It all happened so fast.
The date was May 28, 1977, a humid Saturday night on Memorial Day weekend. Nearly 3,000 people had crammed inside the Beverly Hills Supper Club to enjoy a prime rib dinner and perhaps catch singer John Davidson in the Cabaret Room. The first gray, wispy puffs of smoke were spotted by a lone reservation clerk shortly before 9 p.m. In less than an hour, the “Showplace of the Nation” was engulfed in flames and acrid, black smoke. When it was over, 165 patrons and employees were dead, and the club that had once played host to local gamblers and the Rat Pack would gain infamy as the site of the third worst fire disaster in United States history.
That night the once-beautiful Beverly Hills grounds were transformed into a surreal and macabre scene, with the living wandering among the dead—victims of smoke inhalation and toxic gas released by the carpeting, chairs, drapes, wiring, and other building materials incinerated in the fire. Thirty-three local fire departments and 522 firefighters, many of them volunteers on small-town crews, battled the flames and faced the grim task of retrieving the victims. It took five days for the smoldering ruins to be fully extinguished, weeks for investigators to finish their work, months before Beverly Hills wasn’t the centerpiece of every single local newscast, and years before the subsequent litigation had run its course. Before the advent of 24-hour news coverage, before the Internet, and before the idea that major disasters mean a boost in the ratings, the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire held a grip on Greater Cincinnati in a way that could be compared to only two other events: the 1937 flood and World War II. Everyone, it seemed, had a connection to that terrible night at the club, and the memories are still raw.
To mark the 30th anniversary of the tragedy, we asked over two dozen people who were caught up in the fire to tell us what happened to them that night. This is their story.
“There was nothing like it in this town and there hasn’t been anything like it since.”
Set upon a hill overlooking Alexandria Pike, it was hard to miss, all 54,000 square feet of it. A rambling, irregularly shaped building composed of 19 separate spaces on two floors (one report would later describe it as “piecemeal construction”), the Beverly Hills Supper Club was something of an anomaly in the small bedroom community of Southgate. Decked out in the classic, gaudy style of mid-century Las Vegas—lavish dining rooms, sparkling chandeliers, an indoor waterfall, expansive ballrooms, showrooms, and banquet halls—the club could pack in thousands of customers each night for a simple reason. At $12.95 a head for a full dinner (“appetizers through dessert”) and the chance to dance and see a wide variety of high-profile acts—Redd Foxx, Phyllis Diller, Jim Nabors, James Brown, and Rich Little, among others—it was a bargain. And it was only seven minutes from downtown Cincinnati.
At the center was Richard J. Schilling Sr. A Newport native with only a sixth grade education, Schilling parlayed his knack for making a buck into his first million at the age of 35. In late 1969, he had acquired a tired former gambling den called The Beverly Hills Country Club and reopened it with a slight name change. The new “supper club” quickly became a cash cow for the 4-R Corporation, a business enterprise run by Schilling and his three sons, Richard Jr., Ron, and Scott.
Scott Schilling is now retired from the restaurant business and lives in Villa Hills.
It just kind of grew. The spiral staircase went to six banquet rooms upstairs and then you had the Zebra Room below them. The Viennese Room could be three banquet rooms and held about 300 people. Then you had the Empire Room, which was the main ballroom from the original Beverly Hills, and that could hold 650. Then we added the Garden Room and the Cabaret Room….
Wayne Dammert was a longtime waiter and banquet captain at the club and is the author of Inside the Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire. He lives in Alexandria.
It was really beautiful. Elegant, I would say. Everything was gold and maroon. There were lots of chandeliers and the busboys were always cleaning them. Under the circular stairs there was a waterfall and walls of mirrors. Out in the back there was a nice garden with a fountain and a chapel. We had weddings, public school proms, police functions, business functions—any kind of party you could imagine. Toward the end, people had to book two and three years in advance.
Lise Bohannon was a waitress in the Cabaret Room. She now lives in Monfort Heights and works as an office manager.
You could make a killing if you were a good waitress. I loved working there, not only because of the money but because we all worked so hard together. There was this camaraderie—it was like a family—and that whole entertainment thing was very exciting.
Jim Teter is a comedian and was a regular performer at the club. He lives in Orlando, Florida.
The Cabaret Room was wonderful, comparable in size and certainly laid out like a big Las Vegas showroom—like the Sands or the Sahara. Eleven hundred people could pack in there, so the explosion of their laughter was real loud. I loved it.
Jeff Ruby is a local restaurateur and a friend of the Schilling family.
It was great because you could see Vegas shows. I saw Redd Foxx in the lounge—not even in the Cabaret Room. There was nothing like it in this town and there hasn’t been anything like it since.
David Brock was a busboy at the time of the fire and eventually ended up working for the Schilling family for 20 years. Today he lives in Independence.
Anything Mr. Schilling built, he built it like Hollywood. He told me personally, “If you ever build anything, make sure it looks glamorous. You want plenty of lights. You want it to be recognized. That’s the only way you’re going to be successful.” Commitment was everything to the Schillings. You come in, you work hard, and you take care of the customers.
Walter Bailey was an 18-year-old busboy. He now lives in Flower Mound, Texas, where he runs his own investment business.
You were really working for three brothers, Ron, Richard, and Scott. Scottie was a big guy, like a linebacker, and he headed up the busboys and party services. Ron took care of the shows, booking talent for the Cabaret Room. And Richard ran the restaurant and bar; he was sort of the boss. Their father came in occasionally. He had that look of a man in charge—you know, a guy who got things done.
Jeff Ruby: He wasn’t big but he had a presence about him. He was loud, dressed good, kind of a tough guy. He didn’t mince words. He liked things first-class and his whole idea was to bring a Vegas-type atmosphere to this region.
Larry Wetenkamp was a maître d’ in charge of parties. He’s now a retired schoolteacher living in Park Hills.
Yes, [Richard Sr.] was tough. Yes, he was demanding. But when you have 350 employees you had to be or you’re gonna get your ass robbed. But if you had a problem he’d help you out. I can remember many a time Dick signed a check over to an employee and said, “Here, take care of your mom.”
“There’s a fire in the Zebra Room.”
Close to 3,000 people streamed into the club that night and the parking lot was packed with nearly 1,000 cars. Many were there to see singer John Davidson, who was performing at 8:30 and 11:30 in the Cabaret Room. Among the crowd was a small wedding party in the Zebra Room, an L-shaped space downstairs that had formerly been a storage closet. Amid the champagne toasts and cake, one patron had complained about a “funny odor” while others made mention of how warm the room felt. Shortly after the group disbanded, at 8:45 p.m., a reservation clerk caught a whiff of smoke while standing at her desk nearby. Her search for the source brought her to the Zebra Room’s large wooden double doors, which she opened—and just as quickly closed, after catching sight of a cloud of gray smoke filling up the space.
Wayne Dammert: I had been in the Zebra Room not long before. I had made up a bill for the wedding party and I remember looking at my watch just before I left. It said 25 until 9, exactly. Well, it must have been around 9 when I got back upstairs and Fran Oaks, a waitress, came up to me and said, “Wayne, there’s a fire in the Zebra Room.”
Walter Bailey: I was heading down the hallway toward the front of the building when a waitress rushed up to me and said, “Hey, do you know where the Schillings are?” Then she whispered, “There’s a fire in the Zebra Room” and took off. I’m thinking, It’s a girl, they get all excited about a fire, it’s probably just some appetizers burning. So I trotted down there and the room’s double doors were shut, which was unusual. As I approached those doors, this thick, dark smoke started to seep out. When I saw that smoke, I thought, It’s not just a little fire, and I left the doors alone. Instead, I headed to the main bar, which was packed, and told them they needed to exit the building.
David Brock: I was turning the corner and this busboy comes down the stairway, and I knew instantly what he was going to do, you could see it in his face: He wanted to open up those doors. To this day I don’t know what he was thinking. I’m yelling, “Don’t do it, buddy. Don’t do it!” But he jumped over the railing and kicked both doors open. The fire had been in that ceiling for such a long time that it was roaring [and] it started to draw him in. It was like a suction.
Scott Schilling: I was coming through the front dining room when one of the staff told me there was a fire. I got some fire extinguishers and then ran over to the [Zebra Room] where my brother Ron, Dave Brock, and one of the bartenders were trying to put it out. The lights were off in the room, all you could see was this glow, and of course smoke was billowing out. We couldn’t get to it.
“These two waitresses came flying up the hallway. They had panic in their faces.”
When the doors flew open, the fire was fed by a rush of oxygen, creating what is known as a “flashover.” In an instant, the Zebra Room was transformed into a furnace, with every combustible item—chairs, tables, carpet, and wood paneling—bursting into flames. Smoke from the conflagration quickly spread to the club’s many rooms. “Get these people out of here!” Ron Schilling shouted. The first call to the fire department went out at 9:01 p.m.
Dr. Raymond Timmerman was a staff physician at St. Luke Hospital in Ft. Thomas and part of a small group of doctors and their spouses having dinner in the Viennese Room. He’s retired and lives in Ft. Thomas.
We had already had our dinner when this young waiter came in and said we had to leave. He didn’t seem very excited so I said, “Well, I’ll finish my cup of coffee.”
John D. Hoyle, a former CEO of St. Luke, was dining with Timmerman. He’s now a public health advisor for the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C.
We got into the Empire Room and I looked to my left and the doors were propped open. Smoke had already filled the bar and descended to two or three feet off the floor. There were two club employees standing there looking through the smoke. I don’t know if they were contemplating if they could hold their breath and go out the front entrance or what. I finally ran up to them, shut the doors, and yelled, “You can’t go out that way!”
We got into the kitchen and there was a maître d’ in a tuxedo standing on top of a stainless steel table urging everyone to keep going. There was already some smoke entering the room and he was saying, “Come this way. Keep moving. Come this way.” I remember there were two high school kids working as kitchen help and one of them turned to the other and said, “I need to find my time card. They’re going to pay me for tonight.” He started running his fingers through the timecard rack so he could punch out.
Pete Sabino was a captain in the Cincinnati Fire Department. He was there with his wife, son, and his son’s girlfriend to have dinner and catch Davidson’s second show. He’s now retired and lives in Delhi.
We were standing in line, waiting to get into the Garden Room for dinner—there may have been 30 or 40 people ahead of us in this long hallway—and I half-jokingly said, “Which way do we go if we have to get out of here?” Right after that, these two waitresses came flying up the hallway toward the front of the building. They had panic in their faces. One nearly knocked my wife over. Then the gal at the podium says, “Come on, we’ve got to move.” We all made our way down the hall and out through the back exits. We passed by the Cabaret Room and I remember looking through the windows of the double-doors. It was business as usual—the show was going on and all the lights were on onstage.
“I’d never seen smoke like that in my whole life.”
As patrons downstairs made their way outside, upstairs, in the Crystal Room, the Afghan Hound Club and the Greater Cincinnati Choral Union were just sitting down to dinner. Smoke roiling up the stairwells began to infiltrate these second-floor banquet rooms. Unable to use the club’s main staircase, more than 200 diners and a dozen waitstaff worked their way through a short hallway in the back of the room, down a steep staircase to the kitchen below, and then to an exit.
Kay Barksdale was a singer in the Choral Union. She lives in Amberley Village and is the head receptionist for WCPO Channel 9.
We had just started getting our salads when a lot of us noticed how hot it was getting. Someone finally called out for them to turn up the air conditioning. One of the waiters, said, “We’ll see about getting that done, but let’s get the food out first.” They were really rushing. But it was hot. You could see the butter starting to melt.
Wayne Dammert: First it was just a little gray puff of smoke coming around the corner and then before you knew it, it was solid black, thick smoke. I ran back into the room where the Afghan Hound Club was and started shouting as loud as I could for them to get up.
Kay Barksdale: A few of us started to get up when we saw some smoke, which was gray and kind of wispy. But one of the choral members said it was nothing and that the staff would take care it, that we should just relax. So we did. But then this black smoke started billowing into our room and we heard this voice from the corridor yelling, “Get out now, this place is on fire!”
Wayne Dammert: I opened up a set of double doors by the dressing rooms near the top of the spiral staircase [in a room adjacent to where the Choral Union was seated]. Just a little. It was like a blast furnace. There was no way I could get to the other side.
Kay Barksdale: I’d never seen smoke like that in my whole life. The people that were going to the stairwell were disappearing. I actually blurted out, “The steps are on fire!” That caused pandemonium. Another lady had been knocked to the floor. She was getting trampled and screaming out, “Help me!” Somebody yelled back, “Help yourself!”
Wayne Dammert: I got to the back of the hallway and it wasn’t moving. Up until then I figured I could get out of there, but it was all backed up.
Kay Barksdale: I [went] back to get my purse and couldn’t see anything. I’m going, “Oh Lord, please have mercy on me.” Then this man stood before me and said, “Hit the floor.” He told me to breathe and cough, breathe and cough. He had pure white hair like I’ve never seen before on anybody and this beautiful blue suit. But what I noticed was that he wasn’t breathing like he was telling me. He told me to follow him down the corridor.
Wayne Dammert: I remembered there was a doorway that opened up to this flat area of the roof. The door was just a piece of plywood with a lock and a hinge. So I asked a couple of the bigger guys from the Choral Union to break it down. They tried ramming it with their shoulders, but it didn’t work.
Kay Barksdale: When I got near the end of the hall you could hear someone saying, “We can’t get out. The door is padlocked!”
Wayne Dammert: Smoke is really starting to come in and then the lights go out. When that happened I saw this complete picture of my family in front of me. They were in a meadow, my wife and my kids. At that point, I know what the deal is: I’m at the end of the line. Then, all of a sudden, people started pouring down those stairs.
Kay Barksdale: I got to the loading dock, looked down, and it was too far for me to jump. I didn’t want to do it. And then my mind just went blank. The next thing I remember is standing in front of some other choir members and they’re all crying, hugging me, saying they’re so glad I made it out.
“I’ve got to clear this room.”
After hauling in extra chairs, serving food, and delivering drink orders earlier in the evening, Walter Bailey had asked Ron Schilling if he could stick around to catch a little of the comedy act opening for John Davidson (ventriloquist Jim Teter and his banjo-playing partner Jim McDonald). He watched for a few minutes, then headed out of the showroom and down the hallway, where he learned about the fire in the Zebra Room. After convincing the patrons in the main bar to evacuate, he ran back to the Cabaret Room, where nearly 1,000 people were still enjoying the show.
Walter Bailey: I got up to Charlie Coslit, who was working the podium outside the Cabaret Room. There was a long felt rope that divided the corridor and on one side of the hall about 70 people in line, waiting to get in. I got real close to Charlie, and whispered, “There is a fire in the Zebra Room and we have to clear the room.” He looked at me like I was pulling his leg. Didn’t say a word, just stared at me. I’ll never forget that. So I turned to find the Schillings—I probably took 10 steps—and the thought went into my mind: I can’t go looking for the Schillings like that waitress did. I’ve got to clear this room.
I went back and told him again that we needed to clear the room. Finally he said, “OK, watch the line,” and he headed down the hallway to, I assume, open these three doors up to the garden. Then he came back and headed through a set of curtains into the Cabaret Room [and] toward the northeast corner exit. There were two doors there that led you to a service bar.
As he was in the service bar area the thought ran through my head: If people start coming out of the room, this line will be in the way because they’re blocking one of the exits. So I decided to move the podium and the ropes and then lead this line of people down the hallway and out into the garden area. It was a miracle because they did exactly as I told them. I had complete authority and I don’t know how.
Then I came back inside and waited by the curtain, thinking, OK, at any moment people are going to be coming through those doors. There’s going to be a big announcement. But nothing happened. The show was still going. I didn’t like it, so I decided to make an announcement. I moved with a pretty quick pace—not running or trotting, just walking fairly fast. The whole time I’m thinking, What should I say? Should I leave the information about the fire until the end of my announcement so that nobody panics? I headed down into the pit area and then got right up on the stage. When I got there I reached out and one of the comedians just handed me the microphone. It was all very smooth, which contributed, I think, to some of the rumors that I was part of the act.
I faced the audience and said, “I want you to look to my right, there’s an exit in the corner of the room. I want you to look behind you, there’s an exit on the back wall. And I want you to look to my left because there’s an exit in that corner. There’s a fire at the front of the building and I’d like everyone to leave the room.” And that was it. I handed the mic back to the comedian and got off the stage.
“You’re thinking, It’s a little kitchen fire.”
Bailey’s announcement, which came at 9:06 p.m., was initially met with a calm, almost blasé response by the audience. The club had overbooked the Cabaret Room that evening, and every available space, including the ramps that separated the room’s four levels—the pit area containing the stage, a slightly smaller second tier of seats, a third section that ran along the side walls, and a fourth level along the back—was packed. That calm did not last long.
Jim Teter: When Walter came right up those steps the thought that went through my head was, We have a disgruntled employee and he’s come to make a complaint about the management. Then he took the microphone from my partner and makes his announcement. For a kid that young to show such poise and risk his job, that was ballsy.
Susan Gitlin attended the show with friends, including Jeff Ruby, her boyfriend at the time. She is now a residential real estate broker in Los Angeles.
He was so calm we thought, Oh, this is part of the act. They’re gonna bring out seltzer bottles and squirt everybody. Then he just walked off the stage. So we’re waiting [but] nothing happened. We stood up—here’s how relaxed it was—and said, “Well, should we take our drinks? Should we just sit here and wait?” You’re thinking, It’s a little kitchen fire.
Jim Teter: I finally said to the audience, “Well, folks, I don’t know what’s going on, but I guess we need to get out of this room. And after we go outside and they give us the OK, we’ll come back inside and start this show over again.” Some guy yelled out, “Do I have to listen to the same jokes again?” I said, “No, we’ve got enough of this miserable material that we can change everything.”
Janice Popp was enjoying a girls’ night out with three close friends (two of whom perished in the fire). She lives in Covington and works as a senior administrative assistant.
We had just ordered our drinks when the busboy made the announcement. We got up but the tables and chairs were so close together that you basically had to wait for the people next to you to leave before you could move.
Donny Hammond was a cocktail server in the Cabaret Room. He now lives in San Francisco, where he works as a hotel waiter.
I was back at one of the service bars when Walter made the announcement. If there was smoke coming in, you couldn’t tell. People smoked back then and that room was always filled with smoke, plus there were candles burning. I just stood at my station and helped get people into a single file. I was going to follow them—I actually went up a tier to get out of the way. Then it got a little crazy.
“This huge cloud came barreling toward me.”
Unbeknownst to the audience, the fire was already roaring through the 150-foot hallway that led from the Zebra Room to the Cabaret Room, consuming the wood paneling, carpeting, wiring, and drop ceiling tile, and pushing a thick, noxious cloud of black smoke ahead of the flames.
Walter Bailey: I finally get to those triple doors at the end of the hallway and one is locked. I try to bang my shoulder against it a few times but it doesn’t open. It turns out that it wasn’t a problem because people just poured out [the other two doors]. So I decide to head to the Zebra Room to see what I can do. I started to run down the hallway. I got about a third of the way and this huge ceiling-to-floor cloud came barreling toward me with people running [ahead of] it. It was like the smoke was chasing them down the hallway.
Jim Teter: We’re standing there on stage, talking to some of the audience, trying to keep them calm and moving, when all of a sudden I look toward the entrance in the back of the room and a big roll of smoke, like a cloud, came right under the entrance and into the room. I dropped the mic down by my knee and I said, “Jim, we gotta get out of here.”
Susan Gitlin: We start to go across the stage and somebody said, “Please do not go this way. There’s no exit off the stage.” Then one of the Schilling boys came running through the doors into the room with a handkerchief over his face, panicked, and behind him came this wall of smoke. I said, “Jeff, Jesus Christ, there really is a fire!”
Janice Popp: I remember we started to the left, [toward the northeast exit] but the line was moving so slowly we turned to go in the other direction. Right about then smoke started to come in around the lights. Then this big ball of flames shot out of what I later learned was the light booth. After those flames shot out, the lights went out. You couldn’t see a thing. The four of us tried to stick together but people were running and screaming, you couldn’t keep track of everyone. Then somebody yelled out, “Get low!” That’s when I tripped. I fell once down these little steps, managed to get back up again, and was just trying to feel my way around. But the smoke was really coming and you could hardly breathe. I took one breath and that was it. I went unconscious. To this day I have no idea how I escaped.
“The next thing I saw was the greatest thing I’ve seen in my life: daylight.”
Jeff Ruby and Susan Gitlin couldn’t figure out which exit to use and got caught up in the chaos as close to a thousand people tried to find their way out in the smoke and darkness.
Jeff Ruby: We went to the right but there was a busboy saying you can’t go this way. We then turned to our left [toward the northeast service bar exit] and started that way, but there were hundreds of people over there. Hundreds, and not even a line. Just a mass of people and we were at the end of it. So we turned back to our right and that busboy is telling us again that we can’t go that way.
Susan Gitlin: So Jeff being Jeff, [he] stood his ground, looks at the guy, and says, “Fuck you. We’re going this way.” And the busboy said, “OK, OK, but hurry up.” Once we got into the hallway it was really dark and smoky. We were all packed in there. I kept rubbing my arms and rubbing the back of my hair because it felt like it was so hot my hair was going to singe up. I remember thinking about my mom. My father had been killed in a plane crash a few years before, and I was thinking, It’s so unfair that she’ll have to go through this all over again.
Jeff Ruby: People are pushing and shoving, so finally I make an announcement. I said, “Just stay calm and we’ll make it out of here alive.” I started giving orders. I’m a big guy and I was in shape. I took charge like a freakin’ sergeant.
Susan Gitlin: I was standing behind Jeff and he kind of had his arms back around behind me. I told him, “I can’t see you. I can’t breathe.” He said, “Keep your face in my jacket. Hold on and don’t let go.” At one point, I looked up and saw those ventriloquist heads coming toward us. I guess the comedians had grabbed them before they left. They were just floating up high through the smoke. It was the most eerie, surreal vision.
Jeff Ruby: The next thing I saw was the greatest thing I’ve seen in my life: daylight. The door was open and you could see Alexandria Pike and the entrance where that little sign that says Beverly Hills was.
Susan Gitlin: When we got to the doors, Jeff said, “Hold on, the stairs are really steep.” They were these metal stairs that were kind of tilted and slippery. What was holding up everything is that because John Davidson was performing, there were a lot of older women in their long gowns, falling down these stairs. When he knew I was safe, [Jeff] turned around and started almost catching them as they came down the steps.
Jeff Ruby: We got off those stairs and I turned around. Smoke was coming out of the exit. Then that door shut. There couldn’t have been more than 10 people that came down after us.
“I could hear people saying last rites and then it got really calm.”
On the opposite side of the room, at the northeast corner, the exit took people through a small service bar and then left to a door that opened to the garden area in back of the club. The route was initially slowed by a large group of seniors who were having trouble getting up the ramp to the swinging doors. When the smoke appeared and the lights went out, there was a stampede. Some people got stuck in the service bar area; others didn’t even make it that far. In the rush, several people collapsed behind the first set of swinging doors, obstructing the door on the left and preventing firefighters from pushing it open when they arrived on the scene. More people perished behind them, asphyxiating from the toxic smoke. Customers and employees tried to crawl over one another to get out the door on the right, but it soon filled with bodies.
Donny Hammond: Everyone started to push. I got pushed to the side and fell to the ground, [so] I started to crawl to the exit. By then heavy smoke was pouring into the room. I remember one of the waitresses fell near me and was screaming, and I told her to just shut up, to try not to breathe. I don’t know how far I got—it wasn’t far—but what happened is the doorway got stuck up with people. I just laid down there because everyone was falling on me. I didn’t know what else to do. I don’t even know how long I was there. There were maybe six people on top of me but they were already [dead], which I didn’t know. Whatever air was left was about a foot from the ground so I put my tuxedo lapel over my mouth to protect me. Half of me was in the Cabaret Room, the other half was in the service bar area. I had one arm free and I was waving at the bartender for him to see me.
For a little bit I could hear people saying last rites and then it got really calm. I didn’t hear anybody. The sound blanked out. You know how they say you see the light? It was like a camera filming a movie backwards. There was a really bright white and then I just felt like I was coming out of it. The bartender saw me waving my hand and he and a fireman started yanking me out from underneath the pile. It felt like they were pulling my arms off. They finally managed to get me free, carried me outside, and laid me out near the wedding chapel. The next thing I really remember is Ricky Schilling slapping my face to keep me awake. I still kid him about that.
“We didn’t think it was going to be a big deal.”
At 9:04 p.m., three minutes after the call to the dispatcher went out, three Southgate fire trucks arrived at the Beverly Hills. The department, a 55-man all-volunteer crew, knew the club well. Firefighters had frequently been dispatched to put out grease fires and the occasional car fire.
Ernie Pretot was a Southgate police officer and the first emergency official to arrive at the scene. He’s now a security officer at St. Luke Hospital in Ft. Thomas.
I was about a half mile, if that, away on Route 27, when I got the call. When I got to the top of the hill, I pulled the cruiser over to the left and saw all these people pouring out of the building. Some of them were kneeling down on the ground, like they were sort of gasping. The parking attendants came up to me and said, “Where’s the fire department?” “They’re on their way,” I said.
Richard Riesenberg was the Southgate fire chief. He’s now retired and lives in Alexandria.
You could smell the smoke. But we didn’t think it was going to be a big deal. We got in our trucks and there’s a point on Route 27 [where] if you’re traveling southbound you used to be able to see the club. When we reached that point, my God, there was smoke and fire coming out.
Ernie Pretot: I went up to the first step where the hostess would’ve been and I was going to go back farther into the building, basically right where the fire came from. And I swear to God, I heard a voice that said, “Stop.” Right then, an older woman came out with a pale green floor-length dress on. She came down those steps and almost tripped. I managed to grab her by the arm and right when I did I heard this poof. And I looked back to where I had planned on going and there was this black oily smoke.
John Beatsch was a 21-year-old lieutenant on the Southgate Fire Department. He’s now the chief.
I was on the first truck that arrived at the fire. As we pulled up I saw about two dozen people outside. I thought, Oh good, everybody got out.
“I tried grabbing this one guy and he said, ‘You can’t get me out. There are too many people on top of me.’”
Unaware of what was happening inside the Cabaret Room, Chief Riesenberg directed two of his men to the top of the building to respond to a report that there were people trapped on the roof. Having already requested help from the Newport and Ft. Thomas Fire Departments, Riesenberg put out an additional call to firefighters from nearby Wilder, Highland Heights, and Cold Spring. In all, 33 departments and 522 firemen would respond to the Beverly that night. Few, if any, were prepared for what they saw.
Ernie Pretot: I stayed in front doing crowd control. It never occurred to me that people might be dead. I kept thinking that everyone would get out. Then my partner came up to me and said they were bringing bodies out from the back. Bodies? I couldn’t believe it. So I went over and there was this man holding his dead wife in his arms who must have been seven or eight months pregnant.
Walter Bailey: I went into the service bar [of the Cabaret Room]. By this time smoke was pouring out of the door so you couldn’t see a thing. But there were people all over. You could hear the voices. It was like they were coming from the walls and ceilings. I groped around. Grab somebody and shove them out. Go back in and grab another person. My biggest fear was that when I was in there, somebody would grab on to me and hold me in there.
Pete Sabino: I entered into the service bar as far as I could and there were just people laying down on top of each other in the doorway. All you could see were heads. I tried grabbing this one guy from the bottom by the arms and he said, “You can’t get me out. There are too many people on top of me.” So I started pulling people off the pile and handing them over to some of the guys from the kitchen who were helping me. They were dragging them out as I pulled them off the pile. But I had to hunch over. The smoke was too much.
John Beatsch: People were stacked like a pyramid. The firefighters were asking people to wave their arms so they could see them. At some point I went to get some lights. When I left you could hear people yelling for help. I bet I was gone only five minutes. When I came back it was completely silent. That’s when you knew that it was going to be pretty bad.
Pete Sabino: There was this woman…I tried [to] get a hold of her, but I couldn’t get her out. And I knew I had to get out because I had gotten a good whiff. She was still conscious, still alive, but she seemed to be wedged or something. I had to leave her and that bothered me for a long time. It bothers me right now, thinking about it.
“I looked over toward the wedding chapel and saw all those bodies.”
The garden area behind the club looked like a war zone. Bodies were sprawled across the grounds, their faces covered with jackets and napkins. Those who were still alive were taken to the wedding chapel, where the St. Luke physicians set up a makeshift examining room. The club’s single-lane driveway quickly became jammed; as a result, it took a long time for ambulances to reach the scene to collect the injured and drop off medical equipment. By the next morning a line of emergency vehicles stretched down the driveway and nearly a half-mile along Alexandria Pike.
John D. Hoyle: When I knew my wife was going to be OK, the first thing I did was use a radio to contact the hospital. I had run into a firefighter who told me about the situation in the Cabaret Room, how people were stacked up like cordwood. I got hold of Dr. Daniel A. Whalen, the chief of emergency medicine at St. Luke, who was on duty that night. I simply said, “This is Hoyle. I’m at the Beverly Hills and there’s a very bad fire and unknown amount of casualties. Activate the disaster plan.”
Larry Wetenkamp: I wasn’t at the Beverly Hills when the fire happened; I was working at a little Italian restaurant next door. I’ll never forget it: This guy came in—he’d walked from the club—and he was smoking. I swear to you on my mother’s grave, he was smoking. He goes, “I was at the Beverly Hills and I got out.” He comes to the bar and the owner, Ben Bernstein, said, “Give this guy a drink.”
Wayne Dammert: There were all these bodies—maybe 100 at this point. And [I was] thinking there was nothing I could do. But then I spotted a young waitress, a girl I worked with, and said, “Are you religious?” She said she was and I asked her to help me pray over each of the bodies.
Dr. Raymond Timmerman: People who [got] out were having trouble breathing. They just couldn’t stop coughing. And as they came out the entrance they started to lie down, and we moved them back into the garden further. It was a very plastic place, just a lot of plastic all over, so when it burned it made a terribly black, heavy smoke that was irritating. The material was so heavy that apparently when they aspirated it, it got into their lungs and formed cylinders of this plastic material, which congealed, and they couldn’t bring it up.
Donny Hammond: When they brought me out I actually thought I was OK. I looked over toward the wedding chapel and saw all those bodies and thought, “Get somebody else who is worse off.” But I wasn’t OK.
Lise Bohannon: I started walking around the building to look for my father, who had come to see the show. I was going from entrance to entrance. It was horrific. You’d see people you knew trying to revive somebody and then stop and have to regurgitate all the stuff that they’re breathing in from these bloated bodies, before trying it again.
Richard Whitt won a Pulitzer Prize in 1978 for his reporting on the fire for the Louisville Courier-Journal. He’s now an author and lives in Marietta, Georgia.
People were just walking around in a daze. They’d come up to you and say, “Have you seen Billy?” And, you know, I don’t know Billy. But you couldn’t rationally respond to that.
Janice Popp: I don’t even know if I was outside when I came to. There were kinds of flashes, whether it was real or in my mind, I don’t know. It was like when you’re in a bad dream and not fully awake. I just kept telling myself, This will all go away if I can only wake up.
Richard Riesenberg: It was a firefighter’s worst nightmare. I asked the other commanders to count their people because I wanted to know how many guys were inside. At one time I think we had as many as 77. Finally I gave an order to get everybody out. There was no more we could do. We got all our people out and the head count was 100 percent. Five minutes later, I’m not kidding you, five minutes later, the friggin’ roof came down.
John Beatsch: The fire was so out of control, I don’t know if we would have been able to stop it. The thing that we always think about is, it’s a shame we went to the roof first because there was nobody to rescue up there. Had we gone to the Cabaret Room, maybe we could have saved a dozen or two dozen more people.
Allan White was the news editor for Channel 12. He’s now retired and lives in Ft. Wright.
It was just an eerie night because as I turned onto I-75 in Ft. Wright, I could see the glow in the eastern sky from the Beverly Hills fire. But at the same time, when I looked to my left, towards Ludlow, there was another glow. The Duro Bag Company was on fire, too. It looked like the world was coming to an end. It was horrible.
Nick Clooney was the anchor of the Channel 12 news in 1977 and regularly emceed special events at the Beverly Hills. He lives in Augusta.
I remember a firefighter who had worked his heart out, he was sitting down and making notes, and he had no idea that he was crying. I sat next to him and asked him what he was doing. He said, “I’m counting the dead but I’ve got a problem. There’s a woman who’s pregnant. Is that one or two?”
Pete Sabino: I got a ride home with a priest and in the car he turned to me and said, “Do you have a better feeling about God now?” I’m thinking, What a question to be asking right now, when I’m wondering how He could let this kind of thing happen.
“He looked like he’d been holding his breath.”
Army Reserve trucks cut a path through overgrown brush at the north end of the property to access the site. From there, they transported bodies to the Ft. Thomas Armory, where Campbell County Coroner Dr. Fred Stine and hospital officials had set up a morgue in a large gymnasium on the second floor. Refrigerated trucks donated by Kroger were parked outside and used to store unidentified bodies overnight. The Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science loaned students and equipment, and the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, trucked in extra body bags. The dead were carefully cleaned, laid out in long rows on army litters on the hardwood floor, and covered with white sheets. Over the next few days, the doctors and nurses helped families identify their loved ones.
Howard Ain is a reporter for Channel 12 News; he covered the fire that night.
I was 31 years old and I had never seen this many bodies. Most people in their entire lives don’t. They were in their ball gowns and tuxedos, just lying there, with little napkins over their faces. I looked at them and said, “Can’t you do anything?” This was as they were putting them in the big Army trucks. They said, “What can you do? We don’t have stretchers.” That was hard to watch.
Al Garnick is a retired Newport police captain. He’s a deputy coroner for Campbell County and lives in Cold Spring.
There was some comment about how we moved the bodies, but how do you move 160 people when you can’t get a life squad in there? We handled those bodies with dignity. We tried our best, but nobody was prepared for a situation like this.
Donna Oliver, an RN and evening supervisor at St. Luke Hospital, headed up the nurses’ operations at the morgue in the armory. She is retired and lives in Crestview Hills.
Cleaning up the bodies was obviously a very emotional thing for everybody. My thought was—and I know this doesn’t sound nice—but if we made it more like an assembly line it would be less emotional for the people doing the tasks. We had people washing the face, one person checking the belongings, and one person tagging the toe. We were all medical people and it was an emergency situation. This had to be taken care of, so we just did it.
Larry Penwell went to the armory to identify his late cousin, Harold “Russ” Penwell. He now chairs the business administration department and teaches at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
It was mind-boggling. Long rows of corpses. Russ had been shot in Vietnam in the hand and he had this scar. That’s how I knew it was him. I called my parents’ house in Kettering, which had become sort of the hub, and told them the news. The first time I’d ever seen my uncle cry, or any men in our family cry, was that day.
Tom Baker lost both of his parents, Warren and Jean Baker, in the fire. He lives in Centerville, Ohio, where he owns a trucking business.
I saw my dad lying there in his suit. He looked like he’d been holding his breath. I’ll never forget that face. It was then that I broke down. My mom wasn’t that far from my dad. And she had that same look.
Richard Whitt: We had a guy who was planning to be at the Beverly Hills that night and he was missing. I was able to use that as an excuse to get into the morgue and check off every face of the dead that were still unidentified. The bodies were laid the same way, kind of ritualistic. That did live with me because every one of the dead, they had this black, dark soot going into their nostrils.
Al Garnick: It was pretty warm that weekend. We had police department jumpsuits on and these orange looking work shoes. I perspired so much in that armory that the orange actually embedded into my skin and I couldn’t wash it off for a good two weeks.
“I felt sorry for those firemen, they really walked into a nightmare. I did, too.”
In all, 134 bodies were pulled from the Cabaret Room Saturday night, and another 26 the next day. Ninety-nine of the victims were found near the northeast corner exit. Eleven of those were behind the bar, and one body was sprawled across the bar itself. In the southeast corner, 35 bodies were discovered, including 19 in another service bar area and one behind the stage. Three days later, two more victims were found upstairs, under a pile of debris; three people died later in the hospital. The dead included John Davidson’s music director, who, after safely getting outside, went back into the Cabaret Room to collect his sheet music; a young married couple who escaped separately but went back in to look for each other; and several seniors who never got far from their tables. There were teachers and homemakers, executives and laborers. The youngest of the group was 16, the oldest, 74. Fire investigators later concluded that “the Cabaret Room exceeded almost triple the number of occupants that the room could safely accommodate.”
Ernie Pretot: I got home at four in the morning and sat in my backyard. My wife brought me out a Coke and asked me how it was. That was just the wrong thing to say. I went to pieces.
Richard Riesenberg: It’s a tradition in the fire department, you gotta have [your tools] spit polished [afterwards]. But when we finally got back to the firehouse, nobody was ready to do that yet. We all got downstairs where there was a little rec room and we cried.
Walter Bailey: Our phone started ringing constantly, so I had this ad hoc news conference. I told everyone that I would be at this 7-11 north of Highland Heights at a certain time. Three or four cameras showed up, some guys with pads, and I just explained what happened. I guess you could call it a press conference but I didn’t even know what one was at the time.
Al Garnick: When I got home the next day I couldn’t sleep so I went and played golf at Mt. Devou. I got into this real bad lightning storm and ended up standing in this shelter. I remember kind of breaking down, saying to God, “I don’t think I’m going to make it.” You see that much death in one day, you don’t want to see it anymore. Believe me, I see death every day when I’m on call. I go to auto fatalities. But it was just this magnitude of people. You’ve never been exposed to this kind of thing before.
Janice Popp: My boss and his secretary, Betty, came to see me on Memorial Day. That was when I really started waking up. Betty was stroking my forehead. I knew I was in the hospital, I knew I’d been in a fire, but I didn’t know how bad it was until later. My mom came into my room and told me that [my friend] Darlene didn’t make it. Then I asked about Mary Ann, and she said she hadn’t heard anything. When she told me that, I knew she had died.
Pete Sabino: That next day after the fire, one of the lieutenants and I headed back up there. He couldn’t believe it. I went in the Cabaret Room and there were people charred and burned. Skeletons up against one wall. You’ve seen pictures of the Holocaust? Well, it was similar to that. And then there were some people sitting at a table—it looked like they were still alive. They weren’t burnt. They were down low, below the fire. I felt sorry for [those firemen], they really walked into a nightmare. I did, too.
“I’m the victim guy.”
Everything about the Beverly Hills Supper Club received scrutiny: the building construction, the absence of sprinklers, and the lack of an alarm system or emergency training for the staff. Governor Julian Carroll blasted local officials for their supposed lax oversight of the club and then aimed his fire at the Schillings for their “total disregard…for the safety of the patrons.” The National Fire Protection Association issued a report in September 1977. A separate but similar analysis was offered up that same month by state investigators, who concluded the cause of the fire was “electrical in nature.” The following February, a grand jury was impaneled by the Campbell County Circuit Court to determine if any criminal violations had been committed. Its finding: No.
Stan Chesley would not take no for an answer. The man who would later be dubbed “The Master of Disaster” filed his first lawsuit on June 2, 1977, so that he could get court-approved access to the site. Over the next year, hundreds of suits would be filed, seeking more than $3 billion in damages for fire victims or their families. To simplify the matter, U.S. District Court Judge Carl B. Rubin consolidated the separate cases into a single class-action suit. Chesley took over as lead counsel, and with the help of William O. Bertelsman (now a U.S. District Court Judge) and Louis Gilligan, embarked on a groundbreaking legal tactic for his nearly 300 clients, going after not only the Schillings, who reached a $3 million settlement, but aluminum wire manufacturers; insurance companies; Union Light, Heat and Power. Co.; and polyvinyl chloride manufacturers. Over the next eight years, Chesley extracted more than $49 million from the parties and changed the course of personal injury litigation.
Stan Chesley: I get a call from a lawyer two or three days [after the fire] and he says that the state of Kentucky has hired a demolition company to tear down what’s left of the Beverly Hills Supper Club. Now you’ve got to understand, it’s sitting in the middle of  acres, so it’s no danger to anyone. And they’re going to destroy it? That’s getting rid of the evidence.
Richard Whitt: I had once worked in Kingsport, Tennessee, where there was a big chemical plant. I got to know a number of the chemists who worked there and we would have discussions about the dangers of fires. I remember one conversation about how when certain items burn they create this hydrogen thing. I knew public buildings were not supposed to have these kinds of materials. So, on that second or third day after the fire, I took a pocketknife and ripped apart some chairs and curtains and sent the samples to a lab in Cincinnati. It came back that, yes indeed, when this stuff burns, it produces this extremely toxic hydrogen cyanide gas. My story on the chairs got picked up by everyone.
Stan Chesley: Good God! They’ve got seats that are covered or padded with foam rubber. Maybe 2,000 chairs. Comfortable seat. So I’m learning, becoming a student. I don’t know anything but I ask. I’m off and running, and I’m pretty excited.
Richard Whitt: Stan Chesley called me up the next morning. He wanted to see the document from the lab. In return he shared with me one of his clients, a waitress in the room who had a photographic memory and was able to reconstruct everything. That was the biggest banner headline I [got]. It was like 60 points across the top of the paper that said the [Cabaret] Room was grossly overcrowded.
Stan Chesley: That was very significant, that there were more deaths than injuries. None of them burned to death, everybody died of smoke inhalation—that’s why people were still at the tables, that’s why people were stacked by the doors. Nobody had ever done any study as to what caused the death of people. They’d done some studies on carbon monoxide, but nobody ever did anything on cyanide or burning materials or whatever. The owner’s insurance company is there, but there’s no one there for the victims. I’m the victim guy.
I assembled a whole team of experts—[an] electrician, [a] chemical engineer. So I go up the hill, and there was this big command post and state police running around with their hats and their guns and their flashlights. The whole damn thing. And this guy said, “Hey boy, what are you doing?” This was the assistant to the governor. He said, “The governor is really mad at you. His chief of staff wants to speak with you.” I get on the phone. I’m 40 years old—I remember it like yesterday—[and] he said, “You have no basis here.” I said, “Sir, I’ve got a United States Marshal here and if you’ve got a problem with my being here, you take it up with [U.S. District Court] Judge Gene Siler.” The phone went dead. I was there 45 times with experts in the next two weeks.
My electrician said “Good God, you’ve got aluminum wiring all over this place.” I said, “So?” He said, “Nobody should use aluminum wiring like this. It collects oxide and it’s an inhibitor and it starts fires.” So we cut off a bunch of wires. Then he said, “God, you have PVC conduit.” PVC is polyvinyl chloride. He said, “When that stuff smokes, it gives off hydrogen chloride.” I’ve got a chemical engineer there and he said, “My God, 58 percent by weight is hydrogen chloride and if your mouth is wet and you breathe it in, you’re getting acid, you’re burning out your trachea.”
Based on what I knew, I couldn’t live with myself not pursuing aluminum [wiring] and the [other] products.
Richard Whitt: [Chesley] wouldn’t let me use his name but he ended up sharing a lot with me; stuff that eventually led me to write about the number of fire code violations and the [issues with the] aluminum wiring. He was incredibly intense and I guess I am, too, so we hit it off really well. If he had come across as some intellectual type—some rich, stalking lawyer—I probably wouldn’t have given him the original things that I had.
Stan Chesley: At the end of the day, [the Schillings] turned out to be incredibly important witnesses. They thought that they were getting flame-retardant drapes. They thought they were getting fire-resistant carpet. [But] everything burned. What causes a fire to spread? Fuel load. Wire, covered wire, rugs, drapes, plastic chairs, foam rubber—that’s all called fuel load. The negligence [of the aluminum wiring manufacturers] shocked me. If you ask people what was one of the major factors in the deaths of 165 people, even though a jury found that [the wiring] was a major contributing factor, they’d tell you the Schillings. They don’t tell you about the aluminum wiring because it didn’t get the big play. Never did.
Richard Whitt: Of course, [Chesley] got rich and I got a call from him when I won the Pulitzer. He said, “I told you!”
“You never move past it. It will always be there, for the rest of our lives.”
The impact of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire can be seen in nearly every public building today. Stricter safety codes have led to lighted exit signs, sprinkler systems, and audible fire alarms, and aluminum wiring is no longer manufactured. Kentucky policy makers beefed up the state’s inspection teams, wrote new, more stringent building and fire codes, and created the Office of Housing, Buildings, and Construction. For those who lived through the fire, the physical and psychological scars were devastating; survivors, medical personnel, firefighters, even journalists struggled to get on with their lives. The land the club stood on is now owned by a local nonprofit nursing home. The parking lot is cracked and crumbling, and a patch of scrubby hardwoods have overgrown the foundation. With the exception of a few scattered bricks, some rusty stove parts, a lone yellow fire hydrant, and a couple of stone pillars, it’s hard to tell a nightclub was ever there.
Richard Riesenberg: The whole thing changed my life. One hundred sixty-five people are dead and you think you’re responsible for that because you’re the chief of the fire department. The first fire we had after the Beverly Hills was at a candy warehouse in Newport. We had a couple of guys go inside and I made them come out. Firefighters cannot put a fire out from the street. They gotta go in. Right then and there I started to lose my authority. Eventually I lost everything I was familiar with. My wife and I got divorced, and I resigned from the fire department. I remarried and have turned my life around, but that fire was a turning point.
Susan Gitlin: After I moved out to L.A. I was invited to a movie premiere in Westwood. It got really packed and chaotic and we were pressed up against these big doors. I suddenly got this feeling of, If I have to get out of here, I won’t make it. I started banging on the doors, saying, “Let me in!” They could tell I was in a frenzy and they finally let me in. I apologized. I said, “I was in a very bad fire once and it was like this.”
Janice Popp: I had burns on 14 percent of my body—third-degree burns on my arms and back, and some milder burns on my face, which healed up good. I was in the burn unit at University Hospital for six weeks, then for another six weeks after they did surgery on my vocal chords. The scar tissue was building up in my trachea and suffocating me. For a long time I didn’t have a voice at all. I ended up getting around $125,000. It was bittersweet. It can’t put you like you were but at least it was a little something.
Kay Barksdale: I remember the fifth of June, I was in my house making cornbread, and I heard this voice tell me, “I came to you in the form of a man and saved you from the burning fire.” I thought, my God, this has got to be the Lord. And that’s been my testimony all the way up to the present moment.
Al Garnick: I went up to the site with John Hoyle on the 15th anniversary. When we got to the top there was a full meal laid out with a candle, flower vase, and a cup of coffee. It obviously meant something to somebody, so we just left it.
Walter Bailey: I knew what I did, that I had saved lives. But when I found out how many died, I felt very bad about that. I started faulting myself. Maybe I should’ve run instead of trotted to the room. Maybe I should’ve avoided trying to get the guy that runs the Cabaret Room to clear it out. Maybe I should’ve just walked in the room and shouted. That was very tough for me and I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it. That lasted for years.
Ernie Pretot: I’ve often wondered about that pregnant woman. What kind of kid she would have had and what their life would be like. He or she would have been 30 now.
Scott Schilling: My parents are gone, so they can’t be hurt any more. But to be reminded of it every year—they don’t mention wars as much as they mention the fire at the Beverly Hills. You never move past it. It will always be there, for the rest of our lives. We didn’t do anything wrong, but then, it happened to us, in our club.
Originally published in the May 2007 issue.
Photograph courtesy the Dave Horn Collection / Kenton County Historical Society