Reggie was a young black man from Dallas studying to become a Jesuit priest. Ricky was a young white Mormon from New Orleans preparing to go on a mission trip to China. Their divine callings would be radically altered when they eventually met each other one night at a neighborhood gay bar on the edge of the French Quarter in New Orleans. There, they found a calling in each other. You might even call it destiny, a destiny that would take a tragic turn neither one could see coming.
Reginald Eugene Adams was born on May 31, 1949, in Dallas, and grew up near the projects. Gifted intellectually and musically, Reggie, as he was called, won a scholarship to Jesuit High School. Upon graduating in 1968, he attended the University of Dallas before transferring in 1969 to St. Charles College in Grand Coteau, Louisiana. There he began the long, arduous process of becoming a Jesuit. In the process, he confessed his homosexual feelings to a superior who nonchalantly brushed the admission off. This official then recommended Reggie be sent to New Orleans to attend Loyola University. One wonders if the official was aware of the temptations and “sinful” opportunities New Orleans had to offer.
In 1971, the LGBT+ community in New Orleans was still firmly closeted, but the French Quarter boasted a lively gay bar scene, and it was only a short streetcar ride away from the novitiate house where Reggie lived. And so when Reggie wasn’t studying or praying, he explored the city’s underground gay bar scene. Bars in New Orleans were still segregated at that time, not only by race, but also by sexual orientation. Gay male bars didn’t want women patrons and the lesbian bars didn’t want male patrons. Reggie became a regular at the Safari Lounge, which catered to African-American men. Within a block of the Safari Lounge were a few other gay bars, as well as an alley, which, at night, became a popular cruising area for gay men. There was also the Midship, Gertrude’s, and Gene’s Hideaway, all of which hosted a robust hustler business.
The UpStairs Lounge, however, was different. It occupied the second floor space above a straight bar. The UpStairs Lounge was not a seedy hustler bar or even a cruise bar; conversely, it had a family-friendly environment (the notion of a family friendly bar is not strange in New Orleans). It was a neighborhood joint that catered to the gay working class. The newly formed Metropolitan Community Church, an LGBT+ friendly denomination, held Sunday services there for a while. The bar also featured a room where some nights the regular crowd would stage what they called “nelly-dramas.” Notably, it was one of the few bars that allowed women and African-Americans.
It was at the UpStairs Lounge that Reggie met Richard “Ricky” Soleto, a local performer just beginning to experiment with what was then called “female-impersonation.” The two hit it off and soon found themselves in love. Those who knew them say they were a natural fit for each other. Reggie and Ricky both abandoned their religious ambitions and moved into an apartment together. Ricky gave Reggie her class ring. Reggie called Ricky “My Queen,” and nicknamed her Regina. The promise of a shared life was sweet, despite the challenges they faced as an interracial gay couple. But a shared life was not to be.
On Sunday night, June 24, 1973, Reggie and Regina were at the UpStairs Lounge enjoying the weekly beer bust. The bar was full, the music was good, and spirits were high. But not all was well. One patron, a hustler named Rodger Dale Nunez, was drunk and had started a fight with another regular, Mike Scarborough. The bartender ejected Nunez, much to the relief of the regulars whom Nunez had been annoying. As he was escorted out of the bar, he threatened to come back and “burn you all out.”
Then, minutes later, a fire was started in the stairwell. It soon erupted, engulfing the bar in flames and smoke. Within nineteen minutes, twenty-nine people were dead. Three more died in the burn ward at Charity Hospital in the following days. It was the deadliest crime against LGBT+ people in twentieth century America. No one was ever arrested, and Nunez killed himself a year and a half after the fire.
Just before the fire was set, Reggie and Regina were sitting by the piano when Regina decided to run to their apartment a few blocks away to retrieve her checkbook. The couple was going to dinner with bartender Buddy Rasmussen and his boyfriend, Adam Fontenot, as soon as Buddy’s shift ended. Reggie offered to go instead but Regina insisted on going, noting Reggie had just ordered another Scotch & soda and, besides, Regina also wanted to get and return a hat she had borrowed from a friend who was at the bar. Reggie acquiesced and returned to his conversation while Regina ran home for a few minutes.
By the time Regina returned to the bar, flames were shooting out of the windows at the UpStairs Lounge and the street scene was chaotic. She searched the crowd for Reggie, but Reggie was not there. She went to the hospital, but Reggie was not there. Reggie Adams perished in the fire. His body was so charred, he had to be eventually identified through dental records.
Regina was in a daze for weeks. Unable to accept she had lost her beloved, she dutifully laid out his clothes on the bed each morning. Regina recalls her mother came to stay with her at the French Quarter apartment to support her.
Reggie’s mother traveled from Dallas to New Orleans in early July 1973 to bring home the remains of her son. Adams received a Catholic funeral—something Archbishop Hannan in New Orleans denied the other victims of the fire. Adams was buried in Calvary Hill Cemetery on July 11. He was still wearing Regina’s ring.
Regina today lives as a trans woman in New Orleans, where she still performs regularly. In 1980, she legally changed her surname to Adams.
Reggie Adams’ grave remained unmarked until 2021, when Marc Schmitz, a high school friend of Reggie’s, and the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana, a nonprofit based in New Orleans, shared the cost of having a headstone placed at his grave.
The story of Reggie and Regina is just one of many stories cut short by an arsonist on that fateful night. 32 people died in the UpStairs Lounge—the deadliest fire on record in New Orleans’ 305 year history.
Now the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana is spearheading a weekend of events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the tragic 1973 Upstairs Lounge fire. The events will take place in various locations in the historic French Quarter of New Orleans on June 23, 24 and 25, 2023. The commemoration will document and share this overlooked event with the community and honor the 32 victims and their families. Events will include presentations and panel discussions, a memorial service, and a second line jazz funeral procession culminating in a candlelight service.
An opening reception and informational presentation will be held at The Historic New Orleans Collection. Panel discussions and presentations will examine the event and response, a review of the many creative endeavors that have been produced to tell this gruesome story, and present-day implications of the fire. The weekend will also feature film screenings of the three documentaries made about the fire. In addition, there will be a performance of Tinderbox, a dramatic reading with musical accompaniment by Brad Dalton based on the book of the same name, as well as a performance by the Mélange Dance Co. at the New Orleans Museum of Art’s Lapis Theater called The UpStairs Lounge: United We Stand.
This commemorative program is made possible through the generous support of the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana, The Historic New Orleans Collection, Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, Crescent City Leathermen, New Orleans & Co., St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, Metropolitan Community Church of New Orleans, the Louisiana Office of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism, the New Orleans Marriot, The Faerie Playhouse family, the New Orleans Culture and Tourism Fund, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, The Big Easy Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the Mélange Dance Co., Brad Dalton, and David Campbell.
Registration opens to the public on April 15, 2023, at www.lgbtarchiveslouisiana.org.