One of the deadliest nightclub fires in U.S. history destroyed the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate on May 28, 1977, killing 165 people. Former Enquirer editor and columnist Peter Bronson has published a new book, Forbidden Fruit, about the tragedy’s connections to Northern Kentucky’s long history as a gambling and organized crime hotbed. The fire was no accident, Bronson claims, but in fact flowed from 40 years of “Sin City” corruption linked to the birth of Las Vegas and even JFK’s assassination.
What was the Beverly Hills Supper Club’s connection to Newport’s organized crime history?
The facility that burned down in 1977 was built on the ashes of arson. Researching the history of the hilltop in Southgate led me to the first fire in 1936, a mob arson that also produced the first fatality, a 5-year-old girl. Several former members of the George Remus bootlegging gang ran nightclub casinos in the area, and Pete Schmidt had the crown jewel, the Beverly Hills Country Club. One night the boss of the Cleveland Four mob, Moe Dalitz, paid a visit and made Schmidt an offer: Sell it or else. Schmidt refused, so they torched the place late at night when only the caretaker, his wife, and her little sister were there. The caretaker and his wife survived; the girl died of burns and injuries.
Schmidt rebuilt but finally was forced by harassment, bombings, and robberies to sell to the mob. Later on, he had another club with the perfect name for Cincinnati’s “Sin City” playground: The Playtorium.
Gangsters from New York and Chicago owned clubs in Newport, but most nightclubs, brothels, and casinos were run by former members of the Remus gang until the Cleveland Four took over. The Cleveland mob had been given the franchise for Michigan, Ohio, and Kentucky at a national mob summit, and Dalitz was their boss. When he later became known as “Mr. Las Vegas,” he boasted that he learned everything he needed to know about casinos at the Beverly Hills Country Club.
Was organized crime involved with the Beverly Hills Supper Club?
Most have forgotten that the Beverly Hills Country/Supper Club was also burned in 1970 when it was being remodeled by Dick Schilling, who bought the boarded-up landmark to build a new “Showplace of the Nation.” The local fire chief said it was clearly arson. Schilling had been having labor trouble at his previous nightclub, the Lookout House.
When the Supper Club burned again in 1977, there had been major mob-style arsons of nightclubs and restaurants every year in the Newport area. Yet the authorities immediately insisted it was an accident and destroyed any criminal evidence by bulldozing the scene. Mob corruption and control was everywhere. Suspicions of arson were buried along with the Zebra Room, where the fire began. But enough evidence of arson remains to make it one of the biggest cold cases and mass murders in history. I give readers the evidence and let them decide.
What kind of evidence points to the 1977 fire as being more than an accident?
An informant told the FBI he overheard a conversation two weeks before the fire about how the Supper Club would be burned by the mob. A letter threatening arson was delivered to the Schillings. A Cincinnati fireman said he’d never seen a fire move so fast without accelerants. Witnesses who worked at the Supper Club described suspicious men working earlier that day in the Zebra Room, where the fire originated.
None of the survivors I met or interviewed believes the fire was an accident. Their testimony and eyewitness accounts are chilling and compelling.
Attorney Stan Chesley’s first lawsuit blaming faulty aluminum wiring failed. After six years of appeals, it was tried again. The second trial took three months. After seeing gruesome pictures of fire victims, the jury awarded damages despite expert testimony that bad wiring was not the fire’s cause. The victims got less than half of the damage fees, and the case was cited as an odious example of excessive fees in arguments for tort reform.
You detail the fire itself, the heroes who rescued people, and those who died. What kind of long-term effect has the fire has had on Northern Kentucky?
I’ve heard from numerous readers who shared stories about being there or losing someone in their family. Mention the Supper Club anywhere in the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky region, and you’ll hear a story. (You can read some of them on my blog.) Beyond the 165 killed, not including unborn children of three or four pregnant women who were killed, there were thousands who narrowly escaped and hundreds more who were burned or severely injured. The aftershocks of trauma and grief of our region’s worst tragedy still linger and emerged again last year in the battle over development on the site. I interviewed a paranormal investigator who visited the hilltop and said she recorded voices and the presence of “powerful” activity.
In your story of Newport and Northern Kentucky crime going back to the 1930s, who’s your favorite bad guy and your favorite good guy?
There are so many bad guys. Red Masterson was “The Enforcer” for the mob. He shot a Chicago hit man six times with two .38s in broad daylight on Monmouth Street and was acquitted on self-defense. Nobody knows how many of his victims were wrapped in chains and thrown off a bridge in a “Newport Nightgown.” Also there’s former Cleveland boss Dalitz and all the crooked cops, judges, and prosecutors who looked the other way with the “Newport Eye.” Finally, the sleazy porn kings and sultans of smut who took over Newport in the 1970s era of XXX-rated “disorganized crime.”
On the other hand, Newport city leaders fought all the way to the Supreme Court to clean up their “Sin City” image and make Newport what it is today. Wayne Dammert was the banquet captain who saved 75 people from certain death on the second floor of the Supper Club. Teen-aged busboy Walter Bailey took charge and warned people in the recklessly crowded Cabaret Room, saving hundreds if not thousands. Hank Messick from Louisville was the most fearless reporter covering the fire’s aftermath.
If I could put up a statue, though, it would be a tough call between Sheriff George Ratterman, the Eliot Ness of Newport, and Judge Johnst Northcutt, who risked his life, career, and family to stand against the mob and their political machine in the 1930s. When gangsters accused him in court of carrying a Tommy gun on nightclub raids, the judge said he carried only a handgun but “machine guns were discussed.” Juanita Hodges became a punchline as “April Flowers” in the attempt to extort Ratterman, but her flipped testimony actually exposed the mob plot to frame him and helped Robert Kennedy’s team convict underworld leaders, including local mob lawyer Charles Lester.
George Ratterman and others became the public face of the effort to control organized crime in Newport, but who else deserves a lot of the credit for trying to change “the ways things were” in Northern Kentucky?
I was surprised to discover how much Attorney General Kennedy was involved in Newport. As one of his first acts after being appointed by his brother, he sent a top deputy to go after the mob and help when Ratterman was drugged and “caught” in bed with April Flowers. My FOIA requests to the FBI uncovered some amazing transcripts of illegal wiretaps on the mob by Bobby Kennedy, including conversations about the Beverly Hills club and talk of killing the Kennedys. That vendetta and its tragic, historic outcome was ignited in Newport.