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Washington Blade: Gay News, Politics, LGBT Rights: Memorial proposed for 1977 Cinema Follies fire victims

The Kennedy on L condo building at 37 L St., S.E., is on the site of the Cinema Follies Theater where a 1977 fire claimed the lives of nine men. (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro Jr.)

A gay man from New York City has started an online petition calling on the developer of a condominium apartment building under construction near the Washington Nationals baseball stadium to place a commemorative plaque on the property, which was the site of the Cinema Follies adult gay movie theater where nine men died in a 1977 fire.

Anthony Patrick Hello, who describes himself as a history buff interested in exploring how discrimination often caused LGBTQ people to place themselves in compromising situations, is asking DBT Development Group to place a commemorative plaque on the site of its 11-story Kennedy on L project the company is building at 37 L St., S.E.

The new condo development is located in a section of Southeast D.C. less than a mile from the U.S. Capitol that was once known as home in the 1970s and 1980s to several gay bars, gay male strip clubs, a gay bathhouse and the Cinema Follies. Also located in the area was the Cinema Follies’ successor, the Follies Theater, which opened three blocks south of the one that caught fire. All of them have long since been displaced by upscale redevelopment surrounding the Nationals stadium.

A representative of DBT Development Group didn’t immediately respond to an email and phone message from the Washington Blade seeking their reaction to Hello’s petition drive asking the company to install a memorial plaque honoring the nine men who perished in the Cinema Follies fire.

Hello told the Blade that Kenric Walwyn, the company’s vice president, called him on Tuesday to ask for more details about Hello’s request. According to Hello, Walwyn told him a decision on whether or not to install such a memorial would have to be made by the soon to be formed condominium association whose members will be the owners of the project’s 74 luxury apartments that are expected to be placed on the market soon.

Resident owners are expected to begin moving into the soon-to-be-completed building sometime next year. Hello said he plans to contact a management company that DBT Development Group has retained to represent the condo association to advocate for the commemorative plaque.  

The two-story warehouse building that was home to the Cinema Follies was demolished a few years ago to make way for the condo development project.

A write-up on the website of D.C.’s Rainbow History Project says the Cinema Follies first opened in 1975 in a former auto repair building that it converted into a theater showing X-rated gay films.

“A disastrous fire on October 24, 1977, trapped patrons in a second floor theater,” the write-up says.

D.C. Fire Department officials said at the time that all of the deaths were caused by smoke inhalation rather than burns. Officials said the fire was ruled an accident caused by a cleaning attendant using an electric carpet cleaning machine that was believed to have created sparks that ignited highly flammable cleaning fluid.

The fire started on the first floor and ignited the lower part of the only staircase leading from the upper theater to the front exit, D.C. fire officials said. Some of the surviving victims told authorities a roof exit door was locked, preventing the patrons from the only other means of escaping the building. But the management said the roof door was unlocked from the inside.

“Following the fire, there was considerable controversy as to whether there should have been more and better lit exits,” the Rainbow History Project write-up says. “The disastrous fire led to renewed enforcement and strengthening of fire regulations at D.C. clubs,” the write-up says.

A March 20, 1979, Washington Post story says Bill Oates, the Cinema Follies owner, was fined $650 after authorities determined the building was in violation of four of the city’s building code requirements. Among them was the installation of a wooden stairway to the second floor of the theater, having more than the 16 steps allowed for a stairway at that building, and for installing a wood stage on the second floor.

Several of the victims of the 1977 fire were later identified as men married to women whose families did not know they had been patronizing a gay adult theater. The Rainbow History Project write-up says the fire, among other things, led to the founding of the Gay and Married Men’s Association “as a social alternative.”

Hello, 40, told the Blade he learned about the Cinema Follies fire while doing research on gay-related history. He said the fire took place at a time when many gay men were forced to remain in the closet due to discrimination and societal bias.

“I became sort of enraged that there is not even a Wikipedia page on this,” he said. “I can’t even find the names of the dead. I can find about four or five of the names of the nine men who died,” he said. “And I feel like that’s a travesty. So, I’m trying to right that wrong.”

Hello said a memorial plaque at the site of the tragedy would play a small role in honoring and respecting the men who lost their lives.

His petition asking the condo developer to consider placing a memorial plaque at the site of the fatal fire can be accessed here.

A podcast he has produced about the Cinema Follies and other LGBTQ related events can be accessed here.

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Washington Blade: Gay News, Politics, LGBT Rights