Beverly Hills Supper Club
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 persons 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.
The Beverly Hills was a major attraction, less than two miles (3 km) outside Cincinnati, just across the Ohio River in Southgate, Kentucky. 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 1937; Dean Martin had been a blackjack dealer there. It had opened under the then-current management in 1971.  Several additions were completed by 1976, creating a sprawling complex of function rooms and service areas connected by narrow corridors.
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, 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 whom?] that over 1,300 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. Upstairs, functions were taking place in the six Crystal Rooms.
A wedding reception 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. The doors of the Zebra Room were closed after the reception ended, and the fire continued to smolder undetected for another 25 minutes. 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 immediately. A phone call was placed to the fire department at 9:01 p.m., and the first fire engine arrived in only three minutes. Meanwhile, the management used two fire extinguishers inside the Zebra Room, but to little effect. The fire had taken hold and could no longer be contained inside the room.
At 9:08 p.m., busboy Walter Bailey interrupted the show in the Cabaret Room, taking the stage to ask patrons to leave and pointing out the exits to the left and right of the stage. Some of the spectators obeyed and began to leave the Cabaret Room through the exits. Bailey was hailed as one of the heroes of the night, receiving official recognition and a letter from then U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Bailey said later that for years he rejected the title of hero and wondered if he had done enough.
The fire burst into the Cabaret Room at 9:10 p.m., preceded by thick smoke that spread all over the room, quickly engulfing it. Those who had not evacuated quickly panicked; many of them would be found dead piled up near the main entrance. The flames spread so rapidly that a full evacuation of the sprawling, crowded building was not possible.
Firefighters concentrated on the Cabaret Room where it was known that many people were trapped, but at midnight the roof had collapsed, and authorities doubted any more survivors would be found. 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.
Robert Vance, a Covington firefighter who responded to the blaze, was interviewed. He said of the fire:
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 investigation into the fire found the following deficiencies, as enumerated by the Cincinnati Enquirer:
- 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 or 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."
- 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.
- 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.
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."
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 day after the fire, including pictures of the club's basement during the aftermath, were ordered to be returned to the State archives for public accessibility, as per the Freedom of Information Act.
The last victim of the fire, Barbara Thornhill of Delhi Township, died on March 1, 1978, ten months after the fire. Many early sources (including the Pulitzer citation below) give the death toll as 164.
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."
As of 2012, the site of the club has been left undeveloped. A state historic marker commemorates the fire.
- 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.
- The Cincinnati Enquirer
- The Cincinnati Post