The Beverly Hills Supper Club Disaster Explained

The Beverly Hills Supper Club fire is considered one of the worst disasters in Kentucky's history and remains the third-deadliest nightclub fire in the U.S. (via WHAS-TV). When the swanky dinner club in Southgate, located in metro Cincinnati, caught fire on a spring night in late May of 1977, 165 people lost their lives, and more than 200 were injured, including five firefighters. And to this day, there's still disagreement in some circles over the actual cause of the deadly inferno (via WLWT). One thing everyone agrees on, though, is the blaze started in the venue's Zebra Room, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Many patrons at the overcrowded club that night had gathered for a performance by singer John Davidson. At least a thousand people were packed into the club's Cabaret Room for the concert. As the flames spread through the sprawling building, a wave of panic took hold among those trying to escape. Later reports described the front of the club caving in amid a 100-foot raging inferno with 1,000-degree heat (via Cincinnati Enquirer).

Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire: Accident Or Arson

The supper club was a popular destination in northern Kentucky and metro Cincinnati for weddings, anniversaries, and retirement parties (via Cincinnati Enquirer). Or maybe it was the spot for a romantic date or a raucous birthday celebration. It was a major Midwest venue for Las Vegas performers, too. Whatever the reason people were there that night, no one anticipated the tragedy that unfolded, the speed at which it happened, or the randomness of who made it out alive and who would be among the dozens trapped in a hellscape of toxic chemical-laden smoke and burning timber.

The burning club cast an eerie, oily glow over the skyline for miles around as thick, black smoke tainted the air for miles around. Most of those who died that night succumbed to smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. The bodies of victims desperately trying to escape were found piled up at exits.

Vivid Memories for Beverly Hills Supper Club Survivors

The club only had 16.5 exits, but since it could hold up to 2,750 people, it required 27.5 exits under Kentucky law. And many of the existing exits were not clearly marked or easily accessible (via Fire and Safety Commodities). Another big problem at the venue was it had no sprinkler system or audible alarm system, according to Dayton Daily News.

But 2,600 people escaped that nightmarish catastrophe and, more than 40 years later, survivors with vivid memories still shudder at that terror-filled night. Although investigators ruled faulty wiring was the official cause of the deadly blaze, there are others who believe something more sinister. Some believe the Cleveland mafia, which was active in Cincinnati at the time, was behind the tragedy (via WHAS-TV) and others believe it was a depraved case of arson. "In a perfect world, there would be a new investigation," Bob Webster, the author of "The Beverly Hills Supper Club: The Untold Story Behind Kentucky's Worst Tragedy," told WLWT in May of 2021. "Personally, I don't think that will ever happen. The people that I feel were part of this arson are either dead or in their 80s."