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Rhythm Night Club Museum now open for visits

NATCHEZ — A modest sign on St. Catherine Street points right to the Rhythm Night Club Museum, which had a soft opening last month.

More than 200 people have visited the museum, owned by Natchez residents Monroe and Betty Sago. Guests are welcomed with music providing an instant sense of the club atmosphere on April 23, 1940, when Chicago bandleader Walter Barnes and his orchestra performed in concert.

What was to be a joyous evening soon turned tragic. A discarded match or cigarette reportedly ignited the decorative Spanish moss that draped the ceiling of the club. Flames engulfed the corrugated metal building, and panicked patrons darted for the only exit. The windows were boarded shut to keep unwanted guests from sneaking in.

The fire resulted in the deaths of 209 people, including Barnes and members of his orchestra. This year marked the 70th anniversary of the fire, which is ranked as the seventh deadliest fire in U.S. history.

The Sagos dedicated the museum, which sits on the former club site, during a commemoration ceremony in April.

Survivors and relatives of survivors donated most of the museum exhibits to the Sagos.

“Everyone has been very generous sending (newspaper clips and pictures) by e-mail or regular mail,” Betty Sago said.

“We’re still putting up pictures. We’ve still got stuff coming in,” Monroe Sago said.

Museum hours are Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but hours can be extended by appointment, Betty Sago said. At present, there is no admission fee, but the museum does accept donations.

The Sagos were encouraged by community leaders years ago to transform the club property into a commemorative site. But the final push came from five club survivors — Rosie Lee Winters Fleming Hawkins, Augustine Jackson George, Lubertha Weathers, Elizabeth Odom Young and Ella Simpson Russell.

The ladies agreed to record their memories of the fire, and the Sagos want to make sure to preserve an important chapter of Natchez’s history.

Betty Sago said plans are under way for a museum grand opening, but an official date has not been set.

For more information about the museum, call 601-597-0557 or e-mail washington2821@att.net.