Last week, a commenter by the name of Will mentioned the Upstairs Lounge. For those who don’t know, the Upstairs Lounge was a gay bar in French Quarter, and on June 24, 1973, it became the site of one of the deadliest fires in New Orleans’ history. In all, 32 people died — most in the blaze itself, a few others from injuries sustained while trying to escape. Among that number were many members of the city’s MCC congregation.
There’s been a good bit written about the Upstairs Lounge (though it doesn’t have a Wikipedia page of its own yet). There’s been a lot of debate about the cause of the blaze that engulfed the second-story bar. (It’s generally believed to have been set by an angry hustler who was thrown out of the place earlier that night.) And there’s been much discussion about media coverage of the event, which was pretty minimal. (I’d like to think that was an act of compassion, sparing grief-stricken family and friends the additional trauma of having their loved ones’ names and faces dragged through the news at a time when it was not terribly cool to be gay in most of America.)
There’s also been a good bit written about the what-ifs of the Upstairs Lounge: what if there hadn’t been bars on the windows, what if people had known about the emergency exit, and so on. That’s the morbid stuff I tend to dwell on. As a child, I was always replaying tragic news stories in my head, working out ways for victims to go back in time and come out alive. At one point, I think I’d even sketched out a map of tunnels that the kids of Jonestown could’ve used to escape into the jungle.
But despite all that discussion and coverage and debate, it took artist Skylar Fein’s installation at the Prospect.1 biennial to put the Upstairs Lounge in context for me. Yes, he made use of camp elements, bits of art and inference: his work was not direct, it was not a documentary. And yet somehow, Skylar — who wasn’t there, who was barely alive at the time of the fire, if he was alive at all — managed to evoke the bar and the tragedy in a way that straight (and straightforward) news stories never could.
For those who missed it, here’s a clip of the installation, followed by archival footage of what may have been the only national news coverage of the fire. There are also stills of the installation at Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, which represents Skylar.