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Remembering a gay actor who died in 1973 UpStairs Lounge fire

The Cutting Hall Performing Arts Center is a jewel in the landscape of suburban Palatine. Accented by a brick exterior and set in a quiet midcentury neighborhood, the theater dates back to 1928 when it was built as part of the original Palatine High School.

Several bronze commemorative nameplates greet visitors on theater seats as they enter the 430-seat auditorium. The plates were part of a fundraising initiative called “Save Me A Seat.” Seat N-1 was the first plate sold in 2013 at the suggestion of Carol Lange, the former Cultural Arts Coordinator for the Palatine Park District, which operates the theater. It honors the late Palatine actor Guy Andersen.

On the night of June 24, 1973, Andersen died in an arson fire at the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans. He was 41 years old.

The fire killed 31 men and one woman during the last weekend of Pride Month. It was the largest mass killing of gay people in America until the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida.

The story of the UpStairs Lounge is chronicled in the 2018 book “Tinderbox (The Untold Story of the UpStairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation),” written by former Naperville resident Robert W. Fieseler.

Lange is a distant relative of Andersen’s. She never met him. But Lange has taken it upon herself to organize a reading and conversation to honor Andersen for Pride Month. Fieseler will travel from his home in New Orleans to appear on June 14 at Cutting Hall.

“My parents told me he had been killed in a fire right after it happened,” Lange said during a recent Sunday afternoon conversation in the theater. She wanted to know the details about this promising young actor. “So I started doing a little research.”

Lange discovered that Andersen’s mother Mildred Frye came from a family that owned stables on the original site of the iconic Durty Nellie’s music club in downtown Palatine. She was an elementary school teacher. His father Roy worked in retail hardware sales.

Andersen was 17 years old when he appeared at Cutting Hall in 1948 when the Palatine Players presented the comedy “George Washington Slept Here,” portraying a brat who is staying with his aunt and uncle. He graduated from Palatine High School in 1950 and performed in every high school theater production at the hall.

Andersen went to Los Angeles to become an actor. When that didn’t work out he returned to his parent’s home in Palatine. It was 1973 and he became a traveling secret shopper, where he monitored employees by pretending to be a customer. The job took him to New Orleans.

“I knew Guy did theater,” she continued. “I couldn’t find anything about him. I went to the historical society and looked at the yearbooks. I couldn’t find anything on the internet.”

Andersen’s life had mostly vanished.

Many years later Lange saw a segment of the reality television show “Ghost Hunters” that was investigating the UpStairs Lounge fire. “I grabbed my laptop and looked up victims,” ​​she said. “And there he was. His name was spelled wrong (Anderson.) It’s wrong almost everywhere. It’s even spelled wrong on the plaque in front of where the (UpStairs) building was. I thought maybe he spelled his name wrong on purpose to protect his family a little bit.”

Lange has since learned a lot about Andersen.

In October 1950 he was a freshman in what was called the Goodman Theater School of Dramatics. He appeared in their children’s production of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” And 1960 was a pivotal year in his life. Andersen was hired as a teacher at Rock Falls High School. He taught summer classes at the Art Institute. He performed with the Green Ram Players in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

Among framed vintage playbills in the Cutting Hall lobby, there’s a black and white photo of the Palatine High School dramatic club, circa 1949-50. Andersen was club president during his senior year of high school. He is sitting in the front row of the picture at the time he portrayed Uncle Dudley in the comedy “Your Uncle Dudley.”

Andersen is now an actor with a face, thanks to the work of Lange.

Andersen had one sister, Avis Berg of Arizona. Lange has communicated with her through email but has not received a response in recent months. Efforts to reach her for this story were unsuccessful. She would be 84 years old today. As Fieseler was finishing up “Tinderbox” in 2018, Berg sent an email to him. She told Fieseler that her younger brother never came out to her and if he told their parents he never discussed it with her. In part, she wrote, “I have always felt Guy lost his life before he found his place in the world. He did not leave a home, in a physical sense, or a family other than his birth family. I suppose in that sense he was a ‘mystery’. He would not have wanted to be a mystery. He would have wanted to be known.”

Such neglected history is the subtext of “Tinderbox.” Fieseler reports how most newspapers ignored the event. He said it even flew under the radar of New Orleans historians. The UpStairs Lounge event never received the attention of American civil rights markers like the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots in New York City or the 1963 firebombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

“The New Orleans media operations operated under the old model of how liberal cities dealt with queer life,” said Fieseler, who has lived in New Orleans since 2014. “Which was the ‘open secret.’ You wouldn’t discuss someone’s sexuality if it was out of the heterosexual norm. So when a major gay emergency strikes the city they didn’t know how to respond to it. You had closed gay reporters from the (New Orleans) Times-Picayune reporting in ways that would please their editors and the angle in some cases was unsympathetic. Because of the high number of dead, it went to the AP and UPI and wound up being reported nationally but only for one or two days. Then there was a clampdown. These victims would not be perceived as sympathetic to the ordinary consumer of this information.”

Fieseler, who is gay, dedicated “Tinderbox” to his husband, who was born on the 13th anniversary of the UpStairs Lounge fire. Fieseler wrote, “The fates are strange, even cruel, and yet aware.”

Fieseler was born in Chicago. His family moved to Naperville in 1986 when he was five years old. The future “Tinderbox” author graduated from Naperville Central High School in 1999.

“In Naperville during the 1990s, there were basically no openly gay or lesbian people,” he said. “The default state of a queer person in Naperville was the state of being closed and hidden. It was incredibly socially conservative. The frequent moments of silence during morning school announcements were laden with Christian meaning. It was all perceived as this two-prong life path: the moral code that you stayed a virgin until you married a woman. Or, there was this dark and sordid path. There was no categorization of someone being out and gay and a being a viable or decent citizen.

“I can only think of a handful of kids who came out in high school and they were usually in the choir. Generally, when they came out their only friends were girls who were in the choir. They lost their male friends. And it was controversial but they’d be friends with openly gay kids. They became pariahs. Closed gay kids saw this and knew that was social death. After prom, high school kids had their limousines drive through Boystown in Chicago so that they could laugh at men holding hands. You could not have what was considered a happy life while you remained in town. So most of us were biding our time to go away to college. The idea of ​​being gay in Naperville was too terrifying.”

Of course, the depth of this experience informed “Tinderbox.” Andersen was a closeted gay man a generation before Fieseler, in Palatine, just 35 miles north of Naperville. In 1950 the population of Palatine was 4,079 people.

Fieseler explained, “It was not one for one in terms of understanding closeted life in New Orleans in the 1970s, but I tried to create an emotional empathy in myself. Guy Andersen lives with his parents when he’s not traveling. He’s in a loving but unexpressive German household. He’s a bachelor who is traveling for his business. He had gay friends in downtown Chicago and he was known in the Chicago theater scene. Guy moved between worlds. He was an actor and he knew how to wear the mask of straight life. He knew how to live in harmony with his parents. But he could quickly blend into the gay watering holes either in Chicago or other cities he traveled to. He could take off the right mask in the right location as needed.”

Andersen is buried in a modest plot at Memory Gardens Cemetery in Arlington Heights. “They didn’t know who quite a few victims were because no one claimed them,” Lange explained. “The fact that his family brought him back and buried him is a bigger deal.”

Lange has no idea what to expect for the June 14 program in the quaint theater where Guy Andersen found his moments of escape. “I’m trying to reach history people and LGBTQ people,” she said. “Most people don’t know anything about this. I’m trying to advertise as much as I can. But I’m just doing it by myself.”

“Robert W. Fieseler — Author Reading” is at 7 pm on June 14 at Cutting Hall, 150 E. Wood St.; Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for children, students and seniors over 55. More information at cuttinghall.org

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