LGBTQ history isn’t just hidden history. As our elders continue to leave us, our history is becoming an endangered and unspoken narrative that is slowly but surely becoming lost to time. We’re told that we have no history or heritage, other than what we inherit from our ethnic, racial or religious backgrounds.
That’s what inspired me to write the first comprehensive social history of LGBT Milwaukee, chronicling one hundred years of gender pioneers, sexual outlaws and larger than life nightlife. Based on what I learned and continue to learn, I strongly believe we must research, document and preserve our community heritage with resilience, determination and pride.
After all, we’re not just here now, we’ve been here forever, and our past can never be silenced. Every now and then, a major chapter of our history finds its way into the present, revealing much about who we were, who we are, and what we’ve learned.
“The View UpStairs,” the sensational Off-Broadway production from writer Max Vernon and director Scott Ebersold, achieves this cultural revelation in just one hour and 45 minutes. Brilliantly resurrecting the unsettled spirits of a long-lost New Orleans gay bar, the play thrives with a bodacious blend of compassion, humor and horror. This must-see show, which opened February 28 to rave reviews, plays at The Lynn Redgrave Theater at Culture Project through May 21.
When a modern-day fashion designer is transported back to a fateful Sunday night in June 1973, he finds himself enchanted by a colorful cast of characters unknowingly living out their last hours of life. The View Upstairs unfolds with a high-energy, glam rock musical that is mesmerizing, thought-provoking and mobilizing. With Broadway caliber performances, the show is heavy on heart and soul that charms the audience even in its darkest moments.
Part tavern, part church, part piano bar, part show lounge, the UpStairs Lounge was more than a second home for its patrons. It was the heart and soul of their tight-knit community, as well as a refuge from the real world outside. Described as a “gay Applebee’s that met an episode of Hoarders,” the UpStairs Lounge comes to life with clever retro clutter: Christmas lights, a Dolly Parton doll, a Bea Arthur poster, even the infamous Cosmopolitan nude centerfold of Burt Reynolds. Seated front and center on stage, we had the best seats in the house, fully immersed in a frantic (and often interactive!) experience that played out all around us.
From the moment we arrive in the UpStairs Lounge, there’s a seductive sense of nostalgia for this seemingly more simple time. The audience is immediately touched by the tightness, honesty and authenticity of this French Quarter community, still small enough to feel like a true family. On the surface, it seems to be the paradise you expected when you first came out: welcoming, accepting, embracing, even alluring.
As soon as you’re seduced by this illusion of innocence, The View Upstairs shatters your safe space with the horror story realities of what it meant to be gay in 1973. Even four years after the Stonewall Riots, the fight for true gay liberation had yet to spark in most American cities. While New Orleans had nearly two dozen down low gay bars, the community remained underground with no real public voice. “Gay pride” was still a contradiction; family rejection, homelessness and hustling were common rites of passage for anyone who dared to come out. The menace of harassment and violence, especially from the police, hovers like a dark cloud of doom over the characters.
The View UpStairs assembles a stunning ensemble cast, including time traveler Wes (Jeremy Pope,) butch bartender Henri (Frenchie Davis,) pretty boy Patrick (Taylor Frey,) lovable loser Dale (Ben Mayne,) closeted family man Buddy (Randy Redd,) pastor Richard (Benjamin Howes,) drag queen Freddy (Michael Longoria) and his mother Inez (Nancy Ticotin.) It’s worth noting that while these characters look and feel realistic, not everyone is redeemable or even likeable. Every character represents one star in a constellation of 1970s LGBTQ archetypes, each with their own unique flaws and challenges that come to life in emotionally intensive spotlights.
As the wild card of The View Upstairs, Nathan Lee Graham’s Willie delivers a startling, scene-stealing, in-your-face performance from start to finish. If you can imagine the 1970s love child of Eartha Kitt and James Brown decked out in disco wear, you’ll only begin to feel the magic that is Willie. The Grammy Award winning actor works the stage like a magician, seizing attention and commanding respect with show-stopping diva expressions and exclamations. (As if his performance wasn’t incredible enough, Willie was also a dead ringer for famous 1970s Milwaukee club queen Josie Carter, which only added to the enchantment of the show.)
Frankly, I was surprised that Frenchie Davis’s Henri wasn’t given more vocal opportunities, given her powerhouse capabilities as a songstress. Throughout our night together, she maintained a strong stage presence that forever begged for something more to say.
Through brutally bittersweet performances, our cast of characters share stories that shock our self-absorbed, millennial leading man, whose parents “came out for him” when he was nine. As someone who grew up knowing nothing but acceptance, inclusion and self-promotion, Wes seems overwhelmed by the injustice and intolerance of 1973, even as these fiery sentiments ignite an explosive and inevitable finale.
I was struck by how effectively The View UpStairs juxtaposes “who we were” to “who we’ve become” as a community. It’s stunning to watch what happens when today’s entitlement, complacency and privilege encounter the heartbreaking homophobia of an earlier era. The blooming passion between Wes and Patrick is repeatedly challenged by this confrontation between a melancholy past and the malignant future. What begins as a star-crossed boy-meets-boy romance becomes a compelling cautionary tale about how much the LGBTQ community has gained over four decades, and what we might stand to lose over the next four years. Somehow, it accomplishes an authentic narrative without venturing into preachy “afterschool special” territory.
The ultimate betrayal of The View UpStairs comes not from the world outside the UpStairs Lounge, but from within the cast of characters themselves. With the opening of a door, every illusion we held of this tight-knit family is consumed in a ball of fire. As the cast disappears into the deadly inferno, Patrick reads off their horrific fates one by one, leaving us stunned and confused by the tragedy we’ve just witnessed. After spending nearly two hours falling in love with these characters, we’re reminded that this has been nothing more than a ghost story all along.
From June 24, 1973 until June 12, 2016, the UpStairs Lounge fire was the largest mass murder of LGBTQ people in United States history. Someone, believed to be an ejected patron, soaked the front wooden stairwell in lighter fluid and set it aflame. Within sixteen seconds, the bar became a fiery death-trap that only 30 people escaped through an unmarked back door. The remaining patrons, who were accidentally locked inside, attempted to escape through iron-barred windows. Survivors were reported to be leaping from the building on fire. One victim’s body was left hanging from a window, visible to passers-by and news crews for the entire next day.
Of course, for the real-life victims of the UpStairs Lounge fire, the tragedy just began with the fire. Despite being the worst fire in Louisiana history at the time, the fire went widely underreported. The State of Louisiana offered no declarations of sympathy for victims or their families. Local churches refused to host memorial services. Radio announcers joked that victims should be buried in fruit jars. Worst of all, shame-ridden families refused to claim the bodies of their sons. Many victims went unidentified and were buried in mass graves.
Worst of all, the arson case remains open and unsolved to this day. Nobody was ever formally charged for the crime, even though authorities knew who set the fire. The leading suspect took his own life a year after the fire.
While the incident was widely forgotten by straight New Orleans, the city’s gay community quickly rose to power. Today, Southern Decadence is one of the nation’s largest gatherings of LGBTQ pride, bringing over 180,000 visitors to the French Quarter each Labor Day weekend and generating over $200 million in tourism revenue.
Nowadays, the second floor of the building at Chartres and Iberville has been reduced to office and kitchen space for the first floor Jimani Lounge. Numerous paranormal investigators, including the Syfy Network’s Ghost Hunters, have visited the UpStairs Lounge’s ruins, trying to connect with the spirits lost in the blaze. None have ever succeeded as well as The View UpStairs.
The View UpStairs reminds us that although we face an uncertain future in America, we must always fight to move forwards, not hide out from the outside world. The production is not just a brave memorial for the victims of the UpStairs Lounge fire, but a call to arms that screams “never again.” The message could not be more crystal clear: we’ve allowed ourselves to become too comfortable, too safe in a world that could quickly turn against us. Someday, we could find ourselves back in an Upstairs Lounge of our own, fearing the world outside while trapped in a comfort zone of our own making.
In the end, our romantic notions about the innocence of 1970s gay life are shattered. We’re left with a simple, but not-so-simple question: are we better or worse than we were in 1973?
As someone born in 1973, that’s a really haunting question.
The View UpStairs will be performed on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 7:00 PM, Friday at 6:30 PM and 10:00 PM, Saturday at 6:00 PM and 10:00 PM and Sunday at 6:00 PM. The show is at The Lynn Redgrave Theater at Culture Project (45 Bleecker Street, New York, NY 10012). Tickets, which are available at www.TheViewUpStairs.com, are $45-90. Student Rush tickets are available at the Box Office one hour prior to curtain for $35 (cash only).
As a lifelong Milwaukeean, Michail Takach became fascinated with its nightlife culture, venues, and neighborhoods at a young age and has committed himself to researching and documenting those stories not told in history books. Through the Wisconsin LGBT History Project, Takach seeks to make our history and heritage accessible, visible, and portable for future generations–before it is too late.
KNOW YOUR HISTORY! More on the tragedy of the Upstairs Lounge can be found online: