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Beverly Hills Supper Club fire: 165 killed, over 200 injured in blaze

The overcrowded club lacked the required exits, firewalls and fire alarms in the 1977 tragedy

By Bill Carey

According to the NFPA and “Beverly Hills: Anatomy of a Nightclub Fire” by Robert G. Lawson, the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire was the worst multiple-death building fire in the U.S. since the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston in 1942.

The fire in Southgate, Kentucky, is the seventh deadliest nightclub fire in history. Occurring on Saturday, May 28, 1977, the blaze killed 165 people and injured over 200.

Building Construction

Between 1970 and 1976, several additions created a sprawling, non-linear complex of rooms and service areas at the Beverly Hills Supper Club. The complex, roughly square, is described using a north-south orientation for reference. The front entrance was at the southern point. East of the entrance was the Zebra Room, with a corridor separating it from the Viennese Room and service spaces running north along the eastern wall. The corridor ended between the Garden Room and the Cabaret Room.

A smaller corridor led from the internal corridor to an exit door between the Garden Room and the Cabaret Room. Exiting from the Cabaret Room required navigating through double doors to the main corridor, a single door to the branching corridor, a sharp turn, and then proceeding a quarter length of the Cabaret Room to the exterior door. This complex navigation was common in the building, with rooms interconnected or leading to hallways and exits. A partial second story above the southern third of the building housed two small event rooms called the Crystal Rooms.

A smaller corridor led from the internal corridor to an exit between the Garden and Cabaret Rooms. To exit from the Cabaret Room, one had to pass through double doors to the main corridor, a single door to the branching corridor, make a sharp turn, and proceed a quarter length to the exterior door. This complex navigation was typical of the building, with interconnected rooms and various exits. The southern third of the building had a partial second story with two small event rooms called the Crystal Rooms.

The fire

On May 28, 1977, the Beverly Hills Supper Club exceeded its capacity, especially in the Cabaret Room. The room, safe for 600, held between 900 and 1,300 people, with many seated in aisles. The entire club had approximately 3,000 patrons, double the fire code limit of 1,500 for its number of exits.

Near the south exit by the main bar, a wedding reception in the Zebra Room ended around 8:30 p.m. due to excessive heat and loud noises. The room stayed empty until 8:59 p.m. when an employee smelled smoke and confirmed its presence. She asked another employee to call the fire department while they tried to fight the flames with extinguishers. Opening the door allowed oxygen in, causing the smoldering fire to flashover and spread rapidly. The fire department was alerted at 9:01 p.m. and arrived by 9:05, already seeing smoke from the building.

As smoke escaped the Zebra Room and drifted down the hall, nearby patrons and employees smelled it. Employees urged people to evacuate, but the complex lacked an audible fire alarm, so isolated rooms were unaware of the danger until informed in person. Fire investigators estimated the fire spread to the Cabaret Room in two to five minutes. By 9:06 p.m., a busboy interrupted the show to order an evacuation, but the audience of about 1,000 had little time to exit. The fire also spread upwards, engulfing the spiral staircase, the best exit for those on the second floor.

Around 9:10 p.m., the power failed, plunging the building into darkness. Panic ensued, with people in the Cabaret Room pushing and shoving. Two of the room’s three exits were quickly blocked by fire, forcing everyone to funnel through a single exit. Employees outside tried to pull guests to safety, but the crush of bodies made it nearly impossible. Some who escaped got lost in the building’s confusing layout, ending up in dead ends. Firefighters, focused on the Cabaret Room, found their efforts insufficient as temperatures soared, making further rescues impossible.

At 11:30 p.m., fearing a roof collapse, Command ordered all firefighters to evacuate. Around midnight, the roof collapsed onto the remains of the building.


By the morning of May 29, 134 bodies had been removed and laid out initially on the hillside and then in a makeshift morgue at the Fort Thomas Armory. By June 1, 28 more bodies were found, bringing the death toll to 162. Most were found in the Cabaret Room, with 125 near the north exit and 34 near the south exit. Two were found in the Viennese Room. A few victims died later: one on June 25, one on July 2, and the last, Barbara Thornhill, on March 1, 1978, bringing the total to 165.

Contributing factors

Several factors contributed to the high death toll:

  • Overcrowding: The Cabaret Room, typically holding 614-756 people, had over 925 on the night of the fire.
  • Inadequate exits: The club, with full occupancy of 2,750, required 28 exits by law but had fewer than 17, many not clearly marked or easily accessible.
  • Faulty wiring: Governor Julian Carroll’s report called the wiring an “electrician’s nightmare,” with multiple code violations. Inspector H. James Amend doubted it had ever been properly inspected.
  • Lack of firewalls: This allowed the fire to spread quickly, drawing oxygen from other areas.
  • Poor construction: The club was built piecemeal with inadequate roof support, no common ceiling space, and flammable materials.
  • Safety code violations: There was no sprinkler system and no audible fire alarm.
  • Poor oversight: The local fire department knew of these issues but lacked the authority to enforce corrections.

More detailed, specific information about the Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire is presented in the the NFPA Fire Investigations Report below.

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Lessons learned

Fires in assembly occupancies, such as nightclubs, theaters and auditoriums, can be particularly deadly without proper safety features, systems and construction materials. Unlike office buildings, these spaces contain large numbers of people in one area.

The fire, and other fatal fires involving assembly occupancies, led to changes in the NFPA 101: Life Safety Code. The NFPA standard requires both new and existing assembly occupancies with an occupant load over 300 to have a fire alarm system with voice notification. Additionally, new assembly occupancies with the same occupant load requirement must be equipped with an automatic sprinkler system, regardless of building construction type.