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Peter Mallen - Upstaire Lounge New OrleansPeter Mallen - About the Upstairs LoungePeter Mallen - Upstairs Lounge New Orleans

Keeping their Story Alive   •   The Upstairs Lounge Tragedy   •   1973
Artist-in-Residence Project  •  Peter Mallen   
February - March, 2019   •   ARTKLUB NOLA   •   1491 Arts Street, New Orleans, LA 70117

On June 24, 1973, the Upstairs Lounge, a gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans, was firebombed. The arson attack began in the stairwell leading to the second floor lounge. Only about half of those in the club made it to safety, the fire in the stairwell made passage impossible. A few survived and a few of the survivors returned to the building to try to save their friends, loosing their lives in the effort.  The emergency responders did their best to fight the blaze, but, 32 lives were lost that night. It was the largest mass murder of gays, until the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando in 2016.

Happy times at the Upstairs Lounge Happy Times at the Upstairs Lounge Happy Times at the Upstairs Lounge Happy times at the Upstairs Lounge

The story of this event should be kept alive, it is our shared history. In reading the accounts of this event, I developed an interest in the victims as people, folks like myself. They were my contemporaries. These were average guys, finding acceptance and friendship in the underground world of the gay club. They did not live to see the major changes to come in gay life - they missed AIDS and greater social and marriage equality. The bars were among the few gathering places for us in the days before the internet and Grindr. They were somewhere between social clubs and homes, and a strong family bond was common - we took care of each other.  On the night of the fire, The Upstairs Lounge bartender, Douglas “Buddy" Rasmussen led about twenty people to safety via an adjoining roof. In the image above, second from left, Buddy and his boyfriend Adam Fontenot pose raising their drinks in a toast, their heads touching, their faces ecstatic. They perished that night. George Mitchell escaped, but returned to search for his boyfriend, Louis Broussard (pictured, top left). Neither survived and they were found clinging to each other.

1973 was a year of great significance to me, personally. After graduating from the University of New Hampshire in 1971, I worked as a substitute teacher in my hometown of Portsmouth, NH, then moved on to a design job at Design & Production in Alexandria, VA. By 1973, I had established my home in the Republic of Cambridge, MA, met my future spouse, and begun a life-long career as a photographer and scientific illustrator at Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston.

The seventies were also a time of protest and demonstration to  demand  equality for marginalized groups. By 1973 President Johnson had appointed Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court, becoming the first black Supreme Court Justice, and Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated in Memphis. Johnson had also signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibiting discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing. Shirley Chisholm had become the first black female U.S. Representative serving from 1969 to 1983.

In 1973 Roe v. Wade legalized first-trimester abortion and struck down many state restrictions on abortions in the United States and Mary Daly's book "Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation" was published.

In June, 1969 Police raided the Stonewall Inn in New York City resulting in protests and demonstrations, and this is considered the birth of the gay civil rights movement in the U.S. The following year Community members in New York City marched through the local streets to recognize the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Called The Christopher Street Liberation Day, it is now considered the first gay pride parade. In 1973 Lambda Legal became the first legal organization established to fight for the equal rights of gays and lesbians and Maryland became the first state to statutorily ban same-sex marriage. That year also brought the first meeting of "Parents and Friends of Gays," (later PFLAG) and the American Psychiatric Association removing homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.

The Upstairs Lounge tragedy was investigated and the arsonist is believed to have a been a club patron, Roger Nunez, who had been kicked out of the bar earlier in the evening. He was never charged and committed suicide within a year. The families of the dead had problems finding churches willing to bury their loved ones. An Episcopal priest held a prayer service and was rebuked by his bishop, who had received hundreds of call against the service. 

Process

The works in this series are dye and drawing transfer prints. The process used is a variation of a method first developed by Robert Rauschenberg in the 1960's, and which technique he used to express his social justice beliefs, including creating a poster for the first Earth Day in 1970. While he used newspaper clippings and drawings, I use a combination of thermal prints and drawings. Each piece in the series is unique.

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