Even after 40 years, it feels like the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire happened 'last night'

An oral history

The Beverly Hills Supper Club.

There was nothing like it.

There still isn’t, and there likely never will be.

Perched on a hill in a most unlikely location – the otherwise buzz-free suburban community of Southgate, Kentucky -- the Beverly Hills was a supernova, culturally and historically. It ruled the roost from 1971-1977.

Of course, these days, the fire that killed 165 people is how most people remember the Supper Club. The moments before, during and after the fire will forever live in the memories of those who experienced it, both near and far.

But the fire’s dramatic intensity and highly publicized aftermath fail to fully explain its place in Queen City memories. The fire not only killed so many, and in such spectacular fashion, but it struck a place that truly was our own Magic Kingdom.

The Beverly Hills was part Las Vegas and part Hollywood, and to a broad Cincinnati demographic, it was simply all-enticing.

One of the dining rooms in the Beverly Hills Supper Club. Photo courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library

The venue drew acts like Frankie Valli, Phyllis Diller, Redd Foxx, John Davidson, James Brown, the Righteous Brothers and Rich Little, to name a few.

The setting was aggressively opulent. It made patrons’ jaws drop while somehow not making their eyes roll at the carefully planned excess. Brocaded gold walls stood out royally against striking maroon partitions. The chandeliers were fabulous, always gleaming and without a speck of dust. A grand spiral staircase imposed. An indoor waterfall amazed. A lushly manicured courtyard beckoned.

The food was widely acclaimed as superb. The flagship entrée was a massive prime rib.

And it was all astoundingly affordable.

“Whether you were the wealthiest person from Indian Hill or someone much lower on the economic scale, the Beverly Hills had a magic touch that made everyone feel extremely important,” said Ken Paul, who was Southgate’s 29-year-old mayor in 1977.

Entertainment entrepreneur Richard Schilling and his family, from neighboring Newport, had developed the Beverly into an architecturally confusing complex of 54,000 square feet, with 19 rooms on two floors. It was The Place to go not only for a show, but for weddings, awards banquets and all manner of special events. By 1977, it was considered less than prudent to count on having a big event at Beverly Hills with fewer than two years’ notice.

But you could also just stroll into the bar, with no notice at all. Who knew, you might catch a Foxx or a Little doling out laugh lines for free.

The Beverly Hills Supper Club bar. Photo courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library

But on the night of May 28, 1977, with John Davidson scheduled to perform before a beyond-sellout house, the Beverly Hills burned to the ground.

165 people died.

Davidson was among an estimated 2,600 who escaped, but the death toll was the highest of any disaster in Greater Cincinnati history, man-made or natural. It killed 129 more people than the December 2016 Oakland, California warehouse fire.

GALLERY: See what the site of the Beverly Hills Supper Club looks like 40 years after the fire

The cause of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire was never clearly determined. Some believe it was simply faulty wiring. There are theories about arson by Mafia types who had been rebuffed in bids to regain control.

But it’s agreed across the board that overcrowding, inadequate numbers of exits, convoluted paths to those exits, lack of firewalls and highly flammable interior components led to the historic carnage. The fire was a key reason why standards nationwide are now so much tougher.

The floor plan of the Beverly Hills Supper Club. Photo courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library.

Cincinnatians of the era vividly recall their first moments hearing of the fire. Many people – many more than one might think – were witness to it, at least from afar.

“We lived in Kenwood,” said Cincinnati retiree Sue Cline, currently of Pleasant Ridge. “And we could see the glow of the flames from our front yard.”

As the 40th anniversary of the fire arrives this month, we let eight people involved – from near and far – tell their stories.

THE VOICES

WALTER BAILEY is the most iconic “hero” of 5-28-77. The 18-year-old Beverly Hills busboy was widely credited with saving hundreds, if not more, with his decision to bypass reluctant superiors and interrupt the warmup act to John Davidson in the Cabaret Room, the Beverly’s grand performance hall. A jam-packed and dressed-up audience had no idea of a problem, and Bailey himself was not positive the fire would spread from the spot where he had seen it. But acting on gut instinct, he grabbed a microphone from a performer and warned the crowd to seek the exits. The just-graduated Campbell County High School senior went on to Northern Kentucky University, where he earned a degree in economics, and he has lived the last 25 years in Greater Dallas, working in finance.


JOHN BEATSCH (pronounced “BAYTCHE”) was a 21-year-old lieutenant in the Southgate Volunteer Fire Department. He is now the department’s chief. His father was a firefighter, he has a brother who has been a firefighter for 55 years, and he had joined Southgate VFD as a cadet at age 16. He lives in Southgate and is the owner of the Southside Deli Mart in Fort Thomas.


WAYNE DAMMERT was a 41-year-old Beverly Hills banquet captain. A Navy veteran, he was a true insider at the club, having worked there not only since shortly after the 1971 re-opening, but also as a card dealer in the late ‘50s, during the club’s illegal gambling era. “We were like a family,” he said of the club’s owners and staff. He has never wavered in the belief that Mafia types set the fire in retaliation for the Schilling family’s refusal to sell. He even wrote a book about it. But he said that efforts by himself and others to expose the alleged arson eventually came to naught with the authorities. The Fort Wright, Kentucky, native became a draftsman after the fire and worked for General Electric as well as a smaller Cincinnati company, but he retired at age 49 due to maladies which by his reckoning stemmed at least partially from “my nerves from the fire getting to me.” He and his wife now live in Alexandria, and they are active senior volunteers at many Cincinnati destinations, including the Aronoff Center.


SUSAN GITLIN was 23-year-old Susan Brown at the time. She had front-row center seats for the Davidson show, courtesy of her date, young Cincinnati entrepreneur Jeff Ruby. Born in Dayton, Kentucky, she spent her school years around Withamsville, Ohio. Her post-fire work years in Greater Cincinnati included a position for a leasing company involved in the restoration of Union Terminal. She left Greater Cincinnati for Los Angeles in 1985, engaged to Los Angeles native Drew Gitlin, and the couple has worked there as a real estate team since 1986


BJ JETTER (pronounced “YETTER”) found multiple gigs as a drummer at the Beverly Hills, and the 22-year-old from Pleasant Ridge had one for May 28, 1977 -- until it was canceled earlier in the week. His parents also had plans to be at the club that night, as patrons for a different function, but that afternoon they took a pass, because his mother was ill. “My mom would cry about that night,” Jetter said. “She felt so sorry and felt, quite frankly, that we all would have died.” Though he didn’t experience it first-hand, the blaze led Jetter to pursue his own career in fire service. He holds a Ph.D. in fire safety management. He spent 18 years as fire chief of Sycamore Township and holds that post for Monroe Township. He still does the occasional drumming gig.


KEN PAUL was Southgate’s 29-year-old mayor. He says his wife was a big Davidson fan and that the couple likely would have attended the show if not for a commitment to watch his brother-in-law’s toddler for the evening. Though social media didn’t exist in 1977, Paul says the national reaction to the fire proved “extremely frightening.” He later served as a Campbell County commissioner and as a county judge. He worked 43 years for Cincinnati Bell, ending his career as national sales director, and though now officially retired at 69 in Fort Thomas, he serves as Chairman of the Board for Northern Kentucky’s Gateway Community College.


DICK RIESENBERG was the first upper-level firefighter on the scene, as chief of the Southgate Volunteer Fire Department. He had been a firefighter for 16 years at the time. His full-time job was at Cincinnati Gas & Electric (now Duke Energy), where he worked 37 years as a public relations representative and photographer. He’s now 77, retired and lives in Alexandria with his second wife, Carol. He describes himself as contented and stable, but says that the fire and its aftermath “literally drove me nuts” for a time, causing a divorce and a stay in a hospital psychiatric ward.


JEFF RUBY, the now-renowned Cincinnati restaurateur and frequent activist, was an up-and-coming 29-year-old on the night of the fire. He was a friend of the Schilling family and had used his strings to secure a front row center table for the Davidson concert. “The worst seats in the room,” he notes in hindsight, “if there was going to be a fire.” He says he was not much of a John Davidson fan and was a patron that night only because he was urged to take part in a birthday celebration for a friend, Rickelle Thall. Though not his date that night, Thall later married Ruby and is the mother of his three children.

THE HOURS BEFORE DISASTER STRUCK


The evening of May 28 was warm and humid in Greater Cincinnati. The high temperature had been 90, and humidity averaged 60 percent for the day. The Reds had won 6-3 that afternoon against the archrival Dodgers in Los Angeles, and it was the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, a festive time in the Tri-State.

WALTER BAILEY: “Normally, I didn’t work the Cabaret Room. But I asked to work it that night. I had heard an ad on the radio, talking about how funny the comedians working there were, and I wanted to work in there and maybe be able to catch some of the show. And they said I could. I started about 1 or 2 in the afternoon and was just working the setup, arranging the tables, putting out water and butter, things like that.”

WAYNE DAMMERT: “Sure, it was real crowded that evening. But it was always crowded, particularly on a Saturday night, and those of us working there, I guess after a while we just didn’t pay that much attention to it. It was way crowded the night before that, too. And I remember one night Frankie Valli was there, there was a line of people that went down into the bar, and from there it went outside a block down the driveway. So like I say, it was always crowded.”

Just before 9 p.m., when just a few knew of a fire but none realized what it would become, the Cabaret Room was filled with an estimated 900 to 1,300 people. Later analysis of exits and other factors indicated that the room’s highest safe capacity was probably 600.

JOHN BEATSCH: “In that era, nobody thought much about overcrowding or fire codes, and if you went to a place that said they were full, you might say, ‘Ah, come on. You can get in two more. Just squeeze us in anywhere.'”

The floor plan of the Beverly Hills Supper Club as it was the night of the fire. Photo courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library.

At 8 p.m., young men at the Southgate Volunteer Fire Department were settling down to watch “Emergency!” on Channel 5. The NBC show starred Randolph Mantooth and Kevin Tighe as Los Angeles firefighters also trained as paramedics.

BEATSCH: “Us younger firefighters would go to the firehouse Saturday nights and watch that show together. We’d hear their emergency calls come in, and one of us would say, ‘OK, here comes The Big One.’ And then we’d joke, ‘When are we gonna have The Big One?’ So that night I left the firehouse at 9 and was driving away when the fire sirens started blowing. We didn’t have pagers or anything in those days, we had radios at our houses, but if you were out, the only notice you’d have were the sirens. So I turned around and went back.”

Even so, the firefighters weren’t expecting ‘The Big One.’

DICK RIESENBERG: “We got the call 9:01 p.m. The dispatcher didn’t say what kind of fire, and we didn’t see it as a big deal. We had had a number of previous runs to the Beverly Hills, but they were just things like a car on fire or a fire in a dumpster.’

BEATSCH: “We didn’t think it was going to be a big deal. They were building (Interstate) 471 through there at that time, and they’d been cutting and burning a lot of brush. We figured we were called up for a brush fire.”

But the Southgate mayor knew, a few minutes before the firemen, that the situation might be serious.

KEN PAUL: “I was out of the house, walking with our niece, who we had agreed to watch for the night. I saw the heavy smoke billowing up in the direction of the club. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew I had to get in my car right away and go find out.”

THE CONFLAGRATION BEGINS

It was just before 9 p.m. when Beverly Hills employees first became aware of the fire. They couldn’t see flames, but the smoke and heat in the first-floor Zebra Room made it clear this was no minor flare-up. At 9:01 p.m., a fire call was received at the Southgate Volunteer Fire Department, but the dispatcher conveyed no particular urgency. The department quickly mobilized, but personnel were not expecting anything extraordinary. But as soon as they saw the Beverly Hills site, with thick smoke billowing from large sections of the roof, they knew there would be nothing routine about this run.

 

RIESENBERG: “When we came around the bend on U.S. 27, we could see the building in full view, and smoke was coming out of the eaves from north to south. Right then I called in the Newport and Fort Thomas departments, so right away it was a three-alarm, and later on we had help from just about everywhere in the area. Over the whole time, there were 522 firefighters involved.”

BEATSCH: “When we rounded the bend I could see black smoke all along the roofline. As we drove up the hill I saw a significant number of people in the parking lot, and I thought, ‘Good. At least everybody’s out of the building.’ But it did not click that there would be 2,000 or more people in there, and that I was seeing only a couple hundred.”

Inside the burning complex, initial concern was quickly turning into deadly fear. A wedding reception party had vacated the Zebra Room ahead of schedule, about 8:30 p.m., complaining that the area was uncomfortably warm, that butter was melting on the tables.

DAMMERT: “I was really busy upstairs, with one event for the Cincinnati Choral Union and one for the Afghan Hound Club of America. Those were at the top of the spiral staircase. The Zebra Room was below. I was upstairs when Fran Oaks, one of the waitresses, told me, ‘Wayne, there’s a fire in the Zebra Room, really a lot of smoke.’ So I started screaming to the people with the hound club, ‘Get out through the back!’ At one point I opened a door near the top of the spiral staircase and a wall of just unbelievable heat hit me. I thought, ‘Oh my, this is coming on fast.’”

BAILEY: “When the meal service in the Cabaret Room was over, I was heading out, and a supervisor started talking to me about how overcrowded it was. He had 20 or 30 people still waiting to get in and be seated for the show. Then a waitress came up to me and asked me where the Schillings were. And then she leaned into my ear, and she whispers, ‘There’s a fire in the Zebra Room.’ And then she was gone. I thought she was surely exaggerating, but I ran down there, and when I started to open the doors I noticed some smoke coming out at the top, and then down the center between the doors. I decided not to open the doors any wider. To me, there was pressure in there I could feel. It seemed like a major fire, possibly the whole room. At that point I turned toward the main bar, and in there it was normal. People sitting at the bar and around tables. And I ran to the entry and yelled in, ‘Everyone out, there’s a fire!’ When I did that, the people at the barstools pushed away, and people at the tables started standing up. So I turned again fairly quickly and ran back to the Cabaret Room.”

Inside the massively overcrowded Cabaret Room, normality still prevailed shortly after 9. The comedy/ventriloquist act of Teter and McDonald was on stage, as a prelim to the Davidson performance. But the fun was about to end.

BAILEY: “I went back to the supervisor and said, ‘We need to clear the room. There’s a fire in the Zebra Room.’ He was looking down the hallway, and I guess he didn’t see anything, and he just stared at me. Didn’t say a word. I repeated, ‘We’ve got to clear this room now.’ I didn’t know why he was just staring. I turned and I thought, ‘I’ve gotta go get one of the Schillings.’ But after I went about 10 steps down the hallway leading to the kitchen, I realized, ‘I can’t do this. Other people, including that waitress, are already looking for them.’ So I went back to Charlie and said again, ‘We’ve got to clear the room.

“He said, ‘Watch my line for me.’ After a couple minutes, I see him headed toward the (Cabaret Room) service bar. I’m thinking, ‘He’s gonna check that exit and make an announcement.’ Meanwhile, I had gotten the people from his line outside into the garden area. I told them to stay there, and I headed back to the Cabaret Room. I was expecting the crowd to start coming out, but still nothing. I’m standing at the curtain (at the entrance), looking at the show going on, and I’m getting really anxious. ‘They’re not clearing the room. They haven’t made an announcement. This can’t happen. This room has got to be cleared.’”

THE ‘ANNOUNCEMENT’

Walter Bailey was in a tough spot. The busboy had encountered evidence of a serious fire some distance from the Cabaret Room, and he felt strongly – but wasn’t truly positive – that unsuspecting patrons of the night’s main show were soon to be in mortal danger. A superior had reacted to his warning with indecision, however. Though fearing he might be about to cost himself his job, the 18-year-old took what proved to be hailed as the most life-saving decision of the night.

Firefighters battle the blaze at the Beverly Hills Supper Club as patrons look on from the hillside on May 28, 1977.
Photo courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library.

BAILEY: “At this time, there was still no smoke in that area. I’m thinking, ‘What am I gonna do? I thought he (the supervisor) would announce something.’ I saw the comedians on stage, and they’re holding mics and telling jokes, and I think to myself, ‘I can get one of those mics and get this room cleared right now.’ So as I walked through the room, I thought, ‘I’ve got to have the right thing to say. I can’t start a panic. First point out the exits. Then tell them to leave, and then tell them there’s a fire.’

“I climbed on stage, I appear in front of the comedians, and they look at me, and I went toward the one on the left, reaching for his mic. And to my surprise, he handed it to me. And I turned toward the audience and said, ‘I’d like everyone’s attention. If you look to your right, you’ll see an exit. If you look behind you, you’ll see another exit. And in the left corner, you’ll see another one. We need everyone to leave the building. There’s a fire in the building.’ ”

RUBY: “At that point, we still didn’t know the real urgency of it, the magnitude of the fire. I still had my Jack Daniel’s in my hand. But this kid saved my life, and the life of the woman who turns out to be the mother of my children. And he probably saved 1,000 other people. He took it upon himself, and he eloquently and bravely gets up on the stage – and he wasn’t supposed to do this, he wasn’t given the green light, he got the red light from somebody – but he took it upon himself and came up there and said, ‘We all need to leave, this is going to be dangerous.’

“And no one panicked, because of how he articulated. It was like he was trained, like they had some training program for if something like this was gonna happen, and how to word it and how to get everyone to stay calm. It was like he was 35 or 40 years old and in management. And of course that training never (had) happened. He was just a kid. It blew my mind. I certainly could not have handled it as well, or any better. What he did took courage. If it turns out to be not that big a deal, he’s out of a job.”

SUSAN GITLIN: “The first thing we knew of it, of course, was when Walter Bailey came on stage and told everyone we had to get out. At first we kind of thought it was just part of the show, that the comedians had incorporated a busboy into their act. Maybe they were going to pull out seltzer bottles and spray us all, for all we knew. But when nothing else happened, and the comedians were just standing there looking sort of dumbfounded, we figured it really was time to go. But we were still thinking just something on the order of a little kitchen fire. So I’m thinking, ‘Do we really have to leave and walk all the way out, and then come back in? It was kind of a pain – the women were almost all wearing high heels. You wonder, ‘Well, do we take our drinks with us?’ But when we saw one of the Schillings come running through in a panic with a towel covering his face, I said, ‘Jesus Christ, Jeff (Ruby), there really is a fire in this place!’ Thinking back, you just realize how quickly things can happen in life.”

Patrons who escaped the fire watch as the Beverly Hills Supper Club burns. Photo Credit: Kenton County Public Library

BAILEY: “Keep in mind, all I had seen was smoke coming out of the doors of the Zebra Room. I had done all of this on own accord, and suddenly I was concerned that maybe it was nothing and that I probably was not going to have a job anymore. Because I had just cleared a room where people had tabs of $100 or $200. I was taking a chance. But as I went back toward the Zebra Room, a wall of smoke came barreling down the hall. I’ll never forget what an amazing sight that was. This was a large hallway, with high ceilings. I just turned around and got back in line and tried to go against the flow of people.”

‘ONE GROUP GETS OUT AND ONE DOES NOT’

Though the Beverly Hills’ 165-person death toll is the highest of any Greater Cincinnati one-time happening, only about six percent of those at the facility that night died. Varying estimates done at the time make 2,800 a reasonable guess for the total in the complex. So perhaps it is too rarely considered that more than 2,600 got out, including many who were physically rescued.

“Most of us firefighters realized we had done everything we could do,” said John Beatsch. But another 200 were injured, some permanently. At the fire’s 20-year anniversary, former firefighter Ron Bridewell of Highland Heights spoke to media about being constantly tethered to an oxygen tank, due to smoke inhalation during his rescue efforts. ''I've got seven grandchildren, and I'd give anything in the world if I could just get out there and toss a ball with them,” he said. As for the patrons and staff who survived, few did so without closely encountering bodies of those who did not.

 

GITLIN: “I remember very distinctly some people we were talking to at the tables, right before the show started and as it began. And we were all just sitting there having drinks and chatting. I didn’t really know these people, but Jeff did, and later he learned that they had not gotten out. I don’t know what happened. In the rush to get out, maybe we turned left and found the way, but they turned right and got stuck in a dead end or a closet or something. Two little groups. One gets out and one does not get out. So close. It was not our karma to go at that time, I guess. It wasn’t our time to be the ones to take that.”

RUBY: “So after Walter Bailey announced that we all should leave, we could see some smoke, and I decided we should get up on stage and go that way. But one of the busboys said, ‘You can’t go this way,’ and I said OK. So we went to our left, as you faced the stage, and that was no ‘line’ at all. It was like a mass of people you would see at Times Square on New Year’s Eve, just a crowd of people. And Rick Hauck finally says to me, ‘Jeff, we can’t go this way, we’re last.’ Those people were all trying to get out one door, and not too many people made it.”

BAILEY: “So as we’re moving away from the smoke (in the hallway leading from the Zebra to the Cabaret rooms), one guy suddenly screams, extremely loud, something like, ‘This bleeping place is burning down!’ And that’s when the panic started in that area. I started getting shoved and pushed. I got behind that guy, and he started pushing people in front of him, and suddenly people behind me were pushing me. I had no control, but I was being pushed out an exit. Exploding out the exit, really. We were fortunate that no one tripped. No one fell. And the doors opened properly toward the outside, into the garden area.”

RUBY: “Even while we were trying to figure out the best way out of the (Cabaret) room, I still had my Jack Daniel’s in my hand. But I’ll tell you when I saw the real evidence of it. It was when I saw Scott Schilling, all 350 pounds of him, running for his life towards us, coming from a whole different direction. Now I understood. Now I said goodbye to my friend Jack (Daniel’s), and we started going out the way we first tried, and another busboy said we couldn’t go that way. And I said, ‘F*** you, we’re going this way. I’m in charge here now.’ I confer with three parts of my body, with every decision I make. My gut, my heart and my brain. If two out of the three agree, that’s the way I go. It doesn’t matter which two. And my gut and brain told me, ‘Tell that guy f*** you.’ My heart didn’t have to make a vote.”

BAILEY: “So I get pushed out of this exit, and I go out into the garden area. And I’m watching the building, and right then an explosion occurs where the Zebra Room is, and then another explosion. And the Garden Rooms – which were inside but with glass walls – started to fill up with smoke. A whole room filled up with smoke in less than a minute, maybe 30 or 40 seconds. People started throwing chairs through the glass and were running out.”

Fire crews evacuate patrons who were at the Beverly Hills Supper Club the night of the fire. Photo credit: Kenton County Public Library

RUBY: “We went the way we did because there was no other way to go. The second busboy told us, ‘OK, but hurry.’ And we get into this hallway, and the smoke is just billowing. Thick smoke. You can’t really see at all. I told my girlfriend to put her arms around me and push her face into my back. And people were pushing from behind, and I turned around and said, ‘Listen, everybody, stop pushing, because the only way we’re going to get out of here alive is if we stay calm.’ And everyone listened to me, and we just went through that dark hallway. It was single file, about three feet wide.

“And then we go down the steps to the doorway out. And these were grated metal steps. They were not regular concrete steps. They had holes in them, and behind us, women were in long gowns and were getting their high heels stuck. They weren’t gonna stand there and say, ‘Oh, I’m gonna take my high heels off.’ They were running for their lives. Susan (Gitlin) recalls that I went back to help some of those women and bring them down the steps, after I was out. What I do recall is the ventriloquists with dummies on their shoulders, trying to get out. Wooden dummies in tuxedos. That was just an eerie thing, looking at those dummies coming out.”

GITLIN: ”Finally we were at the bottom of the steps and outside. And we were just stunned and thinking, ‘What the hell just happened here?’ And people were running around everywhere, and then I looked up on the hillside and saw white sheets or maybe tablecloths lined up on the hill. And I thought, ‘That can’t possibly be dead people, how could they have gotten them out here so soon?’ But that’s what it was, it was people who had already died.”

RUBY: “Behind us, people got caught in that doorway. They got stuck and trampled over each other. And not many others after our party of six got out of there. Bodies were found in the doorway. They died of smoke inhalation. I don’t believe that door opened out. So when a door swings in, it hits somebody, and somebody falls down, and somebody falls on top of them, and next thing you know, it’s like the concert over here at Riverfront Coliseum, with The Who. With bodies on top of each other. Trampling on each other. That happened at every exit, I believe, where people couldn’t get out.”

For survivors, the rush to inform loved ones was nearly as urgent as the rush to escape.

GITLIN: “We were in our early 20s, and my dad had died in a plane accident when I was 14. And it came suddenly into my head that my mom knew we were there, and she was going to hear about this any minute, and she was going to be hysterical, thinking a second tragedy was coming down on her. So we ran down to a little bar that was at the end of the hill. And they had one pay phone – nobody had cell phones then, of course – and people were lined up, trying to make calls to let their families know they were OK. There were maybe 10 or a dozen people in line ahead of me, but it went pretty quickly. I think everyone realized they had to get across their message and then let the next person have the phone. Right away, from the way my mom answered, I could tell she hadn’t heard of it yet, but after I told her, I said, ‘Please understand, I can’t talk a long time because other people need the phone.’ “

The Fort Thomas Armory set up as a temporary morgue on the night of the fire.
Photo Credit: Kenton County Public Library

CONTEMPLATING THE HEREAFTER

Death was in the air and smoke. Thoughts of one’s own imminent passing crowded in.

RUBY: “I never had time to get scared. It wasn’t like I was ever scared. But I wasn’t, uhh … I wasn’t certain we were going to get out of this.”

DAMMERT: “Trying to get out through the back hallway, it was backed up. Then the lights went out. Then they came on again, and then they went out for good. It was pitch black. And all of a sudden in my mind I saw a complete color picture of my family … in a meadow. It just flashed right in front of me. It was frightening, I was at the back of the line, and I guess at that point I wondered if I’d ever see them again.”

RUBY: “When I saw daylight, saw a door opened, and you could see out to Alexandria Pike, and the area with the sign, ‘Showplace of the Nation, Beverly Hills’ … when I could see that daylight, that was the greatest sight to this day I remember. You remember when babies are born, and you remember this or remember that … but that was the greatest thing I have ever seen.”

Firefighters walk past the sign advertising the act at the Beverly Hills Supper Club on the night of the fire. Photo courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library.

THE RESCUERS AND CARETAKERS

There were heroes aplenty at the Beverly Hills on 5-28-77. Though busboy Walter Bailey got the most acclaim, due to his decision to start evacuation of the Cabaret Room, he said, “I always felt like I had just done what I could do, like a lot of other people did.”

 

BEATSCH: “I wound up spending my night at what we called the chapel exit. People had tried to reach that exit from the Cabaret Room. But to get there, you had to go through a bar service area, and there were those double waiters’ doors into the area, and I think a bunch of people got stuck at that point. I didn’t have an air-pack at that time – I did get one about 30 minutes later – but I went as far into the Cabaret Room as I could. And you could hear people calling for help, and the firefighters were calling to have them wave their arms. People were piled up on top of each other near those waiters’ doors, and some people in the pile were dead and some were still alive. It seemed like the people at the bottom and on the top were mostly dead, and that it was the middle where people were still alive. The firefighters were trying to find the people still alive and pull them out. It was all smoke, you couldn’t see the fire itself from that point. But you couldn’t see five feet in front of your face.”

DAMMERT: “After I got out, I ran around front, trying to see if people were getting out. The first thing I remember seeing was a pretty girl in a light blue dress. I’m pretty sure she was dead. And in the garden outside the bar, there was another lady in a blue dress, laying there. Her husband was sitting next to her, in shock. I told him, ‘I’m going to do what I can,’ and I was starting to breathe into her mouth. And our family doctor happened to be there, and he said, ‘No Wayne, she’s dead, you can’t do anything for her.’

“What I didn’t know at the time, but they knew, was that people were dying from vinyl chloride gas. One whiff of that and you’re dead. It turned out the gas was caused by the burning of pounds of foam rubber that were part of some beautiful maroon partitions.

“So I took the man’s coat – he was a big man, it was a big coat – and I put it over her face. I told him, ‘Your wife’s with God now and you’ve just got to be brave.’ “

RIESENBERG: “Not long after we set up a command post, a firefighter who had been working around in back came and yelled at me, ‘We’ve got a problem back at the Cabaret Room. There are people lying dead and people trapped inside.’ So I issued an order for all firefighters present to go back to the Cabaret Room and set up rescue teams. We didn’t abandon the fire – we had additional firefighters arriving on the scene, and I gave control of that to my aide – but I went back to see what the rescue situation was about.

“It was a mess. I saw nothing but pandemonium. I had never seen that many people lying about dead. Our people pulled out a lot of people alive, but the last survivor came out maybe a little before midnight. The rest after that were dead.”

Southgate Fire Chief Dick Riesenberg addresses the media after the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in May 1977. Photo courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library.

BAILEY: “I went to an exit where you could see people stumbling. A man told me, ‘We need help getting people out.’ So I went in and ran into someone. I shoved him out and went back in a little deeper and found a lady and shoved her out. And then I realized I couldn’t breathe. Smoke had filled the place up. So I started to hold my breath. I was a good swimmer. I had really good lungs. I went to the state meet in swimming. So I did what I knew I could do, hold my breath and go in to get more people. All this time you could hear people moaning and asking for help.

“I encountered a pile of people blocking an exit. I could not see anything; I was just feeling around, and I could feel this pile of people, and some of them were holding their hands out, and I would grab a wrist or an arm and drag them across the floor and out the exit. I’d estimate I pulled about five people out of the pile and shoved another three people out the exit.

“I was fighting the whole time between the urgency to get people out and the fear I was risking my own life. When I initially went back in to help, some people were grabbing at me, and I was afraid they were going to clutch onto me and hold me in. It was like a nightmare. I was afraid to go in there, but I knew I had to do it. I could not be there and hear the people inside and not do something.”

RIESENBERG: “The fire got to its peak around 1 a.m. I got a call at the command post, telling me the whole place was about to collapse. It was time to get all the firefighters off the roof and out of the building. And I don’t think it was 60 seconds after we got everybody out that the roof went down. We had 23 firefighters either on the roof or in the Cabaret Room, and all of them got out alive. We would have lost them all if they didn’t get out. There was just one minor injury, and I thank God for that every day. The worst thing a chief can encounter is when he sees he’s going to lose some men.”

Eventually, there was not much to do but attempt dignity for the dead.

DAMMERT: “I saw bodies lying all over the place. Unbelievable. I bet I saw 100 or more. In the garden area, that beautiful garden area, bodies were lying everywhere. I asked one waitress, ‘Are you religious?’ And I don’t even remember what she said, but I said, ‘If you can pray, you pray for the people in this area and I’ll do it in this other area.’ And I’d put my hand on their forehead and say, ‘God please take this soul to heaven.’ I did that for maybe 50 bodies.”

BAILEY: “One of the last things I did was just help cover some of the dead people’s faces, with napkins and tablecloths and stuff. I just thought it was the thing to do. I didn’t think it was right to have people finding their loved ones dead with their faces just open for anyone to see. It was at that point when I knew it was really a disaster in every sense. “

For the firefighters, the ordeal was a final exam on their fitness for the profession.

RIESENBERG: “Another terrible thing involved family members trying to come up to the fire scene, looking for their loved ones. The state police were still handling the patrons who were rescued alive, and they didn’t want all these people standing around, getting in the way. I was highly recognizable – chiefs wore white, the only ones who did – and I’ll never forget, a woman came up to me just crying her eyes out. She said, ‘Can you please help me find my husband? He’s about my height and was wearing a blue suit and brown shoes.’ And I told her, ‘We’ll do everything we can,’ but what she had described to me probably fit 1,000 men. All dressed up for a big night at the Beverly Hills. What I did not have the guts to tell her was, ‘If you haven’t found him outside to this point, he’s still in there, and he’s dead.’ I did not have the balls to tell her that. And it has always bothered me deeply. I never learned her name, and maybe I’m glad I didn’t.”

GITLIN: “I remember talking to one of the firemen. He was sitting against a truck, looking totally exhausted, and when I said, ‘Is everybody out?’ He shook his head. And then he said, ‘At this point, they’ll never get out.’ I’ll always remember that fireman. I get emotional talking about it. Those guys put their lives on the line potentially every day for situations like that, and this guy had tried his heart out, and it was a losing battle. And he knew it was too late for anyone else. I’ve never seen such sorrow and dejectedness on someone’s face like that.”

BEATSCH: “We were all working to the point of exhaustion, and at one point I guess I just collapsed. I could hear somebody saying, ‘Look over there, that one’s going down, and I’ve got another one down already near the chapel.’ They’d lay us down in a place they’d set up, and we’d sit up after a few minutes and drink some water, and then we’d go back in again. I think I was in there twice resting up.

“Bad as it all was, I think it made me a better firefighter. It made me want to be better, to be able to do more if I could. I know of a couple guys who never volunteered again after that point, but I don’t think many of us were so adversely affected that they left fire service. Most of us realized we had done everything we could do.”

THE NEXT DAY

Killed primarily by smoke and poisonous gas inhalation, the victims brought out Saturday night showed little outward evidence of trauma. But when daylight came, along with it came the grisliest task: Removing bodies that couldn’t be removed before fire burned totally out of control.

BEATSCH: “We were pulling people out until 1 or 2 in the morning, until they ordered us all out because of the fire. Then on Sunday morning, we went back in to remove the bodies of the people that no one could get to the night before. It was very difficult emotionally. We were bringing out charred bodies. It was just kind of heartbreaking. Even though you knew the person was almost surely dead before they got burned up, you just felt bad for the fact you had not been able to get that person out of the building in a state where their family could at least recognize them and have a funeral and bury them like you normally do when people die. But all they had was a burned-up corpse.”

RIESENBERG: “The worst time for me was the next morning. We knew there were people inside who we had been unable to reach because the fire was just too massive. So a captain got a crew together and we went inside. We recovered 28 bodies. The sight that struck me most was a man and woman who were holding hands. It was like they knew they had no chance to get out, and like they just decided to stay together for their last moments. They were holding hands and were just melted to their chairs. I remember seeing another person decapitated, and also little old lady by herself, laying on the floor with a rosary in her hand. It was just heart-wrenching to see all that. Ten of the 28 bodies were completely unidentifiable. We could not tell if they were even male or female.”

PAUL: “I’ll always remember: The next morning when I went into the Cabaret Room, there were people sitting in chairs. They never got up, and the smoke just overtook them, and I guess it was so sudden they couldn’t react. It made me think of being in Shillito’s, the department stores that are now Macy’s, because the people looked like mannequins. I can still picture that very clearly, it’s an image that has never left my mind. I guess they were like a lot of people can be. They were there for a big night they had been looking forward to and they didn’t want to believe it was really being halted. Maybe they said, ‘We’ll go if everybody starts to leave.’”

Crews demolish the ruined Beverly Hills Supper Club. Photo Courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library.

THEY PUNCHED A LUCKY TICKET

Call it fortunate fate or lucky happenstance, but some folks had plans to be inside the Beverly Hills that night, only to see those plans change.

JETTER: “I was part of a small band. We called ourselves Nightwatch. I played drums, and we had done the Beverly Hills a number of times. And that night, we were supposed to be in the Venetian Room for a wedding. From what I’ve learned, based on the location of that room, I probably would have wound up succumbing to the fire. But the wedding got cancelled five days out. The bride’s sister ran off with the groom.”

PAUL: “My wife loved John Davidson, and I really think we would have been there that night, except that her brother and his wife had a special engagement elsewhere, and we agreed to watch their 3-year-old daughter, our niece, for them. And sure, it did dawn on us that we could have been there and been trapped like the people who died. But I’m a believer that when the Maker decides it’s time for you to leave this world, he decides when and how. So for us, for whatever reason, it just wasn’t our time.”

JETTER: “My mom and dad were supposed to be there that night, too, for a local savings and loan banquet. But she had the flu, and he wouldn’t go without her. Being sick paid off. You just chalk it up to an instance of the Good Lord looking out for your family. I was just stunned to learn what had happened. I didn’t know it that night. I found out when my sister called me early Sunday morning. My thoughts from that standpoint were pretty horrific. I felt a sense of extreme loss, knowing how many people died, and that we escaped it. My dad was a man of great strength and solitude. He was a military man. He didn’t have much to say about it. But my mom would cry. She was still very grief-stricken, because they had dear friends at that banquet who succumbed. For me, there was an emptiness that stayed there for quite a while. As time moved on, I got interested in firefighting. I went back to school in 1978 and joined the Deer Park Fire Department and took classes. I’ve been in the field of fire safety ever since.”

THE AFTEREFFECTS

The survivors of the ordeal moved on with their lives, and their experiences for the most part reflect the durability of the human spirit. But it wasn’t easy.

 

RIESENBERG: “It literally drove me nuts, the fire. The investigation of what happened was enormous. The state police were involved, the fire marshal’s office, and also politicians – some from Washington D.C., even -- trying to make a big show for their own benefit. It drove me absolutely crazy. It almost cost me my regular job (at Cincinnati Gas & Electric, now Duke Energy). All these people found out my job, and they’d call me there. Eventually my boss said, ‘Dick, I know you went through a lot with that, but you can’t have this going on at your business office.’ So I told the ladies who answered the phone, ‘If I get a call about Beverly Hills, give ‘em my home number.’ That wasn’t a good idea, I’d never do that again.”

Documents from the investigation into the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire are wheeled up courthouse steps on Dec. 10, 1979. The fire was May 28, 1977. Photo courtesey of the Kenton County Public Library.

PAUL: “I was 29, still in my first term as mayor. And it was very exciting to have the Beverly Hills in our little city. But now, in a heartbeat, we were dealing with being the site of one of the most tragic fires in the history of the country. Overnight, just such a tragedy. I must have gotten 200 or 300 letters, with stuff from all across the board. Some took credit for setting the fire. One said, ‘This is a sign that the final judgment is coming to the country. Join us in Peru, where we can escape.’ And of course when something bad happens people have to blame somebody, they can’t accept the idea of a tragic accident, and so there were threats made. It was extremely frightening.”

RIESENBERG: “My wife at the time, God love her, she couldn’t handle it. All these calls would come in, and for a couple of years, I was not the same person that she married. She just told me one night, ‘I’ve filed for divorce.’ And that just about put me over the edge. The fire and then the divorce put me in a hospital ward for 33 days. I guess you’d just call it the psychiatric ward today, but back then we called it the nut house. I guess I had what they’d call PTSD today. But I had a shrink assigned to me, and I got out 33 days later. I was lucky. I got cured.”

DAMMERT: “I’m OK now, my wife and I have a great life and I’m thankful. But a few years after the fire, I had nerve problems that led to all kinds of physical problems, and I had to quit working full-time when I was 49. I was a draftsman, but I just couldn’t do the job, couldn’t get through a day. I’m not positive it was the fire, but it seems that way. Something like that works on you. It’s pretty much always on your mind.”

RIESENBERG: “I remarried, and we’re very happy, but my present wife just does not understand a lot of it. She’ll say, ‘What was up with you last night? You were really restless, and yelling.’ Well, it may have been 40 years ago, but I’ve tried to put out that fire many other times to this day. In my dreams, maybe once every couple months now, I still have to fight that fire again. But if I had it to do all over again, I’d still do what I did. Being a firefighter is still in my blood.”

When the alumni of 5-28-77 visit any public facility, they do it with an awareness uncommon to the rest of us ….

PAUL: “I don’t know what I would have done. Maybe I’d have been like those people who waited too long to get up and wound up dying. But I’ll tell you, I’m a person now that if there’s ever a situation anything like that, where people are told to get out, I’m going to be right there with the first ones to leave.”

RIESENBERG: “Today’s buildings are so much better with exits and sprinklers and the fire codes, but my wife and I are prime examples of how something like this affects you. Every time we go to a restaurant, we will not sit anywhere that’s not near an exit. We’ve walked out of places when we couldn’t. It scares me that much. On a vacation in Hawaii once they put us on the 19th floor, and I said, ‘No, sir. I am not staying that high up. Fire ladders can go up 10 stories, so if you can’t put me on the 10th floor or below, I’m leaving.’ “

BEATSCH: “What I’d want to say, the most important lesson to learn, is that people have to be diligent, for their own protection, when they go someplace. But it’s been 40 years, and over time people forget these things happen. My sense is that at least three or four big fires, and bunches of deaths, have happened since then, due to overcrowding or not following fire codes. One in Rhode Island and the one in Oakland come to mind. So you have to look out for yourself. Myself today, I wouldn’t want to go in a place that feels overcrowded or short on exits. And even if it’s just a very busy place, I’d want to position myself near one of the exits. People just have to keep in mind that you can’t take the safety of a place for granted. You’re not always OK.”

… and their perspectives on life and fate are rooted in the experiences of that night.

GITLIN: “What I think of most in hindsight is how something so unexpected and horrible can happen at any time, at a time you’d never expect. Here we were, just out for a fun weekend night with friends. I think of all the pieces that had to come together to make our going there happen in the first place. You realize how quickly things can happen, and it tells you how unexpected life can be, and to enjoy every second that you have, because you don’t know the future.

“You just think, ‘Sometimes you’re the one who gets the break.’ All these years later, I think, ‘I was fortunate to live, and I got married and had two beautiful kids.’ And Jeff moved on and got married and had three beautiful kids and grandkids. And all of that would have never happened if things had gone just a little differently for us. There would be a big hole in our families’ universe, and you know it did happen to a lot of other families, with a big hole torn in their universe.”

PAUL: “People kept saying, ‘How could this ever happen?’ It just shows that a terrible tragedy can happen at any place, at any time. You may have a great neighborhood, and it might seem totally safe, but you just don’t know what fate has in store. The support we got from other communities in the area was tremendous, but I do remember hearing one official from Ohio proclaiming to the media, ‘Something like this could never happen in Ohio.’ And then it wasn’t long after that, they had the stampede at the (Who) concert in Cincinnati. I don’t mean people should walk around afraid and not live their lives, but you just don’t know what could happen.”

For Walter Bailey, the fire provided a boost that was unplanned and ironic, and also well-deserved.

RUBY: “Susan and I went to Pete Rose’s house the next day to watch all the coverage on TV. And we see this busboy being interviewed, and I said, ‘This kid saved my life, and he probably saved 1,000 other people, and now he needs a job. I’ve got to find this kid.’ When you owe somebody your life … and the life of the woman who turns out to be the mother of your children, and so many other people’s lives. He worked for me for quite a while. I didn’t care if I had an opening or not, I would create a job for him. He knew he had a job for as long as he wanted.”

BAILEY: “Jeff offered me a job. I worked at the Holiday Inn at 8th and Linn. I ran the parking lot for Lucy’s In The Sky, the nightclub he had at the top, and I was a bellman from time to time. When Jeff started The Precinct, I managed his valet parking operation there. You could make good money parking cars like that. That was what put me through college, parking cars.”

Walter Bailey is interviewed with his mother after the fire. Photo courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library

THE FINAL WORD

FROM WAYNE DAMMERT: “The fire was last night, as far as I’m concerned. I know every second of that night. Flames were shooting so high … I couldn’t tell you how high. But I remember thinking, ‘Tomorrow the whole world will know about this. The Pope will know about this.’ ”