It's the biggest story of my news career, one I've written about for 40 years – the 165 deaths in the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire on May 28, 1977.
For the past two months, I've been speaking to Beverly Hills employees and patrons, firefighters and journalists, for a one-hour documentary. "Inside the Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire: 40 Years Later" airs 7 p.m. Sunday May 28, and 1 p.m. Monday, May 29.
On that Saturday night of Memorial Day weekend, the Cabaret Room was packed with 1,300 people (double the capacity) to see singer John Davidson, while hundreds more dined in the sprawling Southgate showplace and banquet center.
About 9 p.m., busboy Walter Bailey interrupted warm-up comedians Jim Teter and Jim McDonald on stage to announce there was a fire in the building. He pointed out the exits, and urged everyone to leave. Not all made it out.
In 1977, I was a young news reporter for the Enquirer. Like most residents here, I watched the fire live on TV that Saturday night. (Nick Clooney's WKRC-TV had a better picture than Al Schottelkotte's top-rated WCPO-TV.) Then I spent the rest of Memorial Day weekend reporting from the fire scene. And over the years I've interviewed Davidson, Bailey, Teter and other survivors, and written about Beverly Hills fire books and TV specials.
In the one-hour WVXU-FM program, you'll hear very graphic descriptions from former Beverly Hills employees Wayne Dammert and Rona Shannon; comedian Jim Teter; Southgate Volunteer Fire Chief John Beastch; patrons Kay Barksdale and Jeff Ruby; photographers Gerry Wolter and Jeff Johnson; and reporters Norm Clarke, Nick Clooney and Jim Delaney.
Producer Lee Hay and I collected so many insightful comments about the fire, and how it changed lives, that we'll put my extended interviews online Friday. I'll add the link when they're available. Here's a sampling:
KAY BARKSDALE, a local gospel singer and retired WCPO-TV receptionist, who was attending a Greater Cincinnati Choral Union dinner in the second-floor Crystal Room:
"Before they served the meal, it was getting hot in there. I looked at the butter on the butter plate, and it was starting to melt… The waiters and waitresses were standing there talking because they were told not to tell us. They didn't want us to panic…
"When we got up to leave, the hallway was filled with dark smoke. Someone shouted out, 'Get out! Get out! This place is on fire!"… The smoke (in the hallway) was as black as could be. Smoke was coming up the big open stairwell. It was like someone threw soot in my face."
JIM TETER, half of the Teter & McDonald comedy team, whose act was interrupted on stage by busboy Walter Bailey. Teter, a Florida resident, toured with Davidson many times, and keeps in touch with him.
"John Davidson was a big name at that time, and drew a lot of people…..It was Saturday night. Yeah, it (the Cabaret Room) was VERY crowded….
"We were about half-way through our 30-minute show when I saw a bus boy swiftly moving through the audience, heading for the stage. He came up the four steps up onto the stage and snatched the microphone out of Jim McDonald's hand. He turned and looked at the audience and said, "There's a fire in the building. You people need to get out of here. There's an exit door over there' – and he pointed – 'and there's an exit door over there '– and he pointed over to his right. And then he turned around and handed the microphone back to Jim McDonald….
"If he had not warned us of this fire, hundreds of people would have been killed. He deserves all the credit in the world. At 18 years old, to have the nerve to come up and stop a show, and tell the people there's a fire in the building, that took a lot of nerve…
"I was afraid at that point that panic may set in, and people would get trampled. So at that point our idea was to keep the people calm, to talk with them. People got up and started moving immediately….
"This went on for about four or five minutes… and then I noticed at the entrance a cloud of smoke roll in the entranceway. It was white, and it looked like a cloud. And I knew at that point it was not a fire in the kitchen. So I dropped the microphone down to my side, and I looked at Jim McDonald and said, 'Jim, let's get out of here.'
"I didn't lose anybody in the fire that was close to me, but John Davidson did. He had a music director, Doug Herro, who instead of exiting the room, went up on the stage and started collecting the music on the music stands. And he never got out.
"So John was very emotionally involved, and doesn't really like to talk about it, because it brings back a lot of terrible memories."
JOHN BEATSCH, Southgate Volunteer Fire Chief, was a 21-year-old firefighter on the first fire truck that arrived to fight the fire:
"We pulled up under the (main entrance) archway. I saw a decent number of people in the parking lot and I thought, 'Oh good, most of the people got out'….
"Firefighters were pulling people out of the building. They were calling to the victims of the fire, 'Move your arms or legs!' The people on the bottom and top were dead. They tried to get the people in the middle dislodged from the pile. There were 100 or 150 people all piled up at that door...
"I had made four to six EMS runs to the club, and had toured it. I had been there enough to know it was extremely confusing."
GERRY WOLTER, former Enquirer photographer, who shot the Page 1 photo showing bodies lying on the grass in front of the burning building.
"I saw the sky aglow. From downtown Cincinnati, the sky was on fire…. The structure was fully involved when I arrived.… I went around the north side of the building, which was the only door that appeared to be open. I could hear people moaning inside for a short period of time. And that faded away shortly. I guess that's how long it took for smoke or fumes to get to the people….
"I had prior knowledge of the Beverly Hills because there were many organizations in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky that had their events there, and I had to go over there on a number of occasions. My untrained eye told me that… it was a disaster waiting to happen… with all of the fabric (on the walls), and meandering hallways. It seemed to be a firetrap to me...
"My sister was there earlier that day (for a wedding) and she saw the Cabaret Room, and commented about how crowded it was, with tables and chairs in front of the exits. So that (overcrowding) apparently was pretty common….
"Every time I walk into a room now for a concert, a movie, or a restaurant, I look to see where the exit is. That's the first thing I do."
NORM CLARKE was a Cincinnati reporter for the Associated Press. He's now a celebrity columnist in Las Vegas:
"The dispatcher said, 'It's bad. It's bad. We're sending everything we've got. It's bad. I can't talk to you' … (When I arrived) it was a jaw-dropping memory. Beverly Hills was fully engaged. The hillside was covered with hundreds of bodies….
"I had gone up to a firefighter asking for information, and the person looked at me in total disgust. I asked if it's going to be a lot worse, and he said, 'Get the hell away from me.' I felt so ghoulish. Then this kid in all white (Walter Bailey) engaged me. 'Are you from the Enquirer?' I said, 'I’m from the Associated Press.' He said, 'It's a lot worse.'
"And then he recounted his story about interrupting the comics… and addressing the audience, telling them, 'You have to leave. There is a fire outside this door.'
"I'm still having nightmares from the horrific images I'd seen at the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire. But reporters don't get to choose their assignments."
JIM DELANEY, former Enquirer investigative reporter and assistant city editor, wrote many stories about attorney Stan Chesley's class action law suit against aluminum wiring manufacturers:
"I came in (to the newsroom) to be what they called the 'rewrite man' on the story. And there was a commotion at the News Desk over Gerry Wolter's pictures…. because the pictures would be showing dead bodies lying on the grass outside the fire. It was an unbelievable news photo -- but also very, very controversial, because it was like nothing this town had ever seen….
"The Kentucky state police report, commissioned by Gov. Julian Carroll, had declared it (the Beverly Hills Supper Club) an electrician's nightmare…. It wasn't a secret that the fire was believed to be electrical in nature. The code violation that came out in the course of all the other litigation was the use of aluminum wiring (in the club). Aluminum wiring was NEVER permitted in a commercial building."
NICK CLOONEY, former WKRC-TV anchorman, was one of many Channel 12 reporters at the fire broadcasting from the station's new live truck.
"I ran into the Southgate fire chief. I asked, 'Why didn't the sprinklers work?' And he said, 'There were no sprinklers.' In Northern Kentucky, he said sprinklers were not required, and that was our story… I believe a crime was committed (by Schillings for not having sprinklers in the building). I truly believe their concern was that they (sprinklers) would go off every now and then, and they'd lose thousands of dollars…"
Just days before the fire, Channel 12's new truck didn't work because it lacked a crucial part. Clooney talks about it in the interview online:
"All of us have interesting stories to tell. In my case, the footnote was that I had had a confrontation with one of the people who was in engineering… We had been advertising that we had a 'live truck' for a week, and we didn't have a live truck! It wasn't working… And he said, 'The piece of equipment we need for it to work is on budget, and you'll get it the first of June.'
"So I went to the general manager, a great man named Bob Wiegand, and I said: 'Look Bob, we do news. We don't do advertising and promotion, we do news. And we're saying we have a live truck, but we don't have a live truck!' And he said, 'What does it take?' And I told him, and he called the chief engineer in, and sent him over to (buy) the piece…. They put it in the truck, and on Friday – Friday! – he took the truck out… to Eden Park and tried it out. And he went over to Northern Kentucky and tried it out. So that on that Saturday, we would have a live truck, and be able to report that story.
"These small notes, of course, have great resonance."