In Robert Fieseler (A.B. '03)’s book Tinderbox, the Up Stairs Lounge in New Orleans is described as a kind of paradise for blue-collar gay men. It was the 1970s, and many of the bar’s patrons also attended the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church nearby. In fact, the bar was once home to the church, and its services had been conducted in the same space where bar patrons regularly put on costumed melodramas and drag revues.
The bar’s proprietor, Buddy Rasmussen, ran a tight ship. He didn’t serve new visitors unless they were introduced to him by a mutual friend. He announced regulars with a bar-side microphone, using his best Ed McMahon impression. In a time and place that forced gay men to the margins, the Up Stairs Lounge prided itself on being the place where people could bring their whole selves to the center.
“It was a haven for men who were often closeted at work or with their families or with their neighbors,” Fieseler says. “It was one of those bars regulars cherished as a kind of community space. For many, going there and being known was a central part of their identity.”
The Up Stairs Lounge fell victim to arson in 1973, killing 31 men and one woman. Afterwards, the survivors suffered from negligence and bigotry. Police refused to apprehend or even acknowledge the probable culprit immediately following the blaze. Nurses and doctors were reported to have treated the wounded at the emergency room callously. The entire event was largely ignored by the press. Many people around New Orleans simply did not want to see or know about the Up Stairs Lounge or the fire.
“One Story Was Off-Limits”
It was at school, Fieseler says, that he started on his path as a writer. Fieseler was an English major at U-M, taking creative writing classes and attending LSA’s New England Literature Program (NELP). Partly thanks to a mentorship with a NELP instructor, Aric Knuth, Fieseler stuck with writing, turning his attention from literary to journalistic material.
He eventually went on to get his graduate degree at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. It was there that he first heard about the Up Stairs Lounge fire in conversation with a professor. Fieseler, who had never heard of the fire, was intrigued. He worked on the project for a year before his book proposal was accepted.
“It dawned on me at the beginning of my work that this was a traumatic event that had been suppressed by the city in some ways,” Fieseler says. “It was as if a veil of forgetfulness had been draped over this wonderful city, which has quite a penchant for storytelling. And it was fascinating to me that, in a storytelling culture, one story was off-limits.”
Clockwise from top left: Horace "Skip" Getchell, Dr. Perry Waters, Reginald "Reggie" Adams, Leon Richard Maples, Pastor Bill Parson, Horace Broussard, George Stephen “Bud” Matyi. All seven men were victims of the Up Stairs Lounge fire in 1973.
Fieseler spent three more years working on the book. About half of that time was spent on site in New Orleans, doing interviews and searching through archives.
“It was a lot of hands-on research,” Fieseler says. “Doing that dance that you do with interview subjects to win their trust, and being a library mole while you’re searching through archives for documents. They save everything down there. If it wasn’t lost in Hurricane Katrina, it’s probably still here.”
Finding Their Voices
The book has received many accolades, including making Best Book of the Year lists for Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews, and was recently named as a finalist for the prestigious Randy Shilts Award for Gay Nonfiction by the Publishing Triangle.
The book dissects the fire’s beginnings and its aftermath. But it also carefully outlines the realities of life in New Orleans, the “Queer Capital of the South,” in 1973. This was a city with communities and neighborhoods where gay men lived, socialized, and supported each other. There were at least two ongoing drag shows and a number of gay bars in the city, often referred to in the newspapers as locations that did “a brisk business on Sundays,” one of many euphemisms used to described gay men and gay places in that era.
But despite havens like the Up Stairs Lounge, these men lived a precarious existence. Being gay, or even openly befriending a gay man, was enough to end a person’s career. College students mugged and assaulted gay men, knowing their victims wouldn’t call the police for fear of outing themselves. The city could seize the property, including real estate, of two men living together as “sex perverts” at any time.
Slowly, things changed in the city, and improved. Fieseler’s book traces the city’s response to the AIDS crisis and the political awakening of many of its citizens. The story also follows the people involved in the fire—the mourners, survivors, and activists who carried the memory of those lost in the Up Stairs Lounge with them. Increasing pressure and more insistent calls for justice, remembrance, and recognition in New Orleans, Fieseler says, were partly spurred by the city’s poor response to the Up Stairs Lounge fire.
Fieseler is working on other projects now, but the stories of the Up Stairs Lounge still speak to him.
“While I was researching the book, it was hard to be satisfied by what I could learn, and to some extent I still can’t,” Fieseler says. “I still learn things about the fire. I think there’s just so much terrain there because it was so suppressed.”
- Learn About Supporting the New England Literature Program
- Learn About Supporting the Department of Englsh Language and Literature