By Feoshia Henderson
The night of May 28, 1977, tragically turned the national spotlight on Southgate, Ky., after a deadly blaze ravaged the Beverly Hills Supper Club. It was the third deadliest night club fire in history.
For most, the fancy night club that drew famous acts forever will be synonymous with the horrifying deaths of 165 people, most from northern Kentucky and Cincinnati. Sparked by faulty aluminum wiring, the fire historically changed state and federal fire code and inspection standards.
Behind those headlines, however, are the people of the northern Kentucky region, many whose family members, friends or acquaintances died. And 32 years later, memories remain of escaping the chaos, smoke and flames on that dark night. Others have fond remembrances of the club, which hosted special family occasions like wedding and anniversary receptions and birthday parties.
Those stories, and others, are being preserved at Northern Kentucky University’s Steely Library, where a multimedia special collection will capture memories of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire — the events that followed, the people who died, and those who were left behind.
The Beverly Hills Supper Club was described as a venue that looked like one in Las Vegas or Hollywood. There was nothing else like it in northern Kentucky. The 19-room club was lavishly decorated with glistening chandeliers, plush carpeting and drapes. At 54,000 square feet, it was just short of the size of a football field, and sat high on a Southgate hill about five miles from Northern Kentucky University.
It regularly drew people from as far as two hours away. An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people were in the club the night of the fire, where singer John Davidson was set to perform in the Cabaret room and five private parties were taking place.
As the opening comedy act for Davidson took the stage, a fire was discovered in the nearby Zebra room, sparked by faulty aluminum wiring. Earlier that evening, as patrons cleared the Zebra room after a wedding reception, they complained the room was warm. By the time staff discovered the fire at around 9 p.m., it was too late to contain. A flashover was created when staff attempted to put out the fire, spreading the flames down the main corridor and into the overcrowded Cabaret room.
The idea behind the Supper Club fire collection came from Library Director of Development Nancy Perry, inspired by the 2007 Kentucky Education Television documentary “Where the River Bends,” which chronicled the history of northern Kentucky. It featured several interviews with people who survived the blaze.
“The person who really affected me was Walter Bailey, an alumnus of NKU who, at the time of the fire, was a busboy credited with saving 1,500 lives,” Perry said. “He jumped on the stage of one of the cabarets, defying all protocol, and insisted that the folks get out of the building as soon as possible. As a result of the incident, one person he was credited with saving paid his tuition to attend NKU a few years later. It suddenly occurred to me that this event and the 160-plus victims should never, never be forgotten.”
The collection is still in its infancy, but its potential is great. Earlier this year, it received a boost when Cincinnati attorney Stan Chesley donated his legal papers from lawsuits that followed the fire.
The investigation into the cause of the fire exposed a variety of code violations at the Beverly Hills Supper Club. They included locks on doors, the lack of a sprinkler system, improper fire walls, hazardous wiring, overcrowding, inadequate exits and improper construction, among others. According to investigators, these violations were on record with the Kentucky fire marshal’s office and were known by the insurer, operators and owners.
Instead of suing the club, Chesley filed suit against aluminum wire and insurance companies on behalf of the families of the deceased. It was an unprecedented legal tactic, in which he won $49 million in judgments and settlements. It also brought to light that many people died from chemicals released when the foam in the club’s chairs burned. The legal battle was the turning point for many changes in product liability and consumer safety law, and spurred new agreements between local fire agencies to improve coverage.
NKU literature professor Tom Zaniello, who taught a course on northern Kentucky history, also donated books, publications and wire samples from the club upon his retirement.
After seeing news reports on Chesley’s donation, public awareness of the collection grew. Individuals began bringing in personal artifacts from the club, NKU Archivist Lois Hamill said.
“We’ve had a number of community members come forward and offer things to us. I’ve received small donations like menus, newspaper clippings and tableware. We have a cup and saucer and spoon and matchbooks. They’re small items that will be engaging visually and help tell the story a little bit,” Hamill said. “It’s an ongoing collection and we’re continuing to develop it.”
The ultimate purpose of the collection is two-fold: to offer a single place where researchers can collect information about the fire, and to serve as a memorial to the people who passed.
There are plans to open the collection to a wider audience through a virtual memorial, as well. This memorial would break new ground by allowing the public to submit photos and stories online for safe keeping. It would provide a 3-D rendering of what the club looked like before the fatal fire. There is also potential to record oral history, with the help of students who could be trained in talking to survivors about the sensitive subject, Hamill said.
“I understand there long has been a desire for a physical memorial, and that has not come to fruition for a number of reasons. And my thought was we might create a virtual memorial with web pages, digital images and text,” Hamill explained. “I have a feeling (the fire) is sort of like an open wound that hasn’t healed, and there are people who’d like to say things about this who haven’t been able to.”
An opening date for the collection has not yet been set. The university is still seeking public contributions. Anyone interested in donating can call Hamill at (859) 572-5863 or e-mail email@example.com.
About the writer
Feoshia Henderson is a freelance writer and journalist who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. She has been a reporter for The Cincinnati Enquirer, The Kentucky Post, The Kentucky Gazette and The Richmond Register. She grew up in Mt. Sterling, Ky. and is a graduate of Eastern Kentucky University, where she earned a degree in journalism. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.