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Our Rich History: 40-years ago, the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire became Kentucky’s greatest tragedy

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By Robert ‘Bob’ Webster
Special to the NKyTribune

Forty years ago this month, on Saturday, May 28, 1977, the Commonwealth of Kentucky experienced its worst tragedy since the Civil War. The Beverly Hills Supper Club, located in Southgate, Kentucky, was packed with people over the holiday weekend when a fire broke out.

Fire erupts from the roof of the structure. Courtesy of Robert Webster

Before midnight, more than 120 bodies had been pulled from the burning structure. Dozens more would be found the following day in what was the third-worst nightclub fire in our nation’s history. Rumor and speculation followed the event for decades. Today, due to the results of a recent five-year investigation, many believe that the fire was intentionally set.

It’s difficult to understand the complex history of the Beverly Hills Supper Club without recalling the unique history of greed, corruption, and organized crime in Northern Kentucky. Even before 1900, slot machines could be found in Newport.

Illegal gambling casinos were scattered across the region from the early 1930s into the 1960s. Pete Schmidt opened the Beverly Hills Club but almost immediately, the mob moved in. Refusing to sell out like other clubs had done, the mob burned the place down on February 3, 1936, killing the niece of the property’s caretaker. By 1940, the Cleveland Syndicate ran nearly all the clubs in the region, including the Beverly Hills.

While many of the smaller clubs in Newport and Covington were dark, dingy dives, the Lookout House (in present-day Ft. Wright) and the Beverly Hills Supper Club were exquisitely-decorated palaces filled with enormous chandeliers, plush carpeting, and expensive draperies. Five-star meals were served and top-notch entertainment, including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Nat King Cole, graced the stages of these two clubs.

The Beverly Hills Country Club, circa 1940. Courtesy of Robert Webster

Illegal gambling was eventually forced out in the mid-1960s, and many thought the mafia left town as well. With gambling gone, the mob simply looked at other income streams, such as strip joints, prostitution, and adult cinemas. The Beverly closed for a few years but in the late 1960s, Richard Schilling purchased the place with plans to reopen it as a dinner theater. When he, too, wouldn’t take the mob on as partners, they burned the place down again, this time on June 21, 1970, during remodeling. Not to be discouraged, Schilling finished his renovations and opened what became the most successful dinner theater in the entire Midwest. Rumors of mafia aggression and takeover plans continued, however.

By 1976, Schilling had expanded the club, adding the Cabaret Room with a seating capacity of 1,000. With the other banquet rooms, the club could serve as many as 2,500 people at one time. Over the years, the Beverly was the premiere location for weddings and receptions, corporate gatherings, school reunions and proms, and romantic dates. The business was incredibly popular, and plans were in place for a 500-room hotel on the property. But the mob apparently still wanted their share of the profits.

Beverly Hills Supper Club, circa 1975. Courtesy of Robert Webster

At two minutes before 9 p.m. on May 28th, 1977, two waitresses entered the Zebra Room in search of tray stands.  A small wedding reception there had ended at about 8:30. The women witnessed light smoke lingering at the ceiling of the room and immediately notified Beverly’s owners.  In less than two minutes, police and fire personnel were en route to the famous nightclub, and staff members were beginning a mass evacuation.
 
Within minutes, the majority of the patrons in the main dining room, the Viennese Rooms, Empire Room, and the upstairs Crystal Rooms were exiting through the front doors of the club.  However, when smoke began billowing from the Zebra Room and heading up the spiral staircase, the front exit became completely blocked.  About 150 people downstairs, as well as nearly 200 who remained upstairs, were forced to find other ways out. Downstairs patrons were led by club staff through the kitchen and out through the loading dock.  Upstairs, Banquet Captain Wayne Dammert took charge and with other staff members, cleared the two large parties, escorting patrons through a back service hallway.  When that hallway filled with smoke, the large group became trapped for several minutes until Dammert located the door to a staircase that led to the kitchen.

However, patrons in the main showroom – the Cabaret Room – were completely unaware of any emergency. A young busboy, Walter Bailey, had been told by one of the waitresses that the Zebra Room was on fire and decided on his own that the Cabaret Room needed to be cleared.  He had not seen any smoke or flames and thought momentarily that he might get in trouble for making 1,000 paying customers leave the building if the whole thing turned out to be a false alarm.  His hesitation was very short, however.

Teeter and McDonald. Courtesy of Robert Webster

Bailey entered the large room and walked onto the stage where the comedy duo of Teeter and McDonald was performing.  Speaking in a calm voice on the microphone, he informed patrons that there was a small fire on the other side of the building and instructed them to leave immediately.  He pointed out the three ways to exit: through the main doors from which they had entered the room, and two emergency exits, one on each side of the stage.
 
Unfortunately, about one-third of the estimated 1,150 patrons paid no attention to the warning.  They later told investigators they were either busy ordering drinks or talking with family and friends.  Another third thought the busboy’s speech was somehow part of the comedy act and did not get out of their seats.  Only about 400 people heeded the warning immediately, gathered their belongings, and headed for the exits.  Those people, of course, had little difficulty leaving what would soon be an inferno.

Flames and smoke eventually exploded from the Zebra Room and raced down the long corridor toward the Cabaret Room. Suddenly, the easiest way of egress from the large showroom was blocked completely, and all remaining patrons were forced toward the two small emergency exits. On the right side of the stage, employees were able to set the waiter-style doors to open outward into the service hallway. Customers on this side of the room were at least able to get out of the showroom, but once in the smoke-filled hallway, many became disoriented and lost. Some opened what they believed to be an exit door, only to become trapped inside a closet. Others collapsed in the hallway, some less than four feet from freedom. John Davidson, the headliner for the evening, was seen holding the outer exit door open for patrons to escape. His music arranger perished in the fire.

Cabaret Room, where most deaths occurred. Courtesy of Robert Webster

It was far worse on the left side of the stage. By the time employees became aware of the emergency, it was too late to re-set the waiter doors. The right-side door opened outward but the left-side door opened inward. Hundreds of people attempting to make their escape through a single door became impossible. When the power went out and the room was completely dark, panic ensued. Many became trapped against the closed door. They collapsed to the floor, and others fell on top of them until the entire doorway was filled with bodies. Most of the deceased died from smoke inhalation, and most perished on the left side of the showroom.

More than 500 emergency personnel from as far away as Colerain Township and Madeira in Ohio, and Harrison County in Kentucky manned more than 75 pieces of firefighting apparatus that night. Survivors, many dazed and confused, began walking down Alexandria Pike while others aimlessly wandered through the adjoining neighborhoods. Many were taken in by local residents where they were able to call loved ones to inform them that they were safe. When the enormity of the situation became apparent back at the site, the nearby Ft. Thomas Armory was set up as a temporary morgue to house the dead. Meanwhile, bodies that had been retrieved from the building began filling the once-beautiful garden area in front of the club’s wedding chapel.

John Davidson, headliner that night. Courtesy of Robert Webster

Initial news reports blamed everything from an oven in the kitchen to an oil-fueled generator in the basement. Gross overcrowding was mentioned, as was locked exit doors and a delay in notifying authorities. In reality, none of those accusations proved to be accurate. During a series of civil trials years later, in which the first large-scale class-action suits were filed, faulty aluminum wiring was mentioned for the first time and became the main culprit, but no physical evidence ever supported that claim either.

David Brock, a busboy that night, had witnessed suspicious activities the day of the fire. He saw maintenance workers in the ceiling of the Zebra Room and informed the state police during their investigation. They did nothing. After speaking with club owners, it was discovered that no maintenance work was scheduled for the club that week. He kept quiet for years, assuming he was the only witness. At a special 25-year anniversary of the event, however, he realized there were many other witnesses. He went to the Kentucky State Police with what he knew, and they promised a new investigation. That never happened.

In 2010, a new investigation began, headed by Brock himself. He enlisted the help of: Glenn Corbett, a world-renowned expert on fire science; Rodney Raby, two-time Kentucky State Fire Marshall; Larry Bennett, instructor of fire science at Cincinnati State University; and others. The five-year study concluded that all evidence pointed to arson.

Investigators learned that the fire marshal’s division was not permitted in the basement after Monday, May 30, 1977, even though that’s where they wanted to concentrate their search for clues. Kentucky Governor Julian Carroll ordered the place bulldozed on Monday afternoon. Hundreds of photographs reportedly taken by the state police, especially those in the basement, are now no longer in the state police files. Incredibly, arson had been ruled out by the governor even before his entire team of investigators had arrived on the scene.

Scene at the Armory the following morning. Courtesy of Robert Webster

Whatever the cause, 169 people were killed, and both the state of Kentucky and the city of Southgate have failed to create any memorial. The sites of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the 2003 Rhode Island nightclub fire, both with fewer fatalities, had beautiful memorials erected within months of the tragedies. Here, however, there is nowhere for survivors, the families of victims, and involved citizens to visit and pay their respects, grieve, and attempt to find any closure to the horrific event. To many, this is a tragedy in itself.

On Sunday, May 28, 2017, from 2-5 p.m., a special 40th Anniversary Memorial will be held in the parking lot at the bottom of the club’s original driveway. First responders, former employees, survivors, families of the victims, and the general public are all invited.

Special arrangements have been made with the property’s owners, and several people very familiar with the club will be available to take groups “up the hill” to visit the actual site.

Robert “Bob” Webster is president of the Kenton County Historical Society and author of several books on Northern Kentucky history, including the “Beverly Hills Supper Club: the Untold Story Behind Kentucky’s Worst Tragedy.” He is a frequent contributor to both Northern Kentucky Heritage magazine and to the “Our Rich History” column of the NKyTribune and is an agent with Kentucky Farm Bureau Insurance in Independence.

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12 Comments

  1. Robert Davis says:

    I remenber the night of the fire and the sadness i felt when the news started telling of all the loss of life.The next day May 29 th was my birthday.I though how sad a day it would be for the families of those that lost there love ones.I was(as meny were)in no mood and decided no birthday celebration was in order.
    All those people were suppose to have an enjoyable evening with family and friends when tragedy struck. I from time to time think of that terrible night.

  2. Jim Stewart says:

    I remember hearing it on the news and said holy cow how sad for all those people.

  3. Jake says:

    That same night many of the 1st responder’s had to leave cause someone set duro paper bad on sandbank rd in Ludlow on fire to draw firemen who we’re despertly need there to that fire.

  4. Paul Newcomb says:

    I was watching “Al” Schottelkotte on WCPO that terrible clear summer night.

  5. Barbara says:

    The truth seems to be that this was not an accident but a mass murder. The largest in the country before 9/11.

  6. Rene says:

    May 28 was my mother’s birthday and some friends from work had arranged to take Mom to supper club. It was the first outing she had had since my father had died the April before. At 13, I was old enough to be home by myself and so as the news reports broke into TV shows I sat alone and terrified that I was losing my mother as well. Forty years ago, there were no cell phones, no means of finding out in the turmoil who survived and who didn’t. It wasn’t until my mother walked through the front door that I learned that she and her friends had left 15 minutes before the fire started. She had no idea what had occurred until I told her.

  7. Mitchell Brown says:

    My parents told me they almost went there that night, but couldn’t find a babysitter for myself and my brother. They knew people who died.

  8. Steve says:

    Mom and Dad were there. They escaped through the kitchen to the rear of the building. Dad still has the smoked cloth napkins wth BH embroidered on them they had at the dinner table

  9. Larry Stegemiller says:

    I’ll never get over this night. I was 16 years old and was in the caboret room.

  10. Everett Dameron says:

    “The Beverly Hills Super Club The Untold Story Behind Kentucky’s Worst Tragedy” by Robert Webster is a very good book about the fire and it’s cause. And is very well researched.

  11. Kevin Siwicki says:

    Senator Julian Carroll, who then was the Governor of the State of Kentucky should come clean with what he was told to do and by whom before he dies. It may save him from eternal flames.

  12. Tate Rigel says:

    I was only 7 yrs. old when this happened. Tragic loss of life, my heart goes out to the victims & their families. From what I’ve read, i strongly believe it was arson.

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