Remembering the Beverly Hills Supper Club Tragedy

By Joyce West | 6/01/17 8:00 AM

It’s been 40 years since a fire at the Beverly Hills Supper Club killed 165 people, but the scars remain for many Northern Kentuckians. At the Arboretum in Lexington, victims of Flight 5191 are remembered.  In Harlan County, the town of Lynch keeps the memories of its coal town heyday alive. In Jefferson County, Valhalla Golf Course was a dream come true for the late Dwight Gahm.


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The Beverly Hill Supper Club Fire
The Memorial Day weekend fire at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in 1977 killed 165 people. Nearly 100 people were injured.

The Southgate nightspot covered over 65,000 square feet of floor space, or around 1 ½ acres.  It was the largest facility of its kind in the Midwest, said Brian Hackett, Ph.D., director of the public history program at Northern Kentucky University.

Local historian Bob Webster said about 2,000 people were scheduled to be at the club that night, including the employees. Employees recalled being notified about the fire by a teenage busboy named Walter Bailey.

“We had just seated the last person in the show,” said David Brock, who was a Beverly Hills Supper Club employee. “And Walter Bailey came up and said, ‘Hey, Brock, there’s a fire.’ “

Brock said the 18-year-old Bailey decided on his own to go onstage in the Cabaret Room and ask people to evacuate. John Wayne Dammert, another employee, recalled the moment Bailey interrupted the opening act.

“So he walked on up. He had his white busboy jacket on,” Dammert recalled. “And the guy on the stage [said], “Oh, there’s an Indian on the horizon.’ Well, right then Walter came on the stage. Some people thought, well, that’s the Indian. But it wasn’t. So without even thinking, the guy with the microphone handed it to him – well, he just knew something was not right.

“So Walter took it and said, folks, there’s a small fire out in the front. … He said you need to leave, you can come back when it’s out, your drinks and everything will still be here.

“Now – immediately – that stuff comes in there,” Dammert said. “What if he hadn’t done that? No question. They’re all dead.”

Brock said that when his group got outside, the first fire engine was pulling up. The general manager of the facility said to him, “Brock, they’re trapped.”

“I said, what do you mean, they’re trapped? He goes, the people in the back corridor, the Cabaret Room, can’t get out. They’re trapped against the doors. They can’t get them out.”

He said that they then saw a woman throw herself through a plate-glass window to escape the flames. “At that point she was on fire, rolling. So we took our waiter’s jackets off, dipped them into the pond. We put them around her body,” he said.

As people in the Cabaret Room began to realize they couldn’t get out through the main exit, they were forced out the two emergency exits, said Webster. People could not see through the smoke.

“Once people are in that hallway, it’s filled with smoke, the power eventually goes out. A lot of these people, some actually open a door to a closet. There’s eight or 10 bodies that are found in the closet,” he said. “Some open a door that is actually the backstage area. Some were found there. In the hallway there’s several bodies that are no more than three or four feet away from the exit. And they became overcome with smoke and they perished in that hallway.”

The west side of the cabaret room was even worse. Swinging waiter doors were not reset so that both doors opened outward. “No one had notified club staff of the emergency,” Webster said. “The waiter doors were not reset, so you could only open one, not the other. And as there’s a hundred, two hundred, three hundred people that are trying to get through those doors, pushing on the left-hand door, it doesn’t do you any good. People are overcome with the smoke, they fall to the ground. People fall on top of them, on top of them, and it just wedges bodies into that doorway.”

Brock recalled that they were there for 2 ½ hours evacuating the building. The air conditioning units exploded. “It reminded me of a war zone,” he said.

Brock said there were probably 70 people outside on the lawn at that time. He said they went to the exit where they were pulling people out. “You’d grab a person and it felt like it was wax coming through your hands, they were so hot.  It got up to 1,500 degrees in the Cabaret Room.”

Outside, as flames consumed the supper club, Dammert recalled asking a waitress to pray with him over the bodies. “I’m putting my hand on their head. Everyone was covered, thank God. And just asked God to take this person’s soul into heaven,” Dammert said.

Most of the bodies were laid out on the back lawn near the chapel, which was used as a triage, Webster said. Among those helping the victims were doctors and nurses who happened to be at the supper club at the time, doctors attending a dinner party, and nurses serving as bridesmaids in a wedding, he said.

The Fort Thomas armory was used as a makeshift morgue, Webster said. “Bodies were taken there and then laid out for loved ones to come the next two or three days, going body to body, searching for their loved ones,” he said.

According to the state fire marshal’s team that investigated the fire, the most probable cause was an electrical malfunction in a concealed space at the ceiling of the Zebra Room. The exact fixture or appliance to blame was never determined because of damage to the area.

“The Beverly Hills fire is definitely the worst tragedy that happened in Northern Kentucky, or even in the Cincinnati area,” said Hackett.

Hackett said the fire prompted new laws to prevent the use of toxic chemicals in decorations and upholstery, and to require the use of chemicals that would prevent fires from spreading. Webster said fire codes were changed to require larger hallways and fire exits, as well as battery-operated backup spotlights on the fire exit signs.

“This is an open wound,” said Hackett. “This is something that has never healed. And you think about those young people who were there to celebrate, you know, life, and their lives being cut short. And there are people today that have not recovered because of the loved ones they lost in that fire. And that’s a long time to feel pain. And I think it’s very much shaped the psyche of Northern Kentucky and the people who live here.”

The Arboretum
The Arboretum, the State Botanical Garden of Kentucky, is located in Lexington on the University of Kentucky campus. The 100-acre garden devotes 80 acres to the native plants of the seven regions of Kentucky. There is also a 2-acre children’s garden and 6 acres of horticulture display gardens.

In the rose garden is the Flight 5191 Memorial, created to honor the 49 people who died in the 2006 jet airliner crash at the Blue Grass Airport in Lexington. The memorial, a sculpture of 49 birds taking flight, represents each of the people who died. Each of the birds holds a canister with mementoes placed within by family and friends.

The community of Lynch, the gateway to Black Mountain in Harlan County, has been known as a model of diversity for decades. The town, which at its peak was home to 10,000 people of many nationalities, now numbers under 800. Those who remain are working to revitalize the historic town and preserve its history.

Mining began here a century ago, in 1917. “The town in its entirety was owned by the United States Steel Corporation,” said Mike Obradovich, curator of the Lynch Bulldog Room, which houses memorabilia from the old Lynch High School. “So that means the houses, the buildings. You had to work in some capacity for U.S. Steel to have a place to live here in Lynch. U.S. Steel maintained the homes, all the way up into the sixties,” he said.

There was something the houses didn’t have, though. “Now one thing we didn’t have was indoor plumbing,” Obradovich said. “The majority of us.”

U.S. Steel recruited workers in Europe for the Eastern Kentucky mines. John Adams, the mayor of Lynch today, said his grandfather came from Italy in 1912-13.

In addition, African-Americans from the South who had experience in mining were recruited. Gene Austin said his father migrated to Lynch from Birmingham, Ala.

“When he came, this was a union mine, a United Mine Workers mine,” Austin said. “And the union didn’t go along with discrimination. They had one pay scale for everybody.” The mines did not have black supervisors, however, he said. “But everything else was about equal.”

Bennie Massey agreed. “If you worked here, they kind of watched out for you and took care of you,” he said. “And you brought your family here and raised your family. So it was a really good place to live and raise your family. It still is. To me it is.”

Adams said his father enjoyed every day he went to work. The population swelled. “At one time it had a population of 10,000 people, the largest unincorporated town in the U.S,” said Adams. “You could hardly walk the sidewalks for people on it.”

A large number of children lived in Lynch. “When I was growing up, it wasn’t nothing for me to step out of the house and play with 30, 40 kids. Kids everywhere,” said Adams.

In the early days, Obradovich said, children from immigrants around the world played together in Lynch. “We had many, many different nationalities. We were in such a confined space here in the base of these two mountains. We all had to share those areas as far as organized sports, whether it was baseball or basketball or football.”

Austin recalled that each coal camp had its own team with both whites and blacks. “They just all played together to play the other camps,” he said. “And so it wasn’t any problem for us at all. Because we were used to it.”

Obradovich said he grew up on a street of 18 homes with nine nationalities, including Irish, Hungarians, Poles, and Mexicans. “It was just a neighborhood melting pot,” he said.

In 1963, Lynch High School and Lynch West Main were integrated. The Lynch High School Bulldogs, frequent state champions in football, continued winning after integration.

“That was a great asset, especially to our ’63 championship team. We got some quality individuals who were skilled players,” Obradovich said.

Massie recalled the football days as good times. “We learned how to play with each other and celebrate all our wins together. That kind of just brought everybody together.”

U.S. Steel left Lynch in 1984. The coal boom heyday is remembered at Portal 31, the first exhibition coal mine in Kentucky. “We’ve actually had coal miners from other countries that wanted to see this setup,” said Marvin Goins, director of operations for Portal 31, The Depot & RV Park.

Although Portal 31 began as a way to remember those who lost their lives in the coal mines, today it helps preserve the town’s heritage. He said Lynch is very likely one of the few coal towns left where most of the original buildings are intact.

“As long as we can carry this history forward, they’ll always have a knowledge of this country,” Goins said. “These mountains are probably some of the most scenic mountains on Earth. And this is right in the middle.”

Valhalla Golf Course
Twenty miles east of Louisville, Jack Nicklaus found a landscape he described as a golf designer’s dream. That dream began with the late Dwight Gahm, a Louisville area businessman.

His son Gordy Gahm recalled how it all began. “Valhalla was obviously a dream come true. It started on a rainy day when my older brother and dad were at our place of business [Kitchen Kompact] in Jeffersonville, Indiana, and I got a call that night. They said, hey, Walt and I are sitting here talking about – how about a golf course? And I said, well, why not?”

Gordy said his father, who died in 2016, loved golf and wanted to do something for his family. “I think he built the course for two reasons – the love of golf, and the love for our mom and his sons – because he wouldn’t have done it by himself for him. He had to do it for somebody,” Gordy said.

Keith Reese, general manager of Valhalla, said that when they were looking for a designer, the Gahms turned to Jack Nicklaus. “He was the hot player, the hot architect. They wanted the best. They wanted to hire the best.”

As it happened, Dwight’s son Walt had played football at Purdue, and his college roommate was quarterback Bob Griese, who lived in South Florida where Nicklaus lived. The connection was made, and Nicklaus came to Louisville.

“They were able to bring him in and he loved the property,” said Reese. “And he loved the concept of them wanting to build a championship golf course.”

Gordy Gahm recalled that every time Nicklaus visited the property, his father would stand back so he and his brothers could enjoy the visit with the golf legend. “But he’d always tell Jack before the visit started, he goes, do not listen to any one of the boys,” he said.

Valhalla Golf Course opened in 1986. It has hosted three PGA Championships and the 2008 Ryder Cup.

“The way it was designed is to create natural amphitheaters around a lot of green. That was really important for Ryder Cup, when you have 40,000 spectators following four or five groups a day,” Reese said.

Among the memorable PGA championships there was Tiger Woods’ win after a three-hole playoff with Bob May in 2000. “They just matched each other shot for shot,” Reese said. “And then you go into the playoff and Tiger was pointing on 16 as he’s rolling that birdie putt in, that was a pretty exciting time.”

Reese said Valhalla has finished clubhouse renovations recently. “But the thing our members are most excited about is our simulator area downstairs,” Reese said. “We call it our golf den. A practice putting green, two golf simulators, a small bar and a lounge, so this’ll be a neat place in the wintertime.”

Reese said Valhalla brings in an estimated $50 million to the local economy when it hosts a tournament.

“To be in this environment every day, I pinch myself every time I come in the gate,” he said.

Gordy Gahm saw some of the clubhouse renovations, including a room with a painting of his father and Nicklaus, for the first time himself during this Kentucky Life interview. “I look over at the wall, I’m glad the interview is facing this way, because that’s pretty emotional,” he said.

Valhalla is a dream come true, he said. “And it keeps getting better. And that’s what’s really, really unbelievable.”