 people to safety through a back door behind a stage, but investigators found the bartender unintentionally trapped dozens of others inside when he locked the door to prevent the fire from spreading. 'He did that as a safety measure,' Anderson said.

Even before investigators found an empty can of lighter fluid at the bottom of the charred stairs, eyewitnesses told the late Channel 4 news anchor Bill Elder that it was a case of arson.

No one was ever arrested, but suspicions focused on a man who got into a fight and suffered a broken jaw in the bar shortly before the fire.

'He told them, 'I'm gonna burn this place to the ground,'' Anderson said. 'A few minutes later the place was burning.'

That suspect committed suicide a little over a year after the fire.

But Anderson believes the arson the gay club was never solved in part because it was not a priority. It took place in a time of rampant homophobia.

'What I learned from it was the politicians kept their mouth shut. You know, Gov. (Edwin)Edwards and Moon Landrieu who was the mayor, they made no public statement of sympathy for the victims. They chose politics over what was right,' Anderson said.

Anderson's documentary includes the personal story of a man who died in the fire after dropping his sons off at a theater to see a movie and was never able to pick them up.

Duane Mitchell, whose parents were divorced, didn't know his dad was gay.

'He was a kind and gentle person, and he was a hero,' Mitchell said. 'I don't care what anybody says. He was a hero.'

Today, the worst gay mass murder in America is commemorated by something most people probably don't even notice -- a plaque on the sidewalk beside the building where it happened.

The documentary, 'The Upstairs Lounge Fire'airs on Cox Cable Channel 4 on the following dates: June 24 at 8:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m.; June 25 at 1:00 p.m. and June 27 at 6:00 p.m.

For more, visit https://www.facebook.com/upstairsloungefire.

The Upstairs Lounge tragedy is also the basis for a new musical, 'Upstairs,' written by Wayne Self.The show will premiere in New Orleans June 20-24 at Cafe Istanbul.Tickets are $30. Click here for information.

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