Beverly Hills Supper Club fire

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The Beverly Hills Supper Club on fire

The Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in Southgate, Kentucky, is the third deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history. It occurred on the night of May 28, 1977, during the Memorial Day holiday weekend. A total of 165 people died and over 200 were injured as a result of the blaze. It was the deadliest fire in the United States since 1944, when 168 people were killed in the Hartford circus fire in Hartford, Connecticut.[1]

The club[edit]

The Beverly Hills was a major attraction, less than ten miles (15 km) outside Cincinnati, just across the Ohio River in Southgate, Kentucky, on US 27, near what would later become its interchange with Interstate 471. It drew its talent from Las Vegas, Nashville, Hollywood and New York, among other places. The site had been a popular nightspot and illegal gambling house as early as 1926; Dean Martin had been a blackjack dealer there.[2] It had opened under the then-current management in 1971. [3] Several additions were completed by 1976, creating a sprawling complex of function rooms and service areas connected by narrow corridors.[4]

It is believed as many as 3,000 patrons and 182 employees were inside the club at 9:00 p.m. on the evening of the fire, just as the early show was beginning in the Cabaret Room. The headliner for the show, popular Hollywood singer and actor John Davidson[5] was in his dressing room; comedians Jim Teter and Jim McDonald were performing the warm-up act. The Cabaret Room was the larger of two showrooms with a stage, and it was estimated by Chief litigation attorney, Stanley Chesley of Cincinnati, Oh that over 1,300 (under debate, only 800-900) patrons had been squeezed into the room. Because of overcrowding, additional guests had been seated on ramps leading to the stage. Elsewhere in the club, patrons were enjoying their meals and drinks in several restaurants, bars, private party rooms, and the Empire Room, the other performance room, where an awards banquet for 425 people was taking place for the Southern Ohio Savings and Loan Association. Upstairs, functions were taking place in the six Crystal Rooms for the Greater Cincinnati, Ohio Afghan Hounds Society and the Cincinnati Choral Union, expecting to follow with a fashion show. Banquet Captain, John Wayne Dammert identified two missing bodies from upstairs 2 days later for the Kentucky State Police.[6]

The fire[edit]

A wedding reception (Smith family) in the Zebra Room had ended at 8:30 p.m. Some guests complained that the room was becoming overheated, though no smoke was evident yet. Smoke was however visible from the rooftop where patrons were driving toward the entrance as early as 5:37 pm that evening. There were no complaints made to club staff. Air conditioning was turned up to the highest notch. The wedding reception party chose to open presents later afterwards at home, due to the heat. Doors of the Zebra Room were closed after the reception ended, and the fire continued to smolder undetected for another 25 minutes behind the paneled walls and suspended ceiling above and travelled to the Main Bar area near the entrance. Two waitresses looking for tray jacks entered the Zebra Room at about 8:56 p.m. They saw dense smoke hanging near the ceiling and notified management/owners immediately. A phone call was placed by Eileen Druckman, receptionist, to the fire department at 9:00 p.m., and the first fire engine arrived in only three minutes. The fire spread unusually shortly, grew to immense proportion and "flashover" occurred. All contents of the room ignited simultaneously, thus engulfed in flames. Arson was suspected yet never officially investigated. Kitchen staff first noticed the basement darkened with smoke. Assistant chefs/employees quickly investigated, yet saw no evidence of any fire in the basement. Meanwhile, the management/owners used two fire extinguishers inside the Zebra Room, but to little effect by the Schilling family and other close-knit employees. The fire had taken hold and could no longer be contained inside the room. Two busboys (age 18) were among the first to take action. Buddy Bethel and David Brock kicked open the doors and attempted to extinguish the fire, to no effect. Mr. Bethel was blasted away from the heat and flames against the back mirrored walls after almost being pulled into the Zebra Room by the oxygen intake. Dave Brock (busboy) pulled him out of the fire. Smoke quickly travelled to the second floor through a large opening created by the "Spiral Staircase", later to be cited by the Kentucky State Fire officials as a violation of open spaces.[7]

At 9:08 p.m., Walter Bailey, an 18-year old bus boy who had been watching Teeter and MacDonald's puppeteer opening act, realized there was no one in charge of authority to evacuate. Bailey personally took stance and interrupted the show in the Cabaret Room, taking the stage to ask patrons to leave quickly and calmly. He pointed out the exits to the left and right of the stage to the only fire exits and in back of the large room, that which he knew. Many of the patrons heeded and began to leave the Cabaret Room through the two main fire exits and the back north/south hallway door. Others did not. They were told the show would continue in a few minutes (maybe) and many who paid high priced seats chose to wait a while, until the lights went out.[8] Bailey was hailed as one of the heroes of the night, receiving official recognition and a letter from then U.S. President Jimmy Carter.[9][7] Bailey said later that for years he rejected the title of hero and wondered if he had done enough.[9] Walter Bailey continued to receive numerous awards, scholarships and letters of deep felt heart thank you's through the years, up into and including today.[6]

The fire burst into the Cabaret Room only two minutes later at 9:10 p.m., preceded by thick smoke that spread rampantly. Panic occurred once the lights went out. Crowds pushing and stampeding would later cause a pile of both living and dead bodies piled up near the northeast fire exit heading toward the rear garden area. Twists and turns in building design which lead through two opposite swinging vinyl doors into a bar area caused confusion. Over 99 bodies were found in that vinyl swinging doorway to the bar. Additionally, 34 bodies were found near the southeast fire exit after the oxygen rush caused the door to slam shut. Exiting patrons became lost in the darkness and missed the exit, seeking a way out through any means they could, closets, a pantry, behind the stage, the second floor storage area, etc. The flames spread so rapidly that a full evacuation of the sprawling, crowded building was not possible.[10][6]

After screams were alerted to the firefighters, they quickly abandoned their efforts on the façade of the club and concentrated on the large showroom, the Cabaret Room where it was reported many people were still trapped. Southgate Fire Chief, Richard Riesenberg ordered his men from the roof. Within two minutes, at midnight, the roof collapsed, due to insufficient supports. Authorities doubted any more survivors would be found.[5] John Davidson escaped via a door that had recently been constructed near the talent dressing room. His road manager also escaped, but his musical director perished.[7]

Robert Vance, a Covington firefighter who responded to the blaze, was interviewed. He said of the fire:[11]

When I got to the inside doors, which is about 30 feet inside the building, I saw these big double doors, and people were stacked like cordwood. They were clear up to the top. They just kept diving out on each other trying to get out. I looked back over the pile of – it wasn't dead people, there were dead and alive in that pile – and I went in and I just started to grab them two at a time and pull them off the stack, and drag them out...

The fire has been the subject of numerous scholarly investigations, as a case study of behavior in sudden disaster situations. These studies have found that despite the rapid spread of the fire and the dire situation facing the victims, patrons did not panic. Instead, people stayed with and helped their families and friends as the threat grew, and employees continued to play their social roles in helping people exit the building.[12][13] However, other witnesses claim that there were no persons in charge and that employees had received no training on how to handle such a situation. They further claim that patrons did panic, and that their pushing, shoving, and trampling caused numerous deaths, including that of club cocktail waitress employees.[6]


The investigation into the fire found the following deficiencies, as enumerated by the Cincinnati Enquirer:[5]

  • Overcrowding. Although seating charts recovered from the club after the fire show that the Cabaret Room (the largest facility in the club) normally held between 614 and 756 people, a hostess who had worked at the club for several years estimated occupancy on the date in question to be well over 925.
  • Inadequate fire exits. Full occupancy of the entire complex was estimated to be roughly 2,750, which under Kentucky law would require 27.5 exits. The club only had 16.5 exits, many of which were not clearly marked nor easily reached. Some exits could only be reached by passing through three or more interior doors and corridors. Many victims perished in dead ends after becoming lost.
  • Faulty wiring. Governor Julian Carroll's report on the fire called the club's wiring an "electrician's nightmare", and alleged multiple, wide-ranging code violations. Bridgetown electrician H. James Amend, who inspected the fire site at the request of a local attorney Stan Chesley a year and a half later said, "I cannot believe that any of this was ever inspected."[7]
  • Lack of firewalls. This allowed the fire to spread, and in addition allowed it to draw oxygen from other areas of the complex.
  • Poor construction practices. The club had been built piecemeal with inadequate roof support, no common ceiling space, and highly flammable components.
  • Extreme safety code violations. There was no sprinkler system and no audible automatic fire alarm, and some doors were locked, yet those were not meant for public exit and caused no death.
  • Poor oversight by regulatory authorities. The local volunteer fire department is said by the Enquirer to have known of the deficiencies, but had not ordered them to be corrected.

Arson allegations[edit]

On October 28, 2008, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear appointed a panel to investigate claims that arson may have been the cause of the fire. In March 2009, the panel, in recommending that the investigation not be reopened, characterized the new accusations as "a very tiny shred of evidence of arson and a huge mountain of conjecture, unsupported speculation, and personal opinion. {Facts} that support arson, over 1000 color photos including some of the basement depict evidence that the fire started in the air handling system, over 1500 degrees. Over 20 witness statements from the KSP files further this story."[14]

In a letter dated late June 2011 from the Attorney General of Kentucky to a retired Kentucky State Police trooper, some 30 boxes of color slides taken the days after the fire, including pictures of the club's basement during the aftermath. They were ordered to be returned to the State archives for public accessibility, and as of 10/10/2014 has not been returned back to the case file, as per the Freedom of Information Act.[15] Yet numerous whitnesses seened before the fire rigging up unethical wiring the basement, ceilings, etc. without club management notice, approval, etc. Club staff state to this day their testimonies were not recorded, included in depositions, hearings, or any official legal court system, yet some claim to have been purportedly harassed for years to become quiet, up to and including many terrible threats.


The last victim of the fire, Barbara Thornhill of Delhi Township, died on March 1, 1978, ten months after the fire.[5] Many early sources (including the Pulitzer citation below) give the death toll later was 170. Richard Whitt of the Louisville Courier-Journal was awarded the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for Local General or Spot News Reporting for his articles on the fire. His citation reads: "For his coverage of a fire that took 164 lives at the Beverly Hills Supper Club at Southgate, Ky., and subsequent investigation of the lack of enforcement of state fire codes."[16]

Beverly Hills Supper Club Site, Southgate, Kentucky (2012)

As of 2012, the site of the club has been left undeveloped.[17] A state historic marker commemorates the fire, though some former club employees, David Brock and Wayne Dammert especially feel that the marker is inaccurate.[18]


This was the first lawsuit to use the concept of "enterprise liability" and one of the first disaster cases to sue Many people and families benefited as a class action.[6] Chief litigation attorney, Stanley Chesley raised millions through a new system of law, "Class Action" and many survivors benefited from his actions.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Beitler, Stu (October 22, 2007) Southgate, KY Nightclub Fire Disaster, May 1977 | GenDisasters ... Genealogy in Tragedy, Disasters, Fires, Floods. Retrieved on 2013-05-28.
  2. ^ Weintraub, Jerry and Cohen, Rich (2010) When I Stop Talking, You'll Know I'm Dead, Grand Central Publishing, ISBN 0446568937.
  3. ^ Wallace, H. Lew (1991) "Beverly Hills Nightclub" Kentucky Encyclopedia (Online Edition). University of Kentucky.
  4. ^ The Beverly Hills Supper Club: The Untold Story Behind Kentucky's Worst Tragedy, by Robert Webster. Newport, KY: Saratoga Press, 2012. 328 pages. ISBN 978-0-615-62220-0.
  5. ^ a b c d "How it Happened: Tragedy Routed in Code Violations". The Cincinnati Enquirer, May 25, 1997. Accessed December 6, 2009.
  6. ^ a b c d e The Beverly Hills Supper Club: The Untold Story Behind Kentucky's Worst Tragedy, by Robert Webster. Newport, KY: Saratoga Press, 2012. 328 pages. ISBN 978-0-615-62220-0.
  7. ^ a b c d Kaufman, Ben L. "The Beverly Hills Fire: Lives That Were Touched", The Cincinnati Enquirer. Accessed December 7, 2009.
  8. ^ "BEVERLY HILLS SUPPER CLUB 30 YEARS LATER: NKU ALUMNUS' HEROIC ROLE IN THE TRAGIC FIRE".] Northern Magazine, Northern Kentucky University, Fall 2007.
  9. ^ a b "BEVERLY HILLS SUPPER CLUB 30 YEARS LATER: NKU ALUMNUS' HEROIC ROLE IN THE TRAGIC FIRE". Northern Magazine, Northern Kentucky University, Fall 2007.
  10. ^ The Beverly Hills Supper Club: The Untold Story Behind Kentucky's Worst Tragedy, by Robert Webster. Newport, KY: Saratoga Press, 2012. 328 pages. ISBN 978-0-615-62220-0
  11. ^ "Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire". WLWT-TV official YouTube channel. Accessed December 6, 2009.
  12. ^ Cornwell, Benjamin. 2003. “Bonded Fatalities: Relational and Ecological Dimensions of a Fire Evacuation.” The Sociological Quarterly 44:617-38.
  13. ^ Johnston, Drue M., and Norris R. Johnson. 1989. “Role Extension in Disaster: Employee Behavior at the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire.” Sociological Focus 22:39-51.
  14. ^ Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire,, p.7. (PDF) . Retrieved on 2013-05-28.
  15. ^ 11-ORD-105, July 8, 2011, In re: Jon L. Fleischaker/Kentucky State Police.
  16. ^ Pulitzer Prizes – 1978. Accessed December 7, 2009.
  17. ^ Schroeder, Cindy (25 May 1997). "The Beverly Hills Fire: Only Memories Left on Bare Hillside.". The Cincinnati Enquirer. Retrieved 22 December 2009. 
  18. ^ The Beverly Hills Supper Club: The Untold Story Behind Kentucky's Worst Tragedy, by Robert Webster. Newport, KY: Saratoga Press, 2012. 328 pages. ISBN 978-0-615-62220-0
Further reading
  • The Beverly Hills Supper Club: The Untold Story Behind Kentucky's Worst Tragedy, by Robert Webster. Newport, KY: Saratoga Press, 2012. 328 pages. ISBN 978-0-615-62220-0.
  • Beverly Hills: The Anatomy of a Nightclub Fire, by Robert G. Lawson. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1984. 304 pages. ISBN 0-8214-0728-7.
  • Inside the Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire, by Ronald E. Elliott and based on an original story by survivor Wayne Dammert. Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing Company, 1996. 280 pages. ISBN 1-56311-247-7.
  • Reconstruction of a Tragedy: The Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire, Southgate, Kentucky, May 28, 1977, by Richard L. Best. Boston, MA: National Fire Protection Association, 1977. ISBN 0-87765-113-2.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 39°03′49″N 84°27′54″W / 39.06361°N 84.46500°W / 39.06361; -84.46500