Tuesday, June 25, 2013

THE UPSTAIRS LOUNGE FIRE MEMORIAL
 
Yesterday, June 24th, marked the 40th anniversary of the horrific Upstairs Lounge fire in which 32 people - 31 of them gay men - were burned to death.  The fire is widely believed by authorities and many members of the New Orleans gay community to have been deliberately set.  No one was ever captured or charged with the crime and case is still open, making it the oldest unsolved hate crime against gays in American history.
 
Yesterday's jazz funeral and memorial capped off PRIDE celebrations in New Orleans that also included the premiere of "Upstairs: The Musical" and declarations by Mayor Mitch Landrieu and other officials naming June 24th Official Pride Day - a long, long way from 1973, the year of the fire, when Mitch's own father, Mayor Moon Landrieu, failed even to acknowledge the tragedy.
 
I've told my story so many times - there's a link to that on this website, for those of you who might be interested - and there are so many images of the awful tragedy that was the Upstairs fire, that I think for the remainder of this post anyway, I'm going to let yesterday's images speak for themselves.
 
A beautiful floral tribute was donated for the occasion.
 
A brass band assembles to play for the traditional
New Orleans "jazz funeral."
 
Gay community leader Misti Ates (right) has worked
unceasingly for the past two years to make an Upstairs
fire memorial reality.  She is joined here by cast members
of "Upstairs: The Musical."
 
Charbonnet Funeral Home donated the services
of one of the last remaining horse-drawn hearses
in New Orleans.  The hearse is meant to symbolize
the dead who are not with us.
 
A better view of the hearse.
 
The funeral moves north on the Rue Chartres.
 
A smiling Misti Ates, for whom this memorial
means a promise is kept.
 
Attendees stretch back for blocks.
 
Relatives of the victims and others who couldn't walk
were given a ride in a streetcar shaped bus, seen here
as it moves west on the Rue Ste. Louis.
 
With the band playing "Just A Closer Walk
With Thee," the funeral makes its way
south along the Rue Royale.
 
The hearse, now with the flowers inside symbolizing
the spirits of the dead, comes to a stop in the Rue Iberville
next to the Upstairs Lounge site.
 
The band and people assemble outside the old Upstairs
to hear the blessing and the reading of the names.
 
A tearstruck Misti Ates reads the names of the
32 victims of the Upstairs Lounge fire.  Standing
just beyond her, in the grey shirt, is Duane Mitchell, Jr.,
son of Duane "Mitch" Mitchell, one of the 32 names on
that list.
 
Here is a very brief video I captured of the
blessing being rendered at the Upstairs site.
 
The story of the Upstairs Lounge didn't end with yesterday's memorials.  In many ways, the story has really just begun.  There is still much work to be done.  There is still much that might be learned about the victims; there may be family members who, overcoming the fears that kept them silent in 1973, might choose to come forward to help fill in the details; and there is a legacy to be celebrated, changing and growing and producing new expressions such as the dramatic musical that instantly became so integral a part of memorial activities. 
 
And speaking as a paranormalist, I would be terribly amiss if I were inclined to call the investigations and paranormal research carried out at the site complete.  Indeed, it is anything but complete.  Certainly, the tormented dead, who may conceivably have been reliving the horrific last moments of their lives in a fog of fear and anger, and in relative obscurity for the past 40 years - these dead may have finally passed on.  But the question for the paranormalist must always be, "Just what - if anything - remains?"


Monday, June 24, 2013

St. John's Eve Headwashing Ceremony In Honor of Marie Laveau

Manbo Sallie Ann Glassman attracts the faithful, the curious, and the obtuse in her annual celebration of the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.


Under the indigo moonlit skies of a New Orleans midsummer,
Manbo Sallie Ann Glassman leads the ceremony in honor of
Marie Laveau.
 
 


"Mother of Vodou, Queen of Conjure, Mistress of Many Names: Teach us how it is right to call upon you. Meet us in the moonlight, where the waters kiss the shore; let our drum beats be the heart beat
Of your presence that endures."
 
June 23rd, the Eve of St. John, has historically been an important day in the Vodou religion and in the beliefs of related conjure practices.  Indeed, if there is such a thing as a "holy day" in traditional voodoo, St. John's Eve is that day. 
 
Madame Marie Laveau (1794-1881) was recognized as the Mother of Vodou in New Orleans in her lifetime.  Even as a young woman she enjoyed the distinction of her reputation as a "rootworker" and "conjure woman."  Although initially that reputation was mainly among the free people of color and slave populations of New Orleans, she entered mature womanhood recognized by all as the de facto Queen of Voodoo in New Orleans - a title that has never been successfully challenged in all the years since her death. 
 
Madame Laveau's name can be found connected to any number of tales and legends that treat of the subjects of voodoo, hoodoo, and the supernatural in New Orleans; she has always been considered a mysterious historical personage.  But in fact there is plenty that is known about the life and activities of this powerful maven of the old city.  One thing is well-established, that every year on St. John's Eve (June 23rd) Madame Laveau would host a gathering of her followers on the shore of St. John's Bayou where it met Lake Pontchartrain.  These gatherings were very similar to the slave "bamboulas" held in the Congo Fields on the edge of the old French Quarter, but there was one exception: the St. John's bamboulas had Marie Laveau as a host.
 
Residents living nearby the St. John's Bayou site, and even those at some distance along the Bayou's interior, took to their homes at the first sound of the bamboula's ritual drums; superstitious about voodoo and other "heathen" practices of the slaves, good folk figured it was best to shelter inside when Madame Laveau was about "conjuring the devil."  Though there was conjuring going on at these bamboulas, it had nothing to do with the devil of Christian beliefs - and every good vodusi knew no devil would be rash enough to come up and challenge the great Marie Laveau! 

Portrait of Madame Marie Laveau
by Schneider (believed to be an accurate representation).


In age-old rituals, brought from Africa and through the islands of the Caribbean with the slave diaspora, Madame Laveau in her role as high priestess would call for the blessing of the ancestors, those familial spirits who are closest to those of us who dwell in physical reality.  Madame Laveau would then call upon Papa Legba, the guardian of the crossroads and, like the Christian St. Peter with whom he is syncretized, the keeper of the keys to the realm of the unseen.  Once obtaining the favor of Papa Legba, the remainder of the ritual could commence; this might focus on a particular Lwa (voodoo spirit) or perhaps on the initiations or petitions of the faithful assembled.  Rapturous drumbeats would call to those unseen on the other side, and throughout the night the spirits might come and go through the thin veil that separates the worlds, under the protection of Papa Legba and the constant guidance of Madame Marie Laveau.
 
Needless to say, in addition to the initiated and the faithful, Madame Laveau's rituals also frequently attracted the curious and the superstitious.  The gatherings were often written about, albeit overdramatically, and this served to increase the interest of visitors to New Orleans: indeed, curious travelers actually helped to raise local voodoo to tourist-attraction status very early on.  And even though it is at least 130 years since Madame Laveau physically participated in a St. John's Eve ritual, she regularly appears at gatherings of the faithful even in the 21st century.
 
The St. John's Eve Headwashing Ceremony hosted by New Orleans' most popular manbo Sallie Ann Glassman is one of these occasions. 

Manbo Sallie Ann Glassman stands before the altar
dedicated to Madame Marie Laveau.
 
 
For a number of years, Manbo (yes, that's the correct spelling in Haitian vodou) Sallie Ann Glassman and her community of initiates and followers known as La Source Ancienne Ounfo have hosted a St. John's Eve headwashing ceremony at Bayou St. John.  An altar honoring Marie Laveau is erected on the footbridge that crosses the bayou at the landmark of Cabrini High School, and the faithful assemble there at a specified time to celebrate the powerful Queen of New Orleans Voodoo.  Madame Laveau is evoked, petitioned to manifest to the community by possessing Manbo Sallie Ann or another of the company and to make herself known.  Unlike demonic possession, possession by a good spirit or one of the Lwa is looked upon as a positive experience in vodou, and one to be celebrated by any devotee.  I have personally seen Manbo Sallie Ann possessed by Marie Laveau's spirit, and not just at St. John's Eve rituals, but have also witnessed other attendees at the summer headwashing experience spirit possession.  The phenomenon is unpredictable and cannot be manipulated even by the High Priestess; it is amazing to witness.

Manbo Sallie Ann ministers to a possessed
devotee at a previous headwashing ceremony.

 
The public has always been invited to the St. John's Eve ceremonies and each year Manbo Sallie Ann, assisted by other initiated priestesses and priests, perform ritual headwashings upon each other and the public who attend.  The goal of the ritual is simple, to wash away negativity and those thoughts or beliefs that may be holding one back, and to replace them with positive thoughts and affirmations of renewal for moving forward.  Manbo Sallie Ann doesn't deviate very much at all from the type of ritual Madame Laveau would have conducted at her long-ago bamboulas, something interesting to keep in mind for the folklorist or historian in the audience.



Then again, it might be difficult for anyone to make that connection with history given the realities of attending a public voodoo ritual in the heat of June amidst a press of people.  Just as Marie Laveau's St. John's Eve rituals attracted crowds of the curious and the superstitious, so does the ceremony hosted by Manbo Sallie Ann.  In the several years that I have been attending the ceremonies, I have noticed the numbers of actual initiates and devotees remaining mostly constant, and can readily recognize some other attendees who have been around for a while.  But with each passing year the press of spectators and curiosity-seekers has increased until now, unfortunately, these people outnumber the old-line attendees.  
 
Insofar as the local residents of the St. John's bayou neighborhoods are concerned, the annual ritual is yet another opportunity to participate in what they see as a kitschy and trendy New Orleans activity.  And before you take me to task you might be interested to know that I say this after having sighted a family reclining under a TENT complete with grill and ice chests, a young hipster-chic woman tip-toeing through the grass in a white crinoline slip and very little else, and two jewelry-laden women emerging from a ginormous house with wine glasses, chattering gaily as if this old-line ritual was just another attraction at White Linen Night.  Yes, attendees are asked to wear white, but even the High Priestess is in white cotton and manages with bottled water . . .



Whether or not all this makes Madame Marie Laveau less-inclined to put in an appearance at the headwashing ceremony that is meant to be honoring her is left to rumination.  But I do worry that the annual ritual may outgrow itself, or indeed may have already done so, and might become more about the attendees and their idea of what constitutes a chic trend, somewhere else to see-and-be-seen, and less about the vision and historical purpose of the ceremony overall.



 
This aside, several interested tourists and passers-by were eager to ask questions about what was going on, and were fittingly enthralled when being told about the event.  The spark in their eyes, the glitter of a mental glimpse of something long-past manifesting right before them in modern times really struck me.  Now if we could just have a whole audience of people like that . . .
 
I realize, however, that this is not being altogether fair to Manbo Sallie Ann, a woman I love and admire tremendously.  She is, after all, a force to be reckoned with, and she has helped so many in her community that it is understandable for that community to follow her and embrace her whenever they can.  As a matter of fact, she does an awe-inspiring job of being the link not just to spirit on behalf of her servite, or to shaping vodou for a forward-thinking crowd, but also to the deep roots of our city's past.  And if there is anyone in visions of vodou that one can most easily picture standing beside Madame Marie Laveau on the shores of Bayou St. John's past it is Manbo Sallie Ann Glassman. 
 
As she teaches and often says, "We reach from here," pointing at her heart, "to infinity."  I cannot imagine Marie Laveau would in any way take issue with that!

Manbo Sallie Ann washing the head of
a ceremony attendee.


WHAT:  St. John's Eve Headwashing Ceremony in honor of Marie Laveau

WHERE:  "Magnolia Bridge," the old footbridge across from Cabrini High on Bayou St. John,
                  New Orleans

WHEN:  Annually on or about St. John's Eve (June 23rd)

 
For more about the Holy Day of New Orleans Voodoo visit this link:
 


Friday, June 21, 2013

UPSTAIRS: THE MUSICAL

The long, strange trip to recognition.




Last night I attended the world premiere of “Upstairs: The Musical,” a dramatic musical tribute to the 32 victims of the tragic 1973 fire at the Upstairs Lounge, one of the most heinous hate crimes in the history of the American gay rights struggle.  As I sat there waiting for the show to start, just amazed at the excited, positive vibe pulsating from the audience, I couldn’t help but recall the day I jumped on this strange wonder train that has been the story of the Upstairs Lounge.

I grew up in New Orleans and I vividly remember the ghastly images shown on the news in the aftermath of the fire.  Charred forms, grotesque mannequins that were once human beings, frozen in the throes of death and protruding from the scorched, barred windows were the images seared into my young mind at the time of the tragedy.  When, later in life, I became involved in paranormal research, the “old Upstairs” seemed a natural place to want to investigate.

The stairs to the old Upstairs Lounge.



I encountered the “old Upstairs” more personally when, during my meeting with Jimmy Massacci, building manager and owner of the Jimani Bar (located on the ground floor just below what was once the Upstairs Lounge), I got to tour the site.  Massacci pointed out charred bricks and wood, a third floor that had barely changed since the days of the Upstairs, and the very window where the charred mannequin body had been.  Yet the story had only just started to sink in.

About a month later, in July of 2010, members of Louisiana State Paranormal Research Society and I assembled at the site of the “old Upstairs” to begin our investigation.  It was miserably hot inside, and in some areas stiflingly silent, and during a solo EVP (electronic voice phenomena) session I reached out to the Upstairs dead; though I did not know whether or not I had any replies, I remember my words exactly:  “I promise you I will do the best I can to tell your story,” I said.  “I’m not gay, but I will find a way to get in touch with the gay community and to make them aware that you are still here.”  A chilling EVP response was captured saying:  “Promise me .  . .”

Almost exactly a year later, after my story about the Upstairs investigation and our findings had been published on the web, I was still puzzling over how to get the attention of a community whose members I didn’t know and who weren’t paying any attention to me.  Then one day, out of the blue, I was contacted by a woman named Misti Ates.  She broke the ice immediately by telling me, “You’re going to think I’m crazy, but since I read your story two weeks ago I have not had a minute’s peace!  We have to do something about this!” 

Misti Ates (right) and wife Catherine Gaither.
 
 
Well, imagine my surprise when I learned that Misti Ates had been voted Lesbian of the Year and was Grand Marshal of the New Orleans PRIDE parade that very year, and that further, she was actively involved in organizing in the gay community!  I would say she “came out of nowhere” but, as I was shortly to learn, “the guys” of the Upstairs have a way of bringing the right people together at the right time.
Throughout the remainder of 2011 and 2012, Misti and I, supported by her wife Catherine and several of their friends, made deciphering and telling the Upstairs story a genuine priority.  Admittedly, I took a little bit of a back seat to the powerhouse organizer that is Misti Ates – I had discovered that the dead of the Upstairs were still waiting to “come down” from their closeted hiding place, and Misti readily accepted that knowledge as truth and just ran with it!  She accompanied me on a return visit to the Upstairs where she and Catherine met Jimmy Massacci and went on a tour of the place; she immediately reached out to friends who might be able to help her rethread some of the skeins of this almost forty-year-old story. 
Gravesites were found – from those in the anonymous fields of the Holt Cemetery to, most recently, the last resting place of Reverend Bill Larson, the burned man of the window who became a mute, but powerful symbol of the journey as a whole; relatives were found and Misti would always reach out to them tactfully and compassionately; and survivors and other members of the gay community who remembered the event were located and asked to share their stories.  In the early summer of 2012, Misti and I, together with LSPR Society founder Bernadine LeBlanc, and my daughter, who was an eyewitness to some of the unexplained phenomena at the location, were filmed for an episode of SyFy TV’s “Ghost Hunters” series.  Although some might frown on this as grandstanding, it must be understood that the show’s producers had already happened on the story through mining of my website: we stepped in and agreed to be filmed in order to keep these “reality TV stars” from turning the story into a complete sideshow. 
Then on June 24th, 2012, I joined Misti, Cat, and two of their closest friends at the Upstairs site for a tiny, private memorial where we simply laid flowers and read the names of the dead, and renewed our promise to tell their story to the world.
Photograph of plaque commemorating the Upstairs Lounge victims.

 
 
Fast forward to last night and you can imagine, then, some of the emotions going through me.  It had been, very definitely, a long, strange trip, sometimes a roller-coaster with dark tunnels and dizzying heights – and last night was one of those heights as “Upstairs: The Musical” deftly rose to the occasion.  Each of the performers in the ensemble cast knew the weight of the responsibility they carried in attempting to translate such a tragic, hateful event into musical theatre.  But instead of dwelling only on the tragedy and the hate, the performers took the high road and fulfilled both the audience’s desire and the requirement of history to know more about whom these men were that died so brutally.  So what we saw weren’t just doomed gay men – indeed, one of the dead, Willie Inez Warren, was just a mother who stopped by the club to pick up one of her sons – but amalgamations of an “everyman” that combined all the possibilities that might have been true of every man in the bar that tragic day.  Lost love, faded dreams, true love, commitment in the face of hate and prejudice, ferocity, and above all, humanity were all aspects of the Upstairs dead; pick anyone that you like from the list of victims, they were all represented last night.
Scene from "Upstairs: The Musical"
 
Certainly there were standouts among the performers:  Katrina McGraw as Inez, Garrett Marshall as Buddy, and Patrick Dillon Curry as Mitch all turned in powerhouse performances.  The musical score and lyrics of show creator Wayne Self provided the perfect vehicle for the telling of the Upstairs story, with one song in particular – the plaintive “I’ll Always Return” – destined for anthem status.In fact, the only detractions worth mentioning are a sound system that could use some improvement and uncomfortable metal chairs in portions of the audience seating.
 
Speaking of the audience, there were several representatives of the Metropolitan Community Church present, of which the Reverend Larson was a member, as well as representatives of St. George’s Episcopal Church, St. Mark’s Methodist Church, and St. Anna’s Episcopal Church, all of which opened their doors and their hearts in the aftermath of the Upstairs fire.  In a moment when even the families of many of the deceased would not step up to claim the bodies of their own, these congregations stepped in to do the right and honorable thing.  So it was with interest that, occasionally during the show, I would glance over to the reserved seating area, where the congregation representatives and their friends were sitting, just to gauge their reactions.  
 
Members of several churches who stepped up for the
victims at the time of the Upstairs fire watch intently.
 
What I saw there were a group of people enthralled by what they were experiencing; watching a performance that certainly must have transported them back to the awful day and the weeks that followed the fire, their faces were a mix of enjoyment, a few tinged with sadness, perhaps some others stung by regret.  Yet over all there was a prevailing sense of one emotion: pride, the pride of having at last done right by the Upstairs dead.
 
Show Creator Wayne Self addresses the audience.
 
As for me, I took away a kind of “mission accomplished” satisfaction and not a little contentment in having kept a promise.  “I promise I’ll do the best I can to tell your story,” I said to Bud Matyi and the other victims when they were still waiting in the darkness of the “old Upstairs.”  I am content today because I know, I can feel it: the dead have come down, they have come out of the closet of obscurity that was the fire and death and the past.  They have come out to join the vibrant proud community that they hoped for and gave their lives for.  They have come out at last.
LISTEN TO THE MOVING "I'LL ALWAYS RETURN" AT THIS LINK:
 
 
WHAT:  UPSTAIRS: THE MUSICAL
WHERE:  The Istanbul Theatre inside the New Orleans Healing Center, St. Claude Avenue
WHEN:  Now through Monday, June 24th
 


 
 

 


Sunday, June 9, 2013

FANGTASIA III COUNTDOWN SHOW HEATS THINGS UP FOR THE MAIN EVENT
 
Fans with fangs enjoying the Voltaire show in the Howlin' Wolf Den.
 
Vampire enthusiasts, pop culture and industrial fans, and Renaissance fest veterans packed the house at Howlin' Wolf's Den last night to kick-off the countdown to Fangtasia III.  The eclectic mix produced a lively and friendly crowd with several stand-outs including organizer Kurt Amacker and his wife Sabrina, the inimitable Lord Chaz, author Lewis Aleman, paranormal researcher Bernadine LeBlanc, photographer Becky Plexco, scene favorite Gina Valentine, and New Orleans' own Lisa Lansou.
 
Industrial performance artist Michael Gunn and Shrapnihil loosened everyone up with a European-style arthouse performance of beats and rhythms coupled with a fascinating mist and light show.  The audience was held transfixed throughout the set.
 
  
Dark cabaret star Aurelio Voltaire headlined the show.  Playing the guitar and accompanied only by a bottle of Captain Morgan rum, Voltaire performed fan favorites including "Death Death (Devil, Devil, Evil Evil)," "To the Bottom of the Sea," and "Don't Go By the River" which he dedicated to the "wicked" City of New Orleans.  Voltaire's performances thrive on audience interaction, and the Howlin' Wolf Den venue added to the intimacy especially when, several songs into the set, Voltaire appealed to a guy leaning against a wall to "flip that switch" because "ya'll can't see me!"  Sure enough, the spotlight that had been missing sprang to life.  This interactive rapport with his fans is obviously a big part of his appeal, to say nothing of the tricorn hat, frock coat, streaming dark hair and piercing eyes . . . 
 
 
 
This countdown event was a precursor, just a little something for fans to sink their fangs into while anticipating the main event.  Fangtasia III, featuring dark wave band Christian Death and industrial edge performance artist DJ Jyrki 69, will take place on July 20th with the venue being once again The Howlin' Wolf. 
 
 
An "anonymous" commentator wants you all to know that this is NOT
Michael Gunn (with Mohawk) enjoying Voltaire's set.
 
Gina Valentine (center) was on hand for the show.
 
 
Fangtasia event organizer, author and artist
Kurt Amacker, handling mc duties.
 
 
Lisa Lansou (yes, she's related to the witch)
taken by surprise!
 
 
Bernadine LeBlanc, founder of Louisiana State Paranormal
Research Society and one-half of Les Dames Sombres
du Paranormal, keeping her eye on the scene.
 
 

The author, Alyne Pustanio, enjoying
a rare night out.
 
 
For more information about the Fangtasia event visit
 
For ticket information visit www.howlin-wolf.com